After five abortions, the romantic advances of two Kray brothers and a husband who went to jail after an armed robbery, Dame Barbara Windsor had already stared into the face of adversity.
Yesterday, she was defiant once more. But this time, she was not fighting alone.
The revelation by her third husband that the former star of EastEnders and the Carry On movies was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease set off a wave of empathy whose ripples spread far beyond showbusiness.
Dame Barbara, who is 80, is among 225,000 people who develop dementia each year in the UK. The condition affects one in six people at her age.
“I hope by talking openly it will make it easier for others to talk about this dreadful disease,” said the actor Ross Kemp, who had played her on-screen son.
Dame Barbara had been diagnosed with the disease in 2014 but she and her husband, Scott Mitchell, had chosen at first to keep it to themselves.
However, in recent weeks her symptoms have worsened, and in an emotional interview with their friend, the journalist and broadcaster Jane Moore, Mr Mitchell said he wanted to address rumours that had started to circulate in showbusiness circles about his wife’s deteriorating health.
“Since her 80th birthday last August, a definite continual confusion has set in, so it’s becoming a lot more difficult for us to hide,” he said.
“I’m doing this because I want us to be able to go out and, if something isn’t quite right, it will be OK because people will now know that she has Alzheimer’s and will accept it for what it is.”
Dame Barbara was said by Ms Moore yesterday to be “thrilled” by the public reaction to the announcement.
Pam St Clement, her former co-star on EastEnders, said she and Mr Mitchell had “done exactly the right thing” by making the diagnosis public.
“I think this needed to be said, it needed to be out in the open,” she said.
Tim Parry, director of Alzheimer’s Research UK, also praised the decision to go public.
“Alzheimer’s is the most common disease behind dementia, accounting for around two thirds of cases of the condition in older people,” he said.
“It’s important to bring the disease out into the open as a crucial step towards us tackling it. Alzheimer’s is a physical disease, in the same way that cancer or heart disease are, and there shouldn’t be stigma in being open about it.”
But Ms Moore said there had been agonised discussion before Mr Mitchell, who is 25 years his wife’s junior, had taken the decision to speak openly.
“Scott was adamant he didn’t want that coming out,” Ms Moore said. “In the early days her symptoms were very mild. To a certain extent she protected herself by being in a bit of denial.
“It was a release but he felt so guilty because he felt he couldn’t protect her any more.”
Mr Mitchell said a small circle of friends who had begun to notice his wife’s occasional confusion had been told shortly after the diagnosis. But he had prevented word spreading further because she was struggling to come to terms with it.
After shedding some tears, her first words were: “I’m so sorry”, Mr Mitchell added.
Dame Barbara had suffered health issues before, including multiple abortions and a nervous breakdown following the collapse of her first marriage to the underworld figure Ronnie Knight, who was eventually jailed for seven years.
His associates included the gangster Reggie Kray and his brother Charles, with whom Dame Barbara had relationships.