When, in 1986, Pam St Clement joined the permanent cast of EastEnders, as Pete Beale’s toxic ex-wife Pat, Pam St Clement anticipated a hostile reception from the new soap’s avid viewers.
Former prostitute and two-bit gangster’s moll, Pat was a nasty piece of work who antagonised the entire Beale clan, not least matriarch Lou and Pete’s then wife Kathy, by claiming – among other random acts of callousness – that Pete’s son Simon wasn’t his son at all.
Introduced to bring back a grittiness to EastEnders that had been smoothed away by the soap’s success, Pat was an archetypal soap harridan.
“In the early years, I thought I’d get hate mail,” St Clement, now 70, confesses. In fact, the audience took Pat to its heart. “I think what people liked was a vivacious go-getter, a person with an interesting history who, underneath it all, was really quite vulnerable.”
She couldn’t have anticipated that she’d become an EastEnders institution. Barbara Windsor, who played Pat’s long-time “frien-emy” Peggy Mitchell, says simply of her departure: “It will leave a huge gap, more than anyone else that’s been on EastEnders.”
It’s been an eventful two-and-a-half decades. From being left for dead by the Walford Attacker and then, as the proprietor of PatCabs, knocking down and killing a pedestrian, through her feuds and détentes with Kathy and Peggy, to her role as matriarch of the Butcher brood, Pat’s place in Walford has been pivotal.
She’s been landlady of the Vic, B&B queen bee, and has seen at least one business crash and burn – literally, at the car lot.
Then, of course, there were her men: short flings with, among others, Den Watts and Patrick Trueman; four marriages, the last one to Roy Evans; and a turbulent on-off relationship with the love of her life, Frank Butcher, played by Mike Reid.
This tumultuous love – which continued even when she and Frank were married to other people, and spawned other stories, including her fractious relationship with Frank’s daughter Janine – has defined Pat’s time in Walford.
Try as you might, it’s hard to forget Frank turning up on her doorstep wearing nothing but a revolving bow tie. (Fewer people remember Pat, dressed as a prison warden, appearing in a dream to Kathy, but that was just as traumatic a vision.)
Pat has also acquired a celebrity beyond the world of E20, which is in stark contrast to the very private St Clement, who rarely gives interviews and about whom little is known.
Even people who don’t watch EastEnders are aware of “Fat Pat”, her tabloid sobriquet that eventually made its way back into the fictional universe of Walford, with wicked stepdaughter Janine spitting it out when feeling especially vicious.
And then there are her enormous earrings. At Elstree, where EastEnders is filmed, there was famously a cabinet in the costume department full of Pat’s earrings, some sent in by members of the public. Pat was even referenced in E4’s sitcom The Inbetweeners when one of the characters had his ears pierced.
“Pat collected earrings like other women collect shoes,” says Tony Caunter, who played her husband Roy. When Roy discovered her affair with Frank, he snarled in rage, “I never liked your earrings.” Caunter says, “It’s become one of the talking points for people when they meet me.”
With those statement earrings, the garish make-up and signature fur-collared coat, Pat cut quite a dash. St Clement proudly lays claim to creating her character’s look: “I love the idea that women from my generation and from that particular social place tend to be stuck in their heyday – and the blue eyeshadow and bright pink lipstick were very much her heyday.
“The earrings are loosely based on one of the characters I based her physicality on, and her hair was based on a bus conductress I saw. We actors are parasites feeding on everything we experience and see.”
Speaking to St Clement, it’s striking how well spoken she is, unlike Pat. This shouldn’t be a surprise – she’s an actress, after all – but so often soap actors are cast close to type. Caunter says, “Pat and Pam are different. Pat’s hard, an East Ender, not a lady to cross. Pam is gentle, a country girl, educated and calm. A total lady.”
So will St Clement miss Pat? “I don’t know. She’s been my doppelganger all these years and I might find myself emerging from the image of Pat like a butterfly from a chrysalis. I don’t think I can answer this question until after my final scenes are transmitted and I put the show away. Then my grieving process can start, if it’s going to.”
For the rest of us, the grieving starts a lot sooner. RIP Pat Harris Beale Wicks Butcher Evans. We shan’t see her like again.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 11 December 2011.
EastEnders continues tonight at 7:00pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD.