If you look out on a pink-hued dusty night in the fictional borough of Walford, you will see a figure – part woman, part tiny lion. She'll be stood, hands on hips, mouth downturned, surveying the square; her domain, her kingdom, eyes squinting in the setting sun. After a satisfied nod, she'll turn into The Queen Vic, the stronghold of Albert Square, the citadel of East London. Another day done, another day being the East End matriarch we never asked for but by god, are glad we have. Peggy Mitchell is more Eastenders than anyone. More than Dirty Den or Dot Cotton or Ian Beale or even the tossing drum fill into the pompous theme tune. She is brassy, proud, a true showwoman. She couldn't give less of a toss about whatever it is you're moaning about and if you stand in her way, you'll get a sharp slap like the hundreds that came before you. Peggy Mitchell is Eastenders. Strangely, Peggy Mitchell didn't start her life being played by Barbara Windsor. Back in 1991, a time only our soap-loving nans can remember, she made a brief appearance portrayed by Jo Warne, a different actress. Quickly, she disappeared, only to be rebirthed in 1994 with Babs in the role. Her first scene took place in a hospital. A typically puce-faced Phil Mitchell was lying weakened in a bed. "Alright mum, what you doin' ere?" he asked as he unconvincingly arose from sleep. She replied in all her sharp-tongued, no-nonsense glory: "What do you think ahm doin'? Waitin' for the number 13 bus?"
There she was, a vision in a sequinned bomber jacket, the same billowing signature blonde perm that never changed over her 22-year-reign, the token oversized gold medallion that sat atop her proud bosom in case you didn't know she is the only winner here. "Shaat up, 'ave some grapes" she told Phil in that first scene, with a cheeky side-smile and wink, her cockney accent thick, her lisp not bothering to grapple with the letter r in that special Peggy Mitchell way. She came back for Phil because if there's one thing important to Peggy Mitchell it's her sons. It's fayymly. When Peggy got breast cancer in 1996, her family gathered round on the sofa. "Don't fuss," she said firmly, eyes wide, head bowed. Peggy Mitchell won't do with fuss. "I'm not going anywhere for a long time, love," she told Phil. "I've gotta be 'ere for my new grandchild."
If anyone could beat the big C it was the landlady of the Vic. She is the matriarch of not just the Mitchells but the whole Square, the whole soap. A hardened broad, a survivor. She will drag her wheezing failing body through the mires of East London to see that her good name is continued, that tiny gruff balding children are scurrying around Walford streets, doing mildly criminal things like picking their noses, flipping the bird and embezzling pocket money from other kids. A solemn kiss on either cheek from sons Phil and Grant represent the two stipulations for living under the roof of her pub: love and respect. The dark-shirted thugs of Walford are reduced to meek compliant bitches in the presence of the queen. If there's one thing you need to learn about Peggy Mitchell it's that no one lives for the drama like her. "Sling yer hook" and "get outta my pub" are not merely catchphrases for this woman, they are words to live by. Because this is a woman forever on the aggressive in some shape or form. Like a tiny riled-up terrier, she's quick to anger. A prime case of little man syndrome she makes up for size with large throbbing balls and ruthless predictable bite. With her head permanently cocked, mouth downturned, eyes smirking or cold-dead enough to make a grown man whimper, she is poised for the jugular. She's truly in her element, truly a sight to be seen when spurring with other 60-year-old bottle blondes with statement earrings. Her bitch fight with Pat Butcher was iconic. "You cow," squawked Peggy in head-to-toe neon-pink, eyes fully black and dilated like a pacing shark high on blood, as she launched a glass at Pat's face. No one disrespects Peggy Mitchell, especially not someone Peggy Mitchell believes to be a trumped-up old tart, her long-time frenemy. Like a true bitch, she attacked Pat where it hurts. "Anyway, you're nothing to write home about. No wonder Roy can't do it." For that insult, Peggy narrowly missed a thrown glass. Not to be upstaged, she threw aside the kitchen table with one paw, ketchup and margarine toppling over, and scampered on the spot, little arms pumping away, like a cartoon character, towards Pat. And there the immortal exchange took place. "You bitch!" Slap. "You cow!" Slap.
Yes, no one lives for the drama like Peggy Mitchell. She is the prima-ballerina, the star of the show, the ringmaster, and her stage, the pub. Her hard-earned territory. When Peggy Mitchell wants a big moment, the audience is ready: throngs of fag-huffing, elderly pub-goers, Walford's working class heroes. She's performing for them, yes, she's performing for her enemies, but most of all she's performing for herself. When she discovered her husband Frank is having an affair with Pat, she assembled her onlookers, with those who have scorned her on either side and delivered a speech to remember. She read the letter Frank had intended to give her revealing his fuckery after he'd long fled the scene. But he forgot one crucial thing, however: no one fucks over Peggy Mitchell and gets away with it. Peggy Mitchell will always get the last deep-throated cackle. No one – no one – spoils a Peggy Mitchell 'big moment'. In full costume jewellery, she read Frank's words: "I've never quite been able to stop myself…." she sneered, mouth downturned, vitriol in the eyes, "loving Pat." She spat out the final two words as if they were dislodged tumours floating in her mouth. Then, of course, she dished out the slaps, the ever-bubbling physical realisation of her anger. "I hope you all enjoyed the fireworks!" she bellowed to her adoring crowd, a manic look crossing her face. "Goodnight!" And off she trotted to her chambers, to retire in the most conspicuous way possible. Off camera, she sat in an armchair looking out the window, a grin creeping across her face as she contemplates the cataclysm unfolding below. Drama she, Peggy Mitchell, has orchestrated. If she were around in the 1600s, she'd have been burned at the stake for being a witch. She is Lady Macbeth, Boudicca, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Victoria. She is the embodiment of the coloured blazers and half-inch of cleavage central to her look. She is a leopard fur collar, off-pink nail varnish, she is champagne with a diazepam. She is a mini-cruise to the south of Spain, she is telling someone he's young enough to be her son and then making a joke about getting a spank in a minute with a hungry grin, she's your nan screaming at you to roll up the car window because it's ruining her perm. She is pearl diamanté earrings. She is an inappropriately large headpiece at a wedding. She is a diamond in the rough. And yet. And yet, she's human. Peggy Mitchell might be harder than every man in Albert Square – dealers, criminals and miscreants – but she will laugh, she'll cry, she will get hurt. Against all odds, she is not immortal, as we thought she was. Her cancer has returned and her body is deteriorating rapidly with every day. Death, just like Frank and Pat and legions of others, has made a singular mistake. Look at that golden medallion. Peggy Mitchell does not lose. She is always in control and if those conspiring against her try to take power from her she'll claw it back with her fuschia talons. Peggy Mitchell wouldn't do something as passive as letting herself die. Tonight in Peggy Mitchell's last episode, she will take her life. If she's off, it's on her own terms. She'll not fade away but go out with drama, just like she always has. Somewhere, somehow on a pink-hued evening when the sun sets over The Queen Vic, Barbara Windsor's Peggy Mitchell will give a proud nod. If you listen hard enough you'll hear a squawk carried on tendrils of wind. In the painted Free House sign, in the strong bronze bust of the Queen Vic herself, in the iconic red paint, Peggy Mitchell will live on. She'll leave this life in the knowledge that there will never be a snarling, foul-mouthed blonde like her, the only matriarch of the East End.
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