After 25 years as Pat Butcher on EastEnders, Pam St Clement opens up about her past, her private life – and why she had to give up the role that had come to define her
14:03 GMT, 15 September 2012
When Pam St Clement strolls onto the terrace at the posh spa hotel where we meet, heads turn. Conversation stops. ‘Isn’t that Pat from EastEnders’ whispers one of the ladies lunching. ‘I thought she’d died’
Which, of course, Pat did (of cancer on New Year’s Day in the arms of her on-screen son David Wicks after 25 years in Albert Square).
And oh how we miss her. Dear old Pat Harris-Beale-Wicks-Butcher-Evans, with her big flashy earrings and screeches of, ‘I’ve just about had enough of you Janine.’
Oh how we miss Pat's big gold hooped earrings
Indeed, we’re just ten minutes into the interview when a lovely yummy mummy stops at our table. ‘I’m sorry but we really miss you,’ she says, and she means it. ‘Oh thank you. That’s kind of you. Bless you,’ says Pam in a rich, mellifluous voice that’s more Made In Chelsea than EastEnders.
‘But I’m afraid I can’t come back unless I get into a shower and do it. I don’t think the audience wants to see me in the shower.’
She is of course referring to the famous Dallas scene, where after Bobby Ewing had been dead for one season he returned by walking out of the shower – it had all been a dream.
The real Pam St Clement is funny, warm, bright and, although she’d probably hate me for saying it, surprisingly posh too. In fact, it takes a good five minutes to get used to this proper Pam.
She’s sitting here with her bleached blonde hair and dangly earrings looking much as Pat might at an Albert Square knees-up. It’s only when she opens her mouth – and heart – that you realise how brilliantly she was acting her socks off for the past quarter of a century.
This month she appears in her first drama since EastEnders as the dreadlocked villain Mazzola in the award-winning CBBC children’s series Leonardo. ‘I like the fact it’s a bit off-the-wall. It’s history for youngsters and it’s classy. This is the first drama I’ve done since EastEnders deliberately.
Pam St Clement starring in Within These Walls
'To play a character for 25-and-a-half years, I felt I was constantly draining the batteries. The time had come to go. I wanted to recapture myself. I also wanted to leave the stage while the fans still wanted more hopefully.’
Which, of course, we did. In fact, so highly charged was Pam’s emotional exit there was barely a dry eye at Elstree Studios nor, for that matter, on sofas up and down the country. ‘When we filmed my final episode, everywhere I went people were crying,’ she says.
‘I stayed strangely aloof. Any emotion I had went totally into Pat. I had to stay in control of me. But I felt so drained after I’d done it. Then some idiot asked, “How do you feel about it” I said, “Go away. I just want to go home.”’
Pam slept the sleep of a thousand martyrs that night. For more than 25 years she’d carried Pat’s life alongside her own. ‘It’s like having a doppelgnger,’ she says. ‘It is a great honour to be able to play a part for that long, but I was giving everything to Pat and I wasn’t giving anything to me.’
Pam had always put Pat first. So much so that, until now, she’s never spoken about her private self, believing to do so would affect the audience’s reaction to Pat.
So, when we meet, I know she was married and divorced by her early thirties and that she enjoyed a 17-year relationship with another woman, which ended in 1994. I also know her mother, Irene, died shortly after she was born and her father, Reginald, a director at a toy company who remarried five times, farmed her out to holiday homes when she wasn’t boarding at her private school in the South Downs.
Indeed, she has only briefly spoken of her childhood, saying, ‘When I was just pre-teens, I went down to Devon to some people who were very good at taking on youngsters, and what began as a business arrangement became my home.’
Pat and Frank's wedding in 1989 was one that avid Eastenders viewers will remember
Later it was discovered that she had a half-brother, Reg Clements, from her father’s first marriage. Pam, brought up as an only child, was unaware he existed. ‘I haven’t met him,’ Pam tells me now. ‘I felt it was opening a whole can of worms. You can’t turn round afterwards and say, “I don’t know you. I don’t have any relevance to you. You’re a stranger.” Blood isn’t thicker than water, is it
‘It’s about who opens their soul to you. I haven’t been in a relationship for a few years. I’m a silly person in relationships. I tend to subsume myself in somebody else’s needs, so I’m better off being on my own. Inside me is a need to care. Had that been directed towards having children…’ she shrugs.
‘I thought I didn’t have a sufficient role model to be a mother. Now I’m older I know I could have, but by the time I was old enough to face the fact I could do it, I was too old to. Isn’t that a silliness Life doesn’t play you a fair hand there.’
Her confession moves both of us – briefly. Pam is one of those no-nonsense types who has little truck with self-pity. So she pulls herself up in her chair and continues. ‘I had a rubbish childhood but playing the blame game is just ridiculous. You’re dealt what you’re dealt. Be positive about it and get on with it.’
Pam is one of those no-nonsense types who has little truck with self-pity
Which speaks volumes about this astonishing woman. After her mother died of TB when she was just 18 months old, Pam wasn’t a particularly wanted child until she was embraced by her ‘adopted’ family on a hill farm in Devon. Today, she remains passionate about animals, supporting numerous charities and appearing on This Morning as the show’s animal expert.
‘Living there was almost like coming home,’ she says. ‘It filled my spirit. I was like a loose canon – a little thing rolling about waiting to fit into the right slot, and that was absolutely the right slot.
‘My father was the only link to roots I had before that. I can’t say he was a role model, but he was my only piece of earth that didn’t move. But he did move. He went where he liked, when he liked and, if he didn’t turn up to see me in school and I was left with my little suitcase, hat and school coat saying, “I thought my daddy was going to come”, one of my friends’ parents would take me out.’
Pam would never dream of saying so, but it’s clear her father was a shamefully selfish man. ‘He was Daddy, and yet I started to see objectively his behaviour in terms of unreliability, of drinking. His behaviour with other women – he had lots of relationships,’ she says. ‘Most of my life I thought it was my fault. Then suddenly the scales fell away.’
Pam rather fell into acting. She had been desperate to be a vet. Black’s Veterinary Dictionary was her dearest possession. But, after failing her Latin (a requirement for vets back then), she applied to drama school. And so, the child who, in her words ‘floated without roots’, settled into a profession that allowed her to float in and out of roles.
‘I don’t think anybody should be put into boxes for a very good reason,’ she says. ‘You don’t know what you’re going to be like next year – or what person you’re going to fall in love with.’ Pam was in her twenties when she married. She doesn’t wish to rake over past relationships, but when I wonder if this marriage was borne from a desire to put down roots, she says, ‘I think it was much more physical than that.’ She laughs a throaty laugh and I sense hers has been a life well lived.
After numerous roles on TV – including prison drama Within These Walls – in films and at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, she was offered the role in EastEnders.
Steve McFadden as Phil Mitchell starred alongside Pam St. Clement as Pat Evans and Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell for many years
‘Pat came in and created havoc for a few months, then the creator Julia Smith wanted her back. I couldn’t see how she could come back because she was very two-dimensional. But Julia said, “We’ll peel back the layers of onion skin and see why she puts her fists up before she engages her brain.” I hope that’s what I’ve spent years doing.’
Pam didn’t just act Pat. She knew her. ‘Pat loved Frank Butcher when she was a youngster but he got his first wife pregnant so married her, and Pat went to pieces. She was easy prey in terms of clubbing and playing about. She had two boys by then and had to keep a roof over their heads, so she’d pick up men and they’d have temporary uncles. She was a lousy mother.’
She recalls the memorable scene in which Frank, played by the late Mike Reid, turned up on Pat’s doorstep wearing nothing but a motorised bow tie. ‘I had quite a laugh over that. But I had to be very sensitive because Mike was very concerned and kept saying, “It’s ever so cold in here.” Bless his heart. Most men don’t think twice about a girl taking off their clothes for a scene, but as soon as they have to… I was very close to Mike.’
Closer, it seems, than to her father. Did she grieve for him when he died at 89 of a chest infection 19 years ago ‘No,’ she says. Did she love him ‘No,’ she maintains.
‘But you can’t just abandon somebody, can you He was unconscious for a while before he died so I sat with him. The amazing thing is he never said anything to me, but after he died a lot of people said, “Oh, he was so proud of you.” I said, “What” Isn’t that extraordinary’
So what does Pam do with herself now without the relentless demands of a soap ‘I’m letting things sift,’ she says. ‘It’s taken a long time to get me back and to stop rushing about thinking, “I have to prove something.” Then she smiles the warmest of smiles and adds, ‘I’m just being kind to myself.’
Which, I feel, is just as it should be.
Leonardo, Thursday, 5pm, CBBC.