EastEnders fans will never forget the halcyon days of the soap, when the Watts held court behind the bar at the Old Vic. But for Anita Dobson, Angie's legacy has been a constant hangover

Like the cocktails Angie Watts used to down by the bucket, Anita Dobson was shaken up by the EastEnders effect. From the moment her perky features popped up behind the bar at the Queen Vic, she was on the wrong end of a tabloid monstering.

"Overnight I went from a jobbing actress to the most photographed woman in Britain," she remembers. "At drama school they teach you how to play downmarket drudges - no problem there, it's where I came from - but no one teaches you how to deal with the media. You become a commodity more than an actor. I was like a lamb to a pack of wolves. They chopped me up. At the time I was so naive. When I started, I thought, `What a lucky girl I am, I've got no skeletons.' But it doesn't matter - they just make them up."

After a while, Dobson came to terms with her status as a tabloid property. "You learn to let it go," she reflects. "If people say I'm mutton dressed as lamb, you have to ride it out. The next day people are eating chips out of the newspapers, anyway."

Dobson reached this level of celebrity because her character in the soap - the put-upon wife who keeps bouncing back from adversity - touched a nerve with people. Upwards of 30 million viewers tuned in to see the 1986 Christmas Day edition in which Angie received as her present divorce papers from her scheming husband, Dirty Den (Leslie Grantham). Those sort of ratings leave even Princess Diana's Panorama in the shade.

"Although Den and Angie almost destroyed each other, they thrived on each other as well," Dobson observes. "As long as they were together people loved them. Countless couples are like that in real life - staying together through all their problems.

"Like all icons - Liz Taylor, Tina Turner - Angie was a fighter and a survivor," Dobson continues. "Once she ended up with a bottle of meths on a park bench - next step, bag lady under the arches. But her fighting instinct returned, and the make-up and four tons of glitter came out. One minute she was a dog and the next she was Joan Crawford in Mrs Miniver. She was all the Shakespearen queens rolled into one. I miss that kind of animal. You look for those big souls, those Mother Courages who go beyond the pale and live their lives in the fast lane. People need heroes." And you thought it was just a soap.

She feels "there's a glimmer of that in Get Well Soon," the new Ray Galton/ John Antrobus comedy in which Dobson plays the dolled-up, battling mother of a TB sufferer (Matthew Cottle) in a sanatorium. "She's one of those women who never say die," the actress reckons. "Life may throw things at her, but she is a survivor, too." Dobson also appears in sketches on The Lily Savage Show later tonight.

There is quite a lot riding on the success of these projects for Dobson because, to be frank, her choice of work since leaving EastEnders has not set the world alight. "People's expectations were huge," she sighs, "and I couldn't top Angie. I did some inordinately well-paid, but not very successful projects like Split Ends [a regrettable hairdressing sitcom that soon got the chop], and Budgie [an ill-advised revival of a spiv comedy]. The scripts just weren't right. You can't short-cut scripts. If the writing isn't there, then you're just plucking tricks out of the air to colour it."

One of life's enthusiasts, the frizzy-haired Dobson lights up the room with her exuberance. Dressed in a sweatshirt with a lion motif, she claims to have no regrets about quitting EastEnders while she was its acknowledged queen. "I was starting to get pulled towards other jobs - pantos, books, records," she recalls, "and it's incredibly difficult to do that and stay at the pivotal point of a soap."

But she admits that she may never better her charismatic performance as the indomitable lush, Angie. When you have played such a landmark role in the history of modern popular television, how can you hope to surpass it?

"You hit a moment where something happens in your life, and you're ready for it," she reflects. "There's this most fantastic marriage of the person and role. Like when Anthony Hopkins did Silence of the Lambs. They're identified for the rest of their life with that role. Angie's the same. I was desperate for a part that would move me from a small pond into a lake with the bigger fish. When it came, it was just `bang'. Reading the part, I thought, `I know this woman. I've worked in this pub.' Angie was just waiting to come out."

Dobson feels that the public have still not quite forgiven her for exiling Angie from their lives. "They want what you took away," she laments. "If you've given them a chicken sandwich, then they won't take toast. They say, `It's nice, but it's not a chicken sandwich.' I'm waiting for my next chicken sandwich."

`Get Well Soon' and `The Lily Savage Show' are on tomorrow (6.30pm & 10pm)