A good old East End ‘knees-up’.

Barbara Windsor, National Treasure. That’s how she’s always described; small, bubbly and with that laugh of hers, instantly infectious. I’ve always loved ‘Our Babs’ and a few months ago I received an email offering me a pair of tickets to go and see her recording a radio programme with some special guests. It was billed as ‘Christmas Eve with Barbara Windsor’. I had no idea what she was going to do or who would be on the bill; I didn’t really care. Spend a night at the Hackney Empire in the company of a legend? Absolutely!

So that’s what I did; I drove right into the heart of the East End on a breezy October night and pretended it was Christmas Eve. It was an evening dedicated to the music of Lionel Bart. As a kid I was in more productions of Oliver than I’d had hot dinners near enough, so this was going to be fantastic. Babs emerged to rapturous applause, as you can imagine and after a shaky start, more down to nerves than anything else I shouldn’t wonder, she had us all eating out of the palm of her hand. For nearly two hours she told us the story of ‘her pal Lionel’ and the big impact he’d had on her life. Did you know he’d written a song just for her? No, neither did I. Emma Barton or ‘Honey’ from Eastenders sang it on this occasion, but when it came to the chorus, even Babs joined in for a verse or two and it was just magic.

I really don’t want to spoil the show for you, you can still listen to it on the iPlayer, (Christmas Eve, Radio 2, 8pm) but actually being present for this is something I’ll always remember. Being read a story by the legend of Jackanory, Bernard Cribbins for one. Yes, he even wore the jumper! And hearing the one and only Russ Abbott belt out a tune, really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If the dictionary had to define an ‘East End knees-up’, this would most definitely be it. Closing the show with an audience sing-along was inspired too, and you know the best thing about it? Being in the front row and getting a cheeky wave from Babs. There’s a childhood ambition achieved, right there. Cue grainy iPhone photo….

Christmas Eve with Barbara Windsor at the Hackney Empire.

L-R: Bradley Walsh, Barbara Windsor, Emma Barton, Samantha Womack, Kerry Ellis, Russ Abbott, Lee Mead and Bernard Cribbins.

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