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THAT'S THE ENDER LEILA!; As temptress Teresa, gorgeous Leila Birch has been breaking hearts in EastEnders for three action-packed years. Now she's gone - but with a treasure-chest of memories. Here she shares them with SUE CRAWFORD.

HE has flirted, plotted and teased her way to the top as East- Enders temptress Teresa di Marco. But earlier this month, Leila Birch sat on her sofa and watched as her character walked out of the show for good.

She recalls with a smile: "My final scene came halfway through the episode, so it didn't really hit home until the theme tune struck up with the final credits. I sat there and thought `My God, I REALLY was in EastEnders'...I suddenly felt so proud.

"I have a memory drawer, where I keep my favourite mementoes of the show. They include the little plaque from my dressing room door, with my name printed on a mock road sign with the words London Borough of Walford, E20.

"There's a card from Louise Jameson, who played my screen mum, and a photograph of the whole di Marco family wearing stupid joke beards as we filmed our final meal scene together.

"I also have a whole load of continuity polaroid snaps, which show me and various members of the cast poking our tongues out and generally pulling faces.

"There's one picture of me with Mark Homer, who played my one-time boyfriend Tony. It was taken when we filmed some emotional splitting-up scenes - so there we are, pulling ridiculous sad faces at each other!

"There's one with me and Joe Absolom, who played Matthew Rose, dressed identically in hideously oversized warm-up coats. And there's another of me and Leslie Schofield, who played vicar's dad Jeff Healy, hugging each other in the square because we were so cold!

"They mean far, far more to me than any perfectly-posed portrait ever could, because they remind me of what everyone was like - a bunch of mates just having fun."

Leila, 22, arrived in the soap in 1997 as the eldest daughter of the troubled di Marco family.

She says: "I remember standing on the set when I first started in the show and thinking `I can't believe I'm actually in the Queen Vic'. In truth, of course, it's just a bit of plasterboard held up by some beams - but it seemed so real to me."

So real to the viewers, too. As hot-blooded Teresa, she stirred passion off-screen as well as on.

Leila recalls: "I've had girls come up to me literally screaming `I hate you! I hate you!' simply because Teresa had just attempted to seduce Ricky. Amazingly, a smartly-dressed man in his fifties once walked over to me, wagged his finger and said `Keep your hands off Ricky...he's a married man'. I was stunned.

"When Teresa announced she was standing by Matthew Rose, even though he was in jail, a young woman approached me in the street and said, `You stand by him, because I've stood by my chap and I love him despite everything'. I just didn't have the heart to say that it wasn't real - she really thought I was going through the same thing as her."

Far more disturbing, though, were letters from obsessed male fans. Leila recalls: "Men would send me naked pictures of themselves, with lurid suggestions. One man wrote `One day we will meet' and he kept repeating it all through the letter. Another said `I saw you walking down the street in London today and had to write to you. I want to meet you'. It went on to describe everything I was wearing that day. It was chilling and yes, letters like that freak you out. But there's been lots of funny meetings with fans, too.

"One night, I was driving home after filming when I pulled into a petrol station to buy some Ribena. There was a police van sitting there, and as I set off, it pulled out after me. It was obvious they were following me, and I went into a blind panic.

"I was convinced there was something wrong with my car and that I was about to be booked.

"Finally, after three or four minutes of hell, I stopped at traffic lights. The police van pulled alongside me and a stern-faced policeman made a sign for me to wind down my window. My heart sank, and then he leaned over and said, `Are you in EastEnders?' When I nodded, he said, `Can I have your autograph?' I've never been so relieved in all my life!"

Man-eating waitress Teresa seduced a string of men during her three years in Walford. But in real-life Leila is happily settled with her actor fiance Paul Parris, 25.

The couple met when they starred alongside each other in a Channel 4 comedy, The Renford Rejects, just before Leila joined EastEnders.

The couple became engaged on Millennium night on a beach in Kenya.

Leila recalls: "Midnight struck and fireworks were going off everywhere. There was a huge party at the hotel, but the two of us were on the beach alone. We were dancing around a palm tree singing Auld Lang Syne when Paul suddenly dropped to his knees and proposed.

"I laughed and walked away thinking he was joking, but when I turned round again he was still there and I realised he'd meant it."

Leila accepted and as Paul hadn't been able to find a suitable ring, he took a tiny piece of tinsel off a miniature Christmas tree he'd given her and wrapped it around her finger.

"We'd taken a cassette player to the beach and a bottle of champagne and we sat there, all alone on the sand, drinking and listening to the waves. Then we lay down and fell asleep in each other's arms. It was such a romantic way to start the new Millennium."

Leila still lives at home with her doctor mum Diana and older brother Sean, a musician. Paul also lives with his parents in Essex, but the couple plan to marry next year and are currently looking for a house together - as well as planning to launch their own theatre company.

When they find somewhere, they will share it with Leila's collection of pets - a dog, a parrot, Koi carp and, until recently, a snake.

But one animal she won't allow over the doorstep is a cat.

She says: "I love animals, but cats really scare me. They're unpredictable and I'm terrified they're going to pounce on me.

"I remember an episode in EastEnders where the di Marco family had this cat and we had to pass it along a row of us sitting on a settee. By the time it reached me I was literally shaking and in the end they agreed to re-write the scene so I didn't have to hold the cat!"

Paul was with Leila as she sat on her sofa watching her exit from the show. She says: "I remember Louise and I sitting in the make-up room, watching on a monitor as Michael Greco and Marc Bannerman played Beppe and Gianni's final scene together. We were speechless, it was so moving. In fact, they had to film it several times because they were so emotional, too.

"When Louise and I walked onto the set for our last scene, it was empty, just full of packing boxes.

"It all seemed so lifelike - as if we really were moving out. I filmed the scene, went straight to the dressing room, and packed everything into boxes - real ones!

"I also had some farewell presents to give to the rest of my screen family. The one that meant the most to me was a lovely silver bracelet for Carly Hillman, who played my young sister Nicky. She had become the little sister I never had, so I had her bracelet engraved `Sempre Sorelle' - Italian for Forever Sisters.

"I was surprised they axed our characters from the show, but then I wasn't sad to leave. I've had three fantastic years in EastEnders. Now I've moved on. Most importantly, I've found the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with. Paul's my soulmate and best friend. He knew me before I was in EastEnders and he loves me as Leila, not Teresa - and to know that is the most wonderful feeling in the world."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Crawford, Sue
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Aug 20, 2000
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