Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Would that she'd be luvverly

In the course of our conversation, Martine McCutcheon managed to refer to herself in the same bracket as Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, Bono and Barbra Streisand. Bless her Cockney socks.
Here's the interview from last Saturday's Weekend mag in the Irish Indo...


The key moments of Martine McCutcheon's career all seem to carry echoes of My Fair Lady. The Cockney girl turned good; the Cinderella who -- through self-belief, hard work and a sprinkle of stardust -- got to go to the ball.

McCutcheon was the Knickerbox sales girl who became a nation's TV sweetheart as Tiffany in EastEnders. The kid who used to belt out Barbra Streisand numbers for her mum and went on to score an international number one with Perfect Moment. When the pop bubble burst, she really did become My Fair Lady in a revival at London's National Theatre. Later, in the movie Love Actually, she was the tea lady who won Prime Minister Hugh Grant's heart.

Now 33, the girl who used to act out other people's words has been magically transformed into an author.

Her very first novel -- as she tells it, the subject of a bidding war before it was even written -- is a bonkbusting romp called The Mistress. Mandy, with hair dark as ebony, flawless skin and beautiful big brown eyes, falls in love with the equally flawless Jake on the night of her 30th birthday. He's sexy, suave, successful and -- flaw alert -- married with children.

In between athletic bouts of sex and soul-searching chats with her gay best friend, Mandy struggles with the conflicting demands of guilt and desire. Without spoiling potential readers' enjoyment, it suffices to say that all comes right in the end. It's fiction, although McCutcheon has been falsely accused of being the other woman in chef Marco Pierre White's marriage.

McCutcheon says that people who know her and maybe wondered if she'd written the book herself had their doubts laid to rest once they read it. "They said, 'You can tell it was you. You can tell it's your voice'." I don't know what McCutcheon's inner voice sounds like, but from reading The Mistress, I can confirm that the services of a ghost writer were not employed.

In Dublin, on a flying promotional visit, McCutcheon elaborates on how she has added this latest string to her bow. Just off the plane, she's dressed in comfy jeans and boots and her hair is swept up in a girlish ponytail. I ask her about the physical similarities between Mandy and Martine and she laughs.

"Mandy is the supermodel version -- she's a heightened version of me once the A-list hair and make-up have gotten hold of me." The lighting in the hotel bar where I find her is so dim that I have difficulty reading my notes, but from what I can make out she looks pretty good in her civvies.

But back to business. Just over a year ago, ITV had asked her to come up with some ideas for a drama series that she would then star in. "As an actress that's like a dream come true," she says. She was to work with a team of screenwriters, but the TV bosses said the series would be based around "the essence of you".

Somehow, publishers got wind of the fact that Martine was "writing something" and, before you could say fairy godfather, she had to get herself a literary agent to help her cope with the book deal offers that came flooding in.

It boiled down to two publishing houses, one of whom was "looking at me less as a writer and more as me". She went with Pan MacMillan, who she says "were really interested in helping me be a writer".

Prime Suspect screenwriter and crime novelist Lynda La Plante had a go at the trend for celebrity-penned novels a couple of weeks ago. "Publishers are spending millions on TV faces -- these books are a phenomenon and they are awful," she said at a book awards ceremony at which McCutcheon was also a guest.

Without referring to La Plante directly, McCutcheon says: "If you are known for something else, there is going to be a backlash, people are going to be cynical."

Of her detractors she says: "I think it's laziness. Because I've done so many different things, people get a bit narky and all of a sudden anybody who has written a book who was famous for something else, be it a javelin-thrower or a politician, all of a sudden it's all resting on your shoulders."

She is confident in her credentials as a novelist. "You think, 'Hold on, I've always been a storyteller, be it as an actress or as a singer or on stage, TV, film, lyrics for my music' -- this is a natural progression for me."

I ask if she experienced any moments of self-doubt in the writing itself, which took the best part of a year, on and off. "The thing I found really hard was the editing process," she says, "because there was stuff that I was really precious about and then they didn't like it and wanted me to take it out."

Surprisingly for someone who has been acting, singing and dancing from a young age, McCutcheon says she is happy to sit quietly in a room, writing. "I feel it's a yin and yang thing," she says. "Apparently, Bono likes to be on his own for a month after he's been touring. You need to be able to recharge, otherwise you don't have that spark to entertain people again."

Not that her performing career, while varied, has had many fairy-tale endings. When McCutcheon decided to leave EastEnders in 1998 to pursue a music and movie career, she was upset when BBC bosses ruled out any future return to the soap by throwing her much-loved Tiffany character under the wheels of a car.

Her subsequent pop career burned brightly but was over all too briefly after two records -- one double-platinum -- with Virgin Records and one with EMI Liberty. Her turn on the boards as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 2001 was dogged by illness-induced absenteeism. She was cattily dubbed Eliza Do Little by elements of the British press.

She says now that when she was approached to do the show, she was going through a lot of heartache in her life. The role her abusive father played in her early childhood has been well documented -- her first memory of her dad Thomas Hemmings was of him dangling the three-year-old Martine by the ankles from a balcony in order to threaten her mum, Jenny.

When she got her West End break, Hemmings made a sordid reappearance, selling stories to the tabloids about her. "I had all these things going on and my way of coping was to keep working, have the applause every night and not really deal with it," she says. She notes that My Fair Lady is a particularly draining task for its leading lady. "It's notorious for anybody who's ever done it, from Julie Andrews to me to Audrey Hepburn. It's really famous for that. Which I didn't know until I'd signed on the dotted line."

She was also struggling to meet her Prince Charming, having broken off an engagement in 1996 to DJ Gareth Cooke, who then sold stories of their sex life. A later relationship with friend Jonathan Barnham soured after he attended sex parties behind her back.

She's been with musician Jack McManus, who is 25, for the past three years now and drops him easily into conversation as "my other half". That, and the continued support of her mother Jenny Tomlin, also an author (she even typed up the longhand manuscript of Martine's novel) are obviously hugely positive influences on her.

But back then, she was ready to throw in the towel. After the end of her run as Eliza Doolittle she took off to Spain, feeling rundown and upset. She sat on the plane telling God that she would need to think of something else to do with her life unless he gave her a massive sign. One week later, her agent rang her with the news that Richard Curtis had written a role especially for her in his new film, Love Actually.

"I literally nearly dropped the phone and looked up and said, 'God, you don't muck about do you?'" she laughs.

Yet the role didn't translate into the fabulous Hollywood career that many were predicting for her. McCutcheon says she was signed up to do an NBC show, "the new Friends", but that internal network politics among the head honchos meant she was kept hanging on for a year, contracted to the studio but not working. Even now, she says, there are films she can't watch knowing that she was offered major roles in them at that time and couldn't take them.

"Meanwhile in England they were saying 'Martine's upset everyone in America'. They had me quoted as talking like Dick van Dyke, 'Get off me bleedin' dress' or something," she says, parodying her London accent. "It was so embarrassing. I was thinking, that's so mean: as if I would do that to myself!"

McCutcheon is keen to dispense with the diva myth. Quite the opposite, she says, harking back to the time of My Fair Lady. "I was always scared that if I said what I wanted, it was printed that I was a diva. I so wanted to be liked and so wanted things to be perfect and give people what they wanted that I literally lost my voice. I couldn't speak up for myself."

Another huge misconception about her, she says, is that she's a victim.

"People almost want you to be a victim because then they can be more sympathetic to you," she says shrewdly. "Even I feel like that: you look at some people who are in the public eye right now and they might have everything, but they might have a husband who strayed and you go, 'Phew, there's not perfection after all, so I'm okay', and really it's about you -- it's not actually about that person at all."

The title of her 2000 autobiography Who Does She Think She Is? strikes that defiant note and McCutcheon admits that she has learned to be tough in a tough business.

And while she might not want to be seen as a victim, she does recognise the fact that her humble roots, the way she had to push and fight her way into a scholarship into the prestigious Italia Conti stage school as a kid, gave her drive and ambition.

"I found it very hard to say no to things, being from a working-class background," she says. "Every time I was offered a job -- I think Michael Caine said the same thing -- even if it's not a good project, you take it because there's a part of you thinking, 'Who am I to say no? I might never work again'."

It could be easy to dismiss Martine McCutcheon as a bit of a dreamer. She doesn't aim low: her inspirations are Marilyn Monroe, Judi Dench, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Mirren, Barbra Streisand. But, explaining the heady mix of designer labels, fabulous beauties and glam goings-on in The Mistress, she says: "I think because of childhood stuff, I've always wanted to escape and always wanted that lovely fantasy glossiness."

If she wants to star as the fairy-tale princess of her own creation, who can blame her?

- Susan Daly

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