Until three years ago, Pam St. Clement was best known as EastEnders matriarch Pat Butcher, a brassy blonde who’d had her fair share of men, called a spade a spade and wore some of the most outrageous dangly earrings.
Meeting her today, it’s uncanny how removed she is from the character she played for almost 26 years; plummy accent, tiny diamond stud earrings (two in the left ear, one in the right).
Through her years in the spotlight, she’s remained an extremely private person, albeit openly bisexual, so it’s surprising she’s written a memoir, The End Of An Earring.
As well as her career, it charts some intensely personal moments, her failed marriage, her entry on to the gay scene and her shock at executives’ decision to kill off Pat.
She was the second longest-serving member of the cast after Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale) when the character lost her battle with cancer on New Year’s Day, 2012.
She keeps in touch with her Albert Square pal Barbara Windsor (Peggy Mitchell) and a few others, and recently took part in a 30th anniversary programme about the soap. But her departure left a bitter taste for a while.
St. Clement had requested time out to recharge her batteries, but had been assured her character wasn’t going to be killed off.
“I was upset about it,” she admits today. “I wanted to leave and get some air. When you’ve said, ‘The one thing I’d really like is for her not to die’, and I was told, ‘That won’t happen’, that’s what disappointed me.
“I felt shocked and very let down. I suppose I could have thrown a tantrum and walked out, but that’s not me.”
It initially left a big void in her life.
“After I left, I had a great dip and I wasn’t well. It was all to do with grieving. I do still miss it in a way, because it was family.”
The 72-year-old says one of the reasons she wrote the book, was to be able to claim her own identity again.
“I had to put down Pat to find Pam,” she explains. “Once I’d finished with her, I had time to think about me and my life.”
Born in Middlesex, Pam was just 18-months-old when her mother died from TB, and left to be looked after by a succession of nannies, governesses and tutors, until she was old enough for boarding school.
Her father, an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his subsequent wives - St. Clement witnessed him stubbing out a cigarette on the arm of one of her stepmothers - was largely absent.
“His behaviour indicated there wasn’t room for me in his life,” she recalls, and the instability took its toll.
“I was fairly emotionally removed. My peer group was fine but I was removed from the world of the adult. I was a child who sat in the corner brooding, watching, not out of fear, but it stood me in good stead as an actor. Acting was something totally brilliant, because it meant I could take on any persona.”
Aged 11, she went to live with two ‘aunts’ - Sylvia and Courty - on a farm in Devon.
“It was the turning point in my life. I could never have foretold that something completely out of my domain would have tapped into my soul so readily. My love of wildlife was formed there and has grown ever since.”
It gave her the stability she needed. She joined her local drama society and was frequently chosen to play the male roles, never suited in stature or personality to play the simpering female.
“I did bemoan the fact that I couldn’t wear pretty things. In my career, I’ve never had silken lace against my skin. But not everybody is beautiful, because actors portray real life.”
Starting out as a teacher, she went on to drama school, later joining a touring company and working on stage and television throughout the Sixties and Seventies in programmes including prison drama Within These Walls.
While a student teacher, she fell for a woman on her course, although never declared her love. They remained friends for years.
“I seem to have been drawn to successful, intellectually dynamic women with drive but, for me, love has always been about the personality, not the sex of the person.
“In the main, I have found men sexually fulfilling and socially stimulating, but there is a comfort in the company of one’s own sex that is uncomplicated,” she writes. “Thus, in a domestic situation, there is a lot to be said for sticking to your own sex with, or without, a physical relationship.”
In 1969, she married a merchant sailor, but he was frequently away at sea while she pursued acting, embarking on a world tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hedda Gabler. They divorced in 1976.
For a long time, she had wanted children, but it wasn’t to be.
“I went through a phase of terrific desire for kids but I fought that. I wondered if it would take away my independence. I wasn’t prepared to have children and take them in a Moses basket backstage. That wasn’t my idea of being a mother.
“I didn’t want to end up resentful of someone I knew I would have to give up my life for, which sounds a little dramatic - and maybe it is. I think I’d have been quite a good mother now, but I’m a tiny bit old for that.”
After her divorce, she dipped her toes into the gay scene, visiting the most famous gay club of the time, the Gateways, but was completely overwhelmed by it.
“It was totally bizarre. The women used to frighten the life out of me. They all wore builder’s boots and dungarees. I like ornamentation. I couldn’t take it at all. I mean, why have an ersatz man when you can have a real one?”
And prejudice was still rife.
“A group of us were getting into my car at the end of an evening when we were attacked by a man wielding an axe. Fortunately the damage was only to the car, but it scared all of us,” she says.
She later had a serious relationship with a woman called Diana, but it wasn’t to last, and she admits she’s always battled the feelings of wanting to be loved but remaining fiercely independent.
“I’m a very loving and caring person, but I over-mother, over-partner, I don’t know... I think I can do too much for people. It’s very easy to smother. I know my faults well.”
She hasn’t had many enduring relationships in her life, she says.
“I don’t think it’s a case of finding the right person. I just realise as I’ve got older that I’m probably better alone. That’s not meant to sound sad or self-pitying.
“It’s fabulous to go back at the end of a day and share what your day’s been with somebody else, but life doesn’t work like that. There might be somebody at home who’s in a bad mood because something’s gone wrong in the office. Life isn’t quite that rosy.
“Although I do see the glass as half full, I’m also a pragmatist, so I see the reality of life.”
Today, she doesn’t miss being defined by her EastEnders alter ego.
“I feel all right about Pat now, whereas when I was playing her, it was everything that went with the playing of her and my relationship with the viewers, who saw me as Pat. I was behind that curtain, and now I don’t feel like that.
“Now I feel, ‘Hi, old girl, I had a wonderful time playing you, I can live with you’.”