Pam St Clement
Monday, 30 November -0001

EASTENDERS? It was THE LADY that changed my life

After her mother died, Pam St Clement’s early childhood felt like a lonely game of human ‘pass the parcel’. Here, she tells Matt Warren how a small ad set her on a bright new course

Written by Matt Warren
On New Year’s Day 2012, millions of Britons went into mourning. After spending a quarter of a century in our living rooms as a key character in EastEnders, Pat Butcher was dead.

Sometimes an actor becomes inextricably intertwined with their role. And so it was with Pam St Clement, the actress behind the formidable Mrs Butcher. To many of us, Pam became Pat, and Pat, Pam. As Pam writes in her new memoir, ‘I had lived with her, laughed with her, suffered with her and, although there was still life in the old girl, I felt the time had come to hang up her earrings… I think, somewhere along the way, I had lost sight of me.’

But while her EastEnders alter ego was at the heart of countless Albert Square showdowns, Pam St Clement’s real life has been no less dramatic. And The Lady played a key role in shaping it. As Pam told me when we met recently in central London, ‘The Lady changed my life.’

Pam was born in Middlesex on 11 May 1942. ‘My father always said that I was a “lady”, because I arrived just in time for dinner,’ she writes.

PamStClement-Feb13-03-590Pam, aged 8 months and Pam’s father Reginald

Seventy-two years on, she certainly comes across as a lady. Pat Butcher’s trademark dangling earrings have been replaced with delicate studs; she is well spoken, polite, charming. Visiting London now from her rural home, she frets about binge-drinking and yobbish behaviour.

‘My mother died of TB when I was a baby, I think probably because penicillin was in its infancy and most of that must have gone towards the war eff ort,’ she says. ‘I don’t think she stood a chance, and I’m not sure she didn’t give up.’

In fact, Pam doesn’t have a single memory of her mother, Irene – just the echo of their shared green eyes. ‘I have no memories at all of my young childhood,’ she tells me. ‘I just have a very distant recollection of lying on a mattress in a cellar – and that must have been during an air raid.’

Pam’s mother’s death left her in the care of her father, Reginald, a company director ill-suited to raising a young daughter. Her parents’ marriage had been far from perfect – her father had a wandering eye; her mother wanted more emotionally than he could offer – and hope of a stable family life receded further once he had been widowed. Evidently, Reginald was rather better suited to the life of the womaniser, the bon viveur.

PamStClement-Feb13-02-590-quote

First, Pam was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, but it wasn’t to last. Soon, her father took her back and she didn’t see her grandmother again until years later, when she was 11 or 12, by which time her grandfather had died. It was the shape of things to come, as her father sent Pam (and her teddy bear, Snuggles) here, there and everywhere in what she now refers to as a human game of ‘pass the parcel’.

‘I don’t remember being unhappy, if you interpret unhappy as crying all the time,’ explains Pam. ‘But I didn’t know where I was. My childhood was shambolic and unstable.’

And there were several stepmothers. As she writes in her book, ‘My stepmothers stayed for varying lengths of time, but eventually, with all glamour and expectation gone, they left tired, lonely and disillusioned.’

Not that they were wicked. Her father’s glamorous third wife, Mary, was ‘lovely, but I don’t remember being part of their lives at all,’ says Pam. ‘I was very much a spectator… I was quite removed.’

PamStClement-Feb13-04-590The farm on Dartmoor, where young Pam was finally happy

Pam was offloaded onto her father’s friends and then taken back again. There was another stepmother, Jackie, nannies and governesses. As she grew older and more frustrated, Pam became ‘wicked’ – and nearly sent one German governess to an early grave. ‘I was so fed up. I wanted attention and to make a statement,’ she tells me, ‘so I half opened the door of the room where we had our lessons and on the top of the door I put a piece of wood piled up with books so that when she opened the door it all came down on top of her. I wanted to make my presence known.’

The governess lived to fight another day, but Pam was then sent off to boarding school – the Red House in Worthing. During the school breaks, she was looked after by two elderly sisters, Misses Eleanor and Dora Joce, in a holiday home. It was an eccentric, disjointed set-up, but things defi nitely, albeit briefl y, took a turn for the better. She played in the great outdoors; as she records in her book, ‘It was forever summer.’

Certainly, her father didn’t offer any more stability. Before long, with another (expensive) divorce under his belt, he brought Pam home and introduced her to her third stepmother, Sally. Sally had never had children of her own, but desperately wanted one. ‘For Sally, the idea of a ready-made daughter was a wish come true,’ Pam writes.

Briefly, a family life seemed possible. But it all ended once again when her father hit Sally and burned her with a cigarette. Little Pam tried to swat her father off her stepmother with a hairbrush, an act he found unforgivable. Something would have to change.

PamStClement-Feb13-05-590-quote

Which is where The Lady entered the drama.

‘My father ostensibly came up with this scheme – but every indication, every instinct tells me that it was my stepmother, who read The Lady,’ says Pam. ‘I’m sure she encouraged him to investigate the magazine for somewhere for me to go, on the grounds that if it was in The Lady, it was bound to be fine.’

Initially, an advertisement placed by a Miss Chaff ey caught her father’s eye. Her Devonshire home was open to lodgers, but was currently full, so he pursued a second recommendation: friends of Miss Chaffey’s with a farm on Dartmoor.

And this farm, which Pam moved into aged 11, was to transform her life. ‘Hand on heart,’ she tells me, ‘it was like a big signpost and it took my life in a completely new direction. I knew it was different from the minute I got there, the minute I smelt the countryside, saw the animals, became part of a happy environment. And I suppose it crept up on me more and more. The more comfortable I felt in that place, the more I expanded into that place; the less removed I became as a person.’

PamStClement-Feb13-06-590

It was a thatched, unpretentious home of secret doors and curious cats, open fi res and bright yellow gorse, homemade flapjacks and fresh cream – ‘I suppose a little bit Cider With Rosie,’ says Pam. And the two ladies there, her ‘aunts’ Courty and Sylvia, would become her confi dantes, her mentors, the parents she never had.

‘I probably would have been an absolute tearaway without that place… I certainly wouldn’t have ended up as I have,’ she says. ‘That was a foundation stone for me. Wherever else I went after that, I had that foundation. I may have got my foundation stone relatively late, but it did formulate my life.’

There would, of course, be many more highs and lows in Pam’s childhood. But one way or another, a small ad in The Lady had set her on a course towards happier times. Sometimes the little things really can make all the difference.

The End Of An Earring, by Pam St Clement (Headline, £16.99).

Has a small ad in The Lady changed your life? Let us know at the usual Bedford Street address or via email at letters@lady.co.uk



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