SOAP favourite Pam St Clement sensationally revealed yesterday she is quitting EastEnders after 25 years playing TV battleaxe Pat Evans.
The actress announced she wanted to pursue "other work" as she approaches her 70th birthday.
She will hang up her famous earrings at the end of the year.
Last night BBC chiefs promised Pat's exit would be a "fitting finale not to be missed".
It could include Pat being killed off - although sources reassured fans worried about her fate that it was unlikely.
One show insider said: "There are usually only two ways out of EastEnders - in the back of a cab or in a hearse.
"But we love bringing back the old characters now and again.
"It goes without saying viewers would love Pat to pop back."
Pam, who joined the soap in June 1986, said: "Leaving the EastEnders 'family' will be akin to a bereavement.
"But I'm looking forward to the other work and life opportunities that I will have the time to pursue."
Show boss Brian Kirkwood paid tribute to Pam's contribution to the soap over the last quarter of a century. He declared: "Pam St Clement has created one of the most iconic and loved characters in British TV history.
"Over the years we've seen her develop from a shrew into a matriarch.
"Pat's colour, warmth and steel have given EastEnders some of its most memorable stories.
"We wish her the very best of luck in everything that comes next."
The show source said: "Pam still plans to carry on working, so it's not like we would have to drag her kicking and screaming out of retirement if we did want her back."