A 13-hour working day doesn't sound like much of a break, but for actress and mum-of-two Tamzin Outhwaite, filming the latest series of New Tricks was "more of a rest" than being at home.

"Someone cooks you food and gives you lunch, people make you laugh, and then someone does your make-up, so really I only had to worry about myself," the former EastEnders star says with a smile.

It's been a tough year for the 43-year-old, who divorced Miranda actor Tom Ellis in April after seven years of marriage.

On top of the break-up, she's had to balance looking after her two daughters with Ellis - Florence, six, and two-year-old Marnie Mae - with shooting series 11 of the popular BBC One police drama.

Essex-born Outhwaite was introduced at the end of the last series as DCI Sasha Miller, who heads up the crime-busting team of retired police officers, following the departure of DSI Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman).

In addition to the long working days, she and co-stars Denis Lawson, Dennis Waterman and Nicholas Lyndhurst were also required to film the occasional night-shoot.

"I've got a nanny, she lives in now. I wouldn't be able to do it without her," says the actress, whose younger daughter was not yet sleeping through the night during filming.

"A builder, who was doing my kitchen, came in at six in the morning and he went, 'Tam, do you ever sleep?'. I think I got quite used to having a four-hour average."

It's easy to draw comparisons between Sasha and Sandra - both are blonde bosses with a no-nonsense approach. But Outhwaite was keen to make the new role her own.

"The key for me was to not watch too many episodes, because I think then you might fill your head with expectations that you don't need," she explains.

"When you're taking over a role in anything, or playing a lovable character in the theatre, to try not to go and see another production of it or watch it on television is always a good thing, I think."

Besides, DCI Miller and her much-loved predecessor have different styles when it comes to crime-solving - from Sasha's collaborative approach to her use of technology ("I don't think they'd even seen anyone using an iPad to look at photos," Outhwaite notes).

And, as evidenced in episode one of the new series, her suggestion that differences are resolved by "hugging it out".

"At first, they didn't understand why Sasha was saying, 'What do you think?', all the time, and giving them free rein to do what they wanted, as opposed to what Sandra Pullman used to do, which was tell them," says Outhwaite, who found fame in the late Nineties as businesswoman Mel Owen on EastEnders.

"They feel like they're a team, and they're friends as well. She manages to cross into that friend thing, as well as being the boss, which is quite tricky."

Despite the stellar cast and impressive audience figures - the first episode of series 10 attracted 7.5 million viewers - the show doesn't receive as much attention as other high-rating programmes.

"You get a push at the beginning when something first comes out, and then it becomes part of the furniture, something that's always on," Outhwaite notes.

"I was in a show a long time ago that was constantly being beaten [in the ratings] by a New Tricks repeat. I thought, 'There's got to be something in this that has a secret ingredient'. When I really started watching it, it jumps out at you because there's this camaraderie, as well as the whole police side of things.

"And also, the majority of the public that are watching it probably feel some kind of an affinity towards these people, because they're not hotshot cops with guns. It's ordinary people solving stuff."

Since joining the cast, she's bumped into plenty of unexpected New Tricks fans near her North London home.

"All the people I didn't realise watched it - the man in the sweet shop I always see, and the lady in the hairdressers' was like, 'You really suit that programme'."

In series 11, alongside the usual crime-solving and some recognisable guest stars (including fellow ex-EastEnder Tracy-Ann Oberman, who played Chrissie Watts), we'll also see Sasha clash with her ex-husband, who works in the same building.

"He's also her boss and her department's boss, so you have the dynamic of how the boys become quite protective of me."

Sasha shares a close working bond with Lyndhurst's character, ex-murder squad officer Dan Griffin.

"Sasha and Danny understand each other. They seem to be the ones that are left at the end still trying to work things out, because they don't have anyone to go home to," notes Outhwaite, who has struck up a friendship with the "wonderful" Only Fools And Horses star in real life.

With two more series of New Tricks in the pipeline, and a role in comedy play Breeders, there's little chance for Outhwaite to catch up on that much-needed sleep.

She's also been tracing her family history for the new series of BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are?, an experience she clearly enjoyed.

"It was a really happy, lovely story. There was nothing dark or too serious," she says of her findings. "It made me feel quite proud to be in my family."

Extra time - Tamzin Outhwaite

* Tamzin Outhwaite was born on November 5, 1970, in Ilford, Essex, and attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School.

* She spent eight years on the chorus lines of musicals like Grease and Summer Holiday, before landing bit parts in The Bill and Men Behaving Badly and then being cast in EastEnders in 1998.

* She starred alongside Wesley Snipes in 2005 action film 7 Seconds, about a thief who accidentally makes off with a Van Gogh painting.

* After leaving EastEnders in 2002, she said: "I did some really good work during my time there, but if you linger too long, you get typecast thereafter and I'm never one to rest on my laurels."

* Soon after, she appeared in TV series Vital Signs, Hotel Babylon and army drama Red Cap.

New Tricks returns to BBC One on Monday, August 18. Outhwaite's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? airs on BBC One on Thursday, August 21