As Emmerdale's Zoe Tate she battled mental illness, a drink problem and was the victim of a rape. Zoe, the first lesbian character in a British soap, left the show in a blaze of glory, blowing up her former family home which she'd been conned into selling.

More recently, actress Leah Bracknell has starred in ITV series The Royal Today which, like its 1960s predecessor, The Royal, was filmed in an old wing of St Luke's Hospital in Bradford.

Leah plays Jenny Carrington, the no-nonsense matron of St Aidan's Royal Free Hospital. A stickler for the rule book, matron doesn't suffer fools and hasn't made many friends on the ward.

"She arrived as a newcomer, having got the job of matron over a charge nurse already working at the hospital, so she'd pushed a few noses out of joint straight away," says Leah. "Because her job involves liaising with both nurses and management it's hard for her to make friends on either side. She's kind of stuck in the middle. There's a camaraderie among the staff which she's not part of. I felt quite sorry for her really."

Leah played Zoe in Yorkshire soap Emmerdale for 16 years and spent last autumn in Bradford filming the three-month five-day-a-week series of The Royal Today.

She's currently preparing to tour in a theatre production of Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James's 1898 novella about a governess caring for orphaned children who fears she's being haunted by the ghosts of two deceased servants.

Juggling her busy working schedule with being a mum of two daughters must be tough but, if it is, it doesn't show. When I met Leah on the set of The Royal Today she looked the picture of health and serenity and, at 43, could pass for a good decade younger.

It must be the yoga. Leah took it up eight years ago and says it changed her life. She's about to qualify as a teacher with the British School of Yoga.

"I was always interested in alternative therapies, particularly yoga, but it took me two years to pluck up courage to join a class," she says. "Like many people, I thought it would be super-flexible people bending their limbs into all sorts of positions. I was worried I wouldn't be able to follow it.

"But that first session changed my life. I emerged feeling fitter and invigorated yet wonderfully relaxed.

"People lead very busy lives these days and don't always have time for the gym. But yoga is something that anyone can do, regardless of age or shape, and it can be done at home.

"I tried Ashtani yoga, which is what Sting and Madonna do, but it's not for me," she adds. "You don't need to be double-jointed and twist your legs around the back of your head to practise yoga!"

Yoga has helped Leah tone up and has improved her flexibility, strength and posture. "The main benefit is that it relaxes the mind and body. As well as being a form of exercise, it helps to combat stress and fatigue, it clarifies the mind and enables you to re-evaluate things," she says. "After leaving Emmerdale I went on stage for the first time in 17 years, which was quite daunting, and yoga helped me stay calm and focussed."

Not only has she benefited from the energising, stress-busting qualities of yoga, it has also inspired her to take up a creative hobby she's now turned into a cottage industry.

When she's not learning lines, rehearsing for theatrical roles or filming television dramas, Leah can be found designing and making her range of jewellery, the Leah Bracknell Collection.

"It helps me unwind I suppose, and I enjoy the creative process," she says. "I've always liked customised clothes and jewellery. When I was a student I'd customise my clothes. A lot of jewellery in shops and magazines doesn't really appeal to me, it's too bling'. I like more natural materials and ethnic-inspired designs. I started making jewellery about 20 years ago and, after making some for family and friends, I decided to set up my own range."

Leah's jewellery has a lovely bohemian quality, with quirky little touches added like tiny silver butterflies and coloured glass heart shapes. In keeping with her theatrical background, she has named designs after female Shakespeare characters, such as Desdemona, Viola and Hermia. One striking necklace features what looks like a tiny leather-bound doll's house book, a Shakespeare collection, hanging on a string of blue glass pieces, carved red coral and Chinese carved bone.

"Jewellery is something personal and each item I make is different," says Leah. "I start by looking at the materials and colours then put different items together. My designs are inspired by colours, nature and different cultures. I've sourced materials from places like Italy, America and India, it's all very natural. I use things like glass, semi-precious stones, coral, carved bone."

Leah's jewellery is available from her website, and a percentage of profits go to Wheatfields Hospice in Headingley, and Rethink, a charity helping people affected by mental illness.

"Wheatfields cared for a friend of mine and I came across Rethink when I was playing Zoe in Emmerdale," she says. "Zoe suffered from schizophrenia so I did some research into the condition.

"There are misconceptions about schizophrenia and charities like Rethink try to highlight the reality, rather than the myth. Mental health is more talked about now but there's still a social stigma. A lot of people are affected by it but we tend now to know much about it.

"I loved playing Zoe but I felt the time was right to take a break. By the time I left she was an emotional wreck, I wasn't sure where else I could take her. I quite miss the drama though!" laughs Leah.

She hasn't ruled back a return to the soap. "Never say never. For now I'm enjoying taking on different roles. I did panto at Christmas and I'm about to play the governess in Turn of the Screw."

It'll be a far cry from pounding the wards of St Aidan's.

"I've enoyed playing the matron. We're waiting to see whether there's going to be another series," says Leah. "Filming at St Luke's has been handy for me as I live not far away. It's great filming in a real hospital because you have that authenticity. It feels right."

The show is a modern-day version of The Royal with grittier, more relevant storylines.

"The role of the matron is very different from the matron of the 1960s, which Wendy Craig plays in The Royal," says Leah. "I spent time at Leeds General Infirmary Hospital where I went on the wards with three matrons and learned about the key role of the matron today.

"It's a role that has been reintroduced. Jenny has to use tact and diplomacy to implement management policy and ensure the smooth running of all wards."

Neither management or nurse, Jenny's position is a lonely one. "She doesn't suffer fools and she didn't make herself popular initially because she was busy trying to implement new rules," says Leah. "The nurses just see her as Matron so she's not in a position where she can socialise with them.

"She's seen as management, which makes her a sort of enemy. Then there are women of her own age, particularly among the female doctors, who don't want her in the gang'."

Leah is probably the only cast member who has worked in a real hospital. "I'd just left drama school and wanted to do something different, gain a bit of life experience, so I worked as an auxiliary on a geriatric ward in a South London hospital for a while.

"I was basically wiping people's bottoms and taking them to the toilet, making beds and feeding people. Mercifully, touch wood, I've not had that much experience as a patient in a hospital but I've seen it from behind the scenes. It gave me an insight into how hard nurses work."

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