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There's no place left for Mel to go - she's slept with every man in Walford now; Why EastEnders' Tamzin Outhwaite decided to quit and her hopes and fears for the future.

Byline: Rebecca Fletcher

She has slept with her best friend's man, been married twice, kidnapped, and now she's pregnant and in prison. It's a wonder EastEnders' Melanie Owen has lasted as long as she has in Albert Square. But this week, Tamzin Outhwaite who plays her is bowing out after three and a half years in the soap.

With her own BBC1 series Red Cap and movie deals in the offing with a visit to Hollywood, the future's looking great for Tamzin. But that doesn't mean she isn't having serious doubts about leaving Walford.

"Dot and Jim's recent wedding was one of the best episodes I've ever seen and I thought, `Have I made the right decision here?'," admits Tamzin, 31.

"I've got mixed emotions about leaving because EastEnders is such a great show. But I kind of feel there's no place left for Mel to go - she's slept with every man in Walford, for goodness sake. And I want her to go out on top, leaving everyone gasping for more."

They'll certainly do that in a traumatic final week in which Mel is arrested and thrown into prison for money laundering - a legacy left by her dead husband Steve, played by Martin Kemp.

Having been embroiled in Steve's dodgy deals without realising it, Mel hopes that Beppe and Laura will stand her pounds 30,000 bail, but when they refuse and then best friend Lisa drops a bombshell, she's left reeling. Discovering she is pregnant, and feeling betrayed by everyone, Mel sets out for revenge - although Tamzin is keeping tight-lipped about the details.

"What I will say is that the leaving scenes were the hardest I've ever filmed," she says. "There's so much going on in the aftermath of Steve's death."

With Martin Kemp leaving last month after being lured away by a pounds 1.5m deal with ITV, it's obvious that Tamzin misses her former onscreen husband and is proud of the "unique chemistry" they had. It was Martin announcing his departure and her being given 10 weeks off the soap last year to film Red Cap that started Tamzin thinking about leaving, too.

"Doing Red Cap made me realise that I want to do more things," she says of the pilot that won eight million viewers when it was shown last Christmas and is now being made into a series. "After filming it last summer, I took a week off to be alone and spent the whole time thinking about it. I didn't speak to anyone, not even my family. I wanted to make the decision myself."

When she finally made up her mind to quit, she knew she would have the full backing of her cab driver dad Colin, mum Anna, a financial adviser, and brothers, Kes, 28, and 21-year-old Jake. Even as far back as her ballet lessons as a toddler growing up in Ilford, Essex, they were all aware of her desire to perform.

At 16, and after sitting her O-levels, Tamzin started a three-year course at the London Studio Centre. In her final year there she was named Most Outstanding All-Rounder - an award previously given to former student Liz Hurley.

Tamzin did some theatre work and had small TV roles in The Bill and Men Behaving Badly. Then she beat off competition from 19 others to land the part of Mel in EastEnders, initially on a three-month contract. Three and a half years later, one thing's for sure, Albert Square will be a lot less glamorous without Mel. Playing her has won Tamzin many accolades, including Best Newcomer, Best Soap Actress and Sexiest Woman In Soap - twice.

"When I came in as the vicar's sister, I had no idea Mel would be such a big character and the audience would take to her so quickly," she says. "I was surprised as I thought she was a bit plain and a flirt. But no matter what Mel does - going out with Ian, Dan, Steve, Phil - people still like her. Women wanted to be her mate and blokes wanted her as a girlfriend.

"My favourite storyline was Mel sleeping with Phil on Christmas Day 2000. It was typically brilliant EastEnders and I was pleased to be part of it. And I enjoyed the kidnapping scenes last year with Craig Fairbrass - if you can enjoy being tied up in a council flat all day. They offered to untie my wrists between scenes, but I said no so I could feel what it was really like. My wrists were raw by the end of it and I was exhausted, but that was the challenge I wanted."

One of the hardest things about quitting is leaving behind Lucy Benjamin, who plays Lisa. Tamzin joined the soap in September 1998, Lucy a month later, and they became good friends from the start.

"The first time we met, Lucy was in make-up and I sat next to her and said, `Hello, are you new too?'" recalls Tamzin. "We were like two magnets after that. We'd ring each other in the evenings and rehearse our lines because we so wanted to get it right at work the next day. Lucy was a saviour. We were in the same scenes together, the same age - so we supported each other as we became well known. We created a bit of a bubble, to be honest. Some of the cast even said they felt left out. My last scene here was with Lucy and I was close to tears during it."

But we may not have lost Mel for good as the character isn't being killed off.

"The door has been left open for me," says Tamzin. "The exec producer John Yorke has been very supportive and says I can come back if I want to, which is brilliant. And I had a fantastic last day. It felt like the end of term, except I was drinking champagne from 2pm and going around thanking everyone. Then we had a party that night at the studios in Elstree. It was the best party I've ever been to. It ended up very messily at a hotel with about 20 of us chatting until 4am. I'll never forget it."

Now she has a little spare time on her hands, Tamzin wants to learn to speak Italian, but she'll have to be quick. Both Hollywood and her role as Special Investigation Officer Jo McDonagh in Red Cap are beckoning.

"It's a six-part series and I've got a couple of weeks to train and get fit before filming starts at the end of April," she explains. "Plus I've got another BBC film project on the go, which means a week in Los Angeles. It'll be part work and part holiday.

"It'll be good to see how it works over there. I read I was supposed to be in a big film with Robert De Niro, so if the rumours come true it'll be wonderful.

"I'd love to do something like Moulin Rouge which showed that musicals can be cutting-edge. Before EastEnders, I was in Grease and Oliver Twist directed by Sam Mendes. I played the flower seller for 18 months."

Tamzin will also play a gangster's moll in an ITV1 thriller Frances Tuesday. With so much work in the pipeline her lovelife is, unsurprisingly, taking a back seat. Tamzin split with her TV producer fiance Marty Benson two years ago, and then dated musician Steve Ellington. They split up last month, but she insists she is happy living alone in her flat in Crouch End, North London, and being single.

"I'm having a really good time, thanks," she says. "Me and Marty are still in contact. I've always stayed friends with my exes. When you've spent so much time together it seems ludicrous to cut them out of your life. But I don't need anybody right now because my career is fulfilling in more ways than one. Mel's come to a natural end and, although I'm sad to let go of something that has excited me for the past three years, I'm looking forward to the future. I'm taking the E20 sign off my dressing- room door when I go.

"Fame's scary sometimes. I'm just thankful I'd had eight years as a jobbing actress before it happened to me. I`d have worried about my sanity if I'd been 19 or 20. I am a bit scared of the future and hope I've timed it right to leave, but whatever happens this has been the best three years of my life."

l See Soap Box, page 20.


STARTING OUT: Mel arrived in October 1998, little realising the massive impact she would have

BRIDAL PATH: The great Mel-lennium Wedding to Ian lasted just hours after she found out he had lied to her

CRACKER: A violent row erupted between best friends Mel and Lisa during Christmas 2000

SMACKER: Shortly after the row, Phil decided to comfort Mel with a sordid one-night stand

WEDDING HELL: She finally married her on-off lover Steve in February 2001, but their joy wasn't to last long

KIDNAPPED: In his feud with Steve and Phil, Dirty Dan Sullivan held Mel to ransom in August 2001

BAR WARS: Following Steve's death crash last month, Mel attacked "guilty" Phil in the Vic

MOURNING: Steve's ashes were tipped over his mother's grave by Phil after Mel found out her husband had cheated on her

BANGED UP: Within weeks of Steve's death, Mel was arrested twice on suspicion of laundering drug money through E20. She lost her house and business and faced losing her freedom because of Steve's dodgy deals


WALKOUT: Mel's final scene this week; MOVIE MAGIC: Tamzin is in talks with Hollywood Picture: SEAN COOK/K2
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 6, 2002
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