PATSY FINDS A NEW VOICE; the Screeching Bianca of EastEnders Made Patsy Palmer Famous. but These Days She's Appearing in Trollope, Singing Lloyd Webber and Pronouncing Her Aitches. What Happened?

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She has blurted it out within about two minutes of our meeting, in a Soho restaurant near the offices of the business she co-owns. At first, Patsy Palmer is absorbed in planning an ad campaign for the self-tanning products she and best friend Charlotte Cutler sell under the name Palmer-Cutler. 'I mean, why get an agency when we know people who can help?' she mutters, closing her notebook. Then she focuses on me, and as we chat she remembers the thing she meant to say. She beams at me. 'I'm reading Jane Austen! I am!

Pride and Prejudice. It's really good! I love it!' Before meeting her I'd have said Heat was more her style. But this is not the old Patsy Palmer, whose Cockney screech was the trademark of her six years as Bianca in EastEnders. This is an actress who pronounces her aitches, has a new agent and who - at 32, six years after leaving Albert Square - earlier this year played a part in

* BBC1's Andrew Davies adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right.

She recently finished singing in a six-week tour of the one-woman musical Tell Me on a Sunday. As she says, proudly, the voice training has paid off: 'Critics said they'd never heard me so cut-glass.' This is not the Patsy of a few years ago, who turned up at a party wearing a see-through peasant skirt and ultra-visible big knickers with the word 'diamond' appliqued across her bottom. 'I meant it as a joke. It was funny, especially as there were all these fashion people at the party and it was me that got all the press. I actually won an award for Worst Dressed Person,' she says.

Her three children are in private school, she does charity work whenever she can, and now she has her own business to supplement the acting ('school fees to pay now'). Patsy Palmer has well and truly left her roots behind.

She moved out of Bethnal Green four years ago, following a disastrous five-month marriage to film producer Nick Love, and she married her second husband, taxi driver Richard Merkell (12 years her senior), at Chelsea Register Office in August 2000. Her flat, round the corner from where her mother Pat Harris still lives, was swapped for a brand-new house in Chigwell, Essex, with Patsy's and Richard's initials inlaid in the wooden floor and furniture by David Linley, in a gated community with a village green and onsite gym.

Why anyone romanticises London's East End is beyond her. 'Not a good place to grow up,' she says, firmly. She was the youngest of three to Pat and Albert (Albert walked out on the family when she was eight), with two older brothers, the elder of whom has suffered heroin addiction. 'People say, "Oh, we've bought a flat in Hoxton," as if it's so cool,' she says. 'When I was a kid, it was 'oxton Market and not nice at all.' She had no compunction about sending her children to private school. That's Charley, 12, who she had at 19 in her pre-Bianca days, during a stormy relationship with boxer Alfie Rothwell, and three-year-old Fenton and two-year-old Emilia, her children with Richard. 'I went to local schools. Terrible,' she says shortly. 'And I got bullied. It was the red hair. My mum went up and saw them, but that can make it worse. I didn't want that for my kids,' she shrugs.

Rebranded or not, Patsy Palmer is very likeable: she is down-to-earth, earnest, and with an almost tentative air about her. When I ask what she's working on now, she just jabs a foot at a big black case on the floor. 'Going up to Birmingham tonight,' she says. 'Palmer-Cutler is doing really well. We got this concession in the Birmingham Selfridges, so we're going to do an appearance.' And apart from that? Is Patsy set for a new life in Andrew Davies adaptations? She laughs. 'I'd love to play the lady! My part in the Trollope was quite small, but I'd love to do more, and if I put my mind to it I know I could.' Having written her first play at 12 at Anna Scher's famous after-school theatre classes in Islington, London, and spent her teenage years sitting on buses making up songs about the people in the street, she's keen to do more screenwriting. …


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