Pam St Clement

There was a collective lump in the throat of the nation when Pat Evans – nee Harris then Beale, Wicks and Butcher – gasped her last on New Year’s Day 2012. Over a quarter of a century, EastEnders viewers had seen the indomitable bottle-blonde battleaxe transformed from a hard-boiled floozy of questionable virtue into a shrewd and worldly sage: the Dowager Countess of Albert Square, dispensing common sense and compassion in a leopard-print coat, weapons-grade eyeshadow and earrings the size of chandeliers.

The story of Pam St Clement, the woman who breathed life into Pat for all those years, is something of a saga in itself. Born into extreme poverty in London’s East End, her paternal grandmother – a widow who spent her days wielding a jackhammer on the railways – was forced to send her infant son away to an orphanage. By the time his own child, Pamela Ann, came along in 1942, Reginald Clements was a successful businessman with offices in Mayfair ­– but tragedy struck when his wife Irene died of tuberculosis barely 18 months old after giving birth.

Pamela was taken in by her mother’s parents – who, by all accounts, were devoted to her – only to be wrenched away a short time later when her father decided to try playing happy families with his new wife. Aged 3, she was offloaded again, this time spending two years with a foster family before her father, seemingly on a whim, took her back to live with him and stepmother number two.

In her new, vividly told autobiography, End of an Earring, St Clement pulls no punches in painting a portrait of her father as an emotionally distant figure with a violent temper to match his wandering eye (he was married at least five times, possibly more). Packed off to various boarding schools – and even shipped out to other families during the holidays – the young Pamela didn’t have anywhere she could call home until, aged 11, she was put on a train at Paddington and sent to stay on a farm in Dartmoor.

It is here that End of an Earring – which until this point has all the makings of a classic misery memoir, albeit without the wailing self-pity – suddenly blossoms into a Cider With Rosie-style love letter to the country: a rural idyll of yellow gorse and purple heather, milking stools and morning mists. More than that, it was here, in this remote world of oil lamps and frozen bedsheets, that Pamela met Sylvia and Courty, the farmer and her housekeeper who would finally give her the maternal love she had always craved. ‘From then on,’ she writes, ‘this darkling child, this emotional orphan, was in the care of people who nurtured her soul as well as her body.’

Looking back, would St Clement, now 72, say that losing her mother so young defined everything that was to follow?

‘Oh heavens,’ she sighs. ‘I don’t know. She might have been a terrible mother if she’d lived. You really can’t say, can you? I don’t try to analyse and lay blame. Life is what you’re given, so get on with it. My mother departed this life – I could have held some resentment for that, but I’m quite sure she didn’t want to die of TB at 30.’

Is it fair to say that Dartmoor, Sylvia and Courty saved her?

‘It was complete salvation,’ she nods. ‘I don’t think anything deep within my inner person had been kindled until I went to live with them. I didn’t look back after that.’

After a brief spell teaching, St Clement (she tried various stage names until ‘in desperation, I canonised myself’) resolved to make it as an actor, earning her stripes on the stage in London at the height of its Sixties swing. Recalling this period in the book, she also discusses her sexuality – which, while never making any secret of her relationships with women, is not something she has regularly spoken about in public.

‘I haven’t talked about it because it’s not particularly relevant, frankly’ she shrugs. ‘But I felt it was a part of my journey, so it was important to put it, without upsetting anybody on that journey who may be hurt by it.’

In 1986, St Clement was offered the role that would come to define her forever more. Partly based on EastEnders’ co-creator Tony Holland’s mother, Pat Butcher was a blowsy, brazen force of nature who stands as part of British soap’s proud tradition of strong, tragi-comic matriarchs.

‘Essentially, it’s a woman’s medium,’ says St Clement. ‘I always said we’d be going dramatically wrong if it was all car chases and police stations. Because it’s stories about women and their men – usually the men are the wayward ones. It starts in a domestic setting, and it moves out from there.’

Though initially reluctant to commit to an ongoing series, she ended up staying 26 years  – a record only beaten by Adam Woodyatt as Ian Beale. Some actors come to see their most famous role as an albatross – did she ever feel resentment towards Pat?

‘While I was doing it, I sometimes resented her,’ she admits. ‘But now I look back on it as a wonderful job, and I see how privileged we were to be in something like that. I’ve probably played more variety in EastEnders than I would have done in 60 plays.’

Though she chose to leave, St Clement admits she felt ‘let down’ by the decision, contrary to previous assurances, to kill the character off (‘There’s no way back, is there?’). Despite this, she remains grateful for that protracted New Year’s Day deathbed farewell, which she describes as ‘a very challenging piece of work to do’.

A naturally private person who has given few interviews over the years, St Clement admits to some nerves that End of an Earring could leave her feeling exposed. ‘I expect I’ll be slaughtered when it comes out’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘I’ve been as honest as I possibly can. But,’ she adds, with a steeliness that Pat would be proud of, ‘I’m not in the business of sacrificing myself on the altar of entertainment.’

Has writing the book been cathartic?

‘No,’ she says, ‘and for a very good reason – because I think I had a lot of the catharsis on the journey. But it’s helped me to put the jigsaw together. And it has actually given me a tremendous feeling of gratitude – because I could have ended up as a delinquent, or a bit barmy.

‘It might sound a bit sugar and spice, but it shows the necessity and the importance of love and being needed in your life.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 19, 2015

(c) Waitrose Weekend