Former soap stars never seem able to scrub themselves completely clean of their screen characters. Dirty Dens, Hilda Ogdens, and Bet Lynches can be impossible acts to follow.

But Todd Carty will never have to worry about how to leave behind Mark Fowler, his EastEnders character. He'll always be Tucker Jenkins.

Carty enrolled at ground-breaking Grange Hill in February 1978 and, within days, questions were being asked about Peter Tucker Jenkins's antics in the Houses of Parliament, Mary Whitehouse was predictably outraged, and the actor was named Britain's first screen teenage heart-throb.

Some 75% of 11- to 13-year-olds tuned in every week to watch pupils' champion Tucker. At the time Carty said: ''Kids love Tucker because he gets away with all the things they never could. Tucker Jenkins isn't a bit like me. I haven't gone around burning down schools. He's a tearaway, rude to teachers, and he hates school work. When I walk down the street other kids shout 'Tuckeeeeer', but I'm

Todd Carty.''

Actually, he's Todd Jennings. Born in Ireland in 1963, Carty grew up in Kilburn, London, with his mum (a nurse), dad (an engineer), and sisters Billie Joe and Bobby Sue. He attended drama classes as an outlet for his excess energy and appeared in his first TV advert, for Woolworths, aged four. ''All I can remember is running up and down the escalators all day in Croydon shopping centre,'' he says. In 1971 he appeared in Please Sir! - a TV spin-off - and, as well as Z Cars and Our Mutual Friend, he's filmed series for German and Irish television.

Despite being watched by nine million kids throughout his four year reign as king of Grange Hill, Carty's own childhood was, he says, strict and solid. ''My parents never let me get too big for my boots. They tied up the money I was earning in trust funds, so I was never spoiled. Being recognised as a child could get a little uncomfortable at times but I've only really known life in the public eye.''

While he was in Grange Hill, Carty enrolled at the Phil Dene stage school and studied for

A-levels at night classes. And when the school bell finally tolled for Tucker in 1982, Carty didn't have to join him on the dole.

GH creator Phil Redmond - the man behind Brookside and Hollyoaks - bowed to public pressure and wrote a new series for Carty. In Tucker's Luck,

he was the angry-ish young man, signing on in Thatcher's Britain. The show's two-year run ended in 1985 and, when school was finally out forever, Carty filmed Krull with Liam Neeson. He's also made What's In It For You?, Mr Popper's Problems, and A Question of Balance for

the cinema.

In 1990, Carty joined EastEnders as Mark Fowler, replacing Mark Scarboro after the actor's suicide. Playing the HIV positive character has, says Carty, taught him humility.

''I was out at a football match recently and I saw this big bloke eyeballing me. I thought, look out, he's going to come over here and start something,'' he says. ''When he came over he just wanted to say he thought what Mark was doing in EastEnders was really important. He was HIV positive. Without being corny, I found that humbling.''

He took a break from the soap in 1996 to film Black Velvet Band, a historical drama, in South Africa. He also narrated The Fame Game in 1998 and is the current narrator of BBC1's Paddington Green.

The actor, who lives with his partner, actress Dina - he's known her since childhood - and son, James, lives in the hope that, as television audiences grow older, he may finally be allowed to grow up, too.

Carty says: ''It tends only to be people of a certain age who call me Tucker now. Kids in the street always shout 'Mark'.''

Todd Carty will be minding the fruit and veg stall in EastEnders tonight on BBC1 at 8pm.