Martine McCutcheon set the West End alight as Eliza Doolittle after 22 million tuned in when she “died” in 'EastEnders'. And she won the heart of Hugh Grant in 'Love Actually'.
Martine was born in Hackney and joined the Italia Conti School when she was only 11. Her mother Jenny knew from the start that she had a theatrical daughter: “She used to dance and sing from the age of four and just loved being the centre of attention. She always wanted to be a ballet dancer.”
Her early life had not been easy. Her father, Thomas Hemmings, was abusive to her mother and when he left, life changed for the family. Mum married John McCutcheon and Martine took on her stepfather’s name.
She loved the Italia Conti school and worked hard there every day after school and every weekend. At only 13, she was offered a role in a West End musical with Anthony Newley. At 14, she responded to an ad in The Stage newspaper looking for young girls to join a pop group, Milan. The band had a No 1 dance hit and toured with East 17, but Martine hated appearing in seedy clubs, and soon left the band.
“Simon Cowell wanted to sign us up,” Martine recalls. “He was at RCA at the time, but the timings weren’t right.”
She was working in Knickerbox in Lakeside Thurrocks when she auditioned for a part in 'EastEnders' in 1995. She recalls: “Funnily enough, I’d spent most of my life trying to get away from the Eastender 'Tart with A Heart' image, and here I was putting myself forward as an out and out “cockney sparra” in the role of Tiffany Mitchell!”
She got the role and soon made it her own as Grant Mitchell’s wife, who also fell for his brother Phil. Martine soon became one of the most popular actresses in the soap, garnering Best Actress at the National Television Awards in 1997.
But the singing bug was still with her, and it was at the Metropolis Studios in Chiswick where she recorded some of her songs for her first album. When she was asked to sing “Wouldn’t It Be Luvverly” for BBC’s Children In Need, her life was changed forever and her career took a swerve in a direction that no one was expecting.
That night on Children In Need, the audience in the BBC studio and viewers at home were shocked at how accomplished a singer Martine actually was, and by the time she belted out the Streisand number 'Don’t Rain On My Parade', the audience were on their feet. She made such an impact that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra asked her to sing with them at the Albert Hall.
Virgin offered Martine McCutcheon a £1,000,000 five-album deal – one of the most controversial and generous ever offered by the record label. Martine recalls how hectic a time that was in her life.
“There I was flying to New York to record the album in the studio, and then crawling back on the Red Eye to fly back to film with 'EastEnders'… it was a crazy time, and then came the news out of the blue that the producers of 'EastEnders' wanted to kill Tiffany off. At the time she was one of the most popular characters in the soap”
According to press reports, 'EastEnders' executive producer Mal Young was the man who wanted to put an end to Tiffany. Mal countered the accusation by saying Martine was about to take off in her pop career anyway, and she only wanted to use 'EastEnders' as a safety net.
Martine went out in a blaze of glory on 'EastEnders' on New Years Eve in 1997, when Tiffany was struck down by a car and killed. 22 million viewers watched, one of the highest audiences ever achieved by the soap.
Martine's singing career was about to take off with her first single "Perfect Moment” - which went straight to No 1 in Britain (and four other countries) and stayed there for three weeks. She followed this with another smash hit “Talking In Your Sleep” and went on to win the MTV Music Award for Best Transatlantic Breakthrough.
The next part of Martine’s story begins in 1998, when world renowned musical impresario Cameron Mackintosh and the then Director of the National Theatre Trevor Nunn asked Martine to audition for the highly coveted role of Eliza in 'My Fair Lady'. She sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” and they immediately offered her the job. For Martine, it was a dream come true – to be the leading lady in a West End musical.
“It was an amazing time for me,” she recalls. “There were suggestions in some quarters of the press that someone from 'EastEnders' should not be allowed to take the lead in such a high profile National Theatre production. But I did it. I got one of the most sought-after roles in musical history.”
Up to now only “posh” actresses like Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn had played the role of Eliza. Martine McCutcheon was a real-life Pygmalion.
Sadly, Martine's health began to suffer during the My Fair Lady run in London.
“I had actually been working since I was 13, and there had been lots of providing for my family. I was totally exhausted, both mentally and physically, and I think that is why I was so susceptible to the virus which struck me. Then I got acute tonsillitis and a strep infection and the whole thing laid me very low.”
The result was that for a large part of the run, Martine was too ill to appear in “My Fair Lady”. She was eventually rushed to Intensive Care and her run as Eliza was forced to end. “I wanted to fulfil my contract but couldn’t,” she says sadly. “Up to that point I’d been very much a people-pleaser – and at that time I was devastated, because it seemed everyone was angry with me, as though I could have helped being ill.”
Despite suffering widespread condemnation in the press as “a shirker”, Martine went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2002.
In yet another twist in the life of the actress, who was still only 26, there came the call of a lifetime. Richard Curtis phoned her agent to ask if she would take a lead role in the new romantic comedy 'Love Actually'. She would co-star as Natalie, a working class girl with whom the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) falls in love.
Her co-stars in the film included Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson and Martin Freeman.
“I nearly talked myself out of the role when I first went to see Richard… I was just so terrified of disappointing everyone – of not being good enough. But he soon put me at my ease. In fact, he started by calling me 'Teeny', which no one has ever done before!”
After that, she went on to film with Art Malik in the TV adapatation of 'The English Harem'. Appearances followed in other shows like Miss Marple and ITV’s 2008 drama 'Echo Beach' in which she co-starred with Jason Donovan.
She published her first novel 'The Mistress' in 2009, having published her autobiography 'Who Does She Think She Is?' in 2000.
Martine married singer Jack McManus in 2012, and was declared bankrupt in 2013.