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Friday, 16 March, 2001, 18:04 GMT
Martine McCutcheon: By George she's got it
Martine McCutcheon
From problem childhood, to soap star, to successful singer on record and now stage, Martine McCutcheon's life has been a rollercoaster ride. As Bob Chaundy, of the BBC's News Profiles Unit discovers, there is something of the Eliza Doolittle about her.

Though Audrey Hepburn charmed her audiences as Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, her cockney accent was almost as laughable as Dick van Dyke's in Mary Poppins.

As her co-star Rex Harrison said of her portrayal of the rough Covent Garden flower-girl who is transformed into an upper-crust lady, "Eliza Doolittle is supposed to be ill at ease in European ballrooms. Bloody Audrey has never spent a day in her life out of European ballrooms."

The nearest Martine McCutcheon ever got to a European ballroom was the Hackney Empire. As the first high-profile "authentic" Eliza, this genuine Eastender's problem was how to speak posh, know wha' I mean?

Martine takes her bows after her opening night in My fair Lady
Her opening performance as Eliza Doolittle was well received
By all accounts, she has made a success of it, with the help of a voice-coach and a full measure of determination which, like the fictional Miss Doolittle's, springs from a poor background.

Martine was born in Hackney, in London's East End, 24 years ago in a "dingy delivery room" at a Salvation Army hospital. Her mother, Jenny, was only 19. Her father, Thomas, was a heavy-drinking market trader with a history of domestic violence.

He regularly beat Jenny up and once threatened to drop his daughter over a high balcony. The police were regular visitors and, eventually, when she was nine, a judge banned her father from seeing her.

Some good, though, emerged from all this. Martine and her mum found respite in watching old musicals, among them My Fair Lady.

"When she was 18, she told me how much she'd love to play Eliza Doolittle", her former agent Barry Burnett claims: "Martine could always sing as well as act, so I phoned my friend Cameron Mackintosh and told him if ever you stage it, here is someone immensely talented who you should consider."

Five years later, Cameron Mackintosh, one of British theatre's great impresarios, did just that.

Martine McCutcheon polished her acting skills at the Italia Conti stage school in London. Her mother could not afford to send her there so Martine wrote to more than 200 charities and secured a scholarship from the Church of England.

Playing Tiffany in EastEnders
Tiffany head to head with Grant in EastEnders
"She was so well focused and wanted to learn how to do everything," recalls Gaynor Sheward who runs the agency at the school. "Not only was she talented, she never had a bad word to say about anyone and that's why she became such a popular person."

Though she got parts in various commercials and children's TV series while still at school, Martine's big break came when she won the part of Tiffany in the BBC's EastEnders.

"Tiff" became one of the most popular characters in the BBC soap; feisty, headstrong but vulnerable. When she was eventually killed off, 22 million viewers tuned in to see her breathe her last.

And, when in real life, a tabloid newspaper discovered her then boyfriend, Jonathan Barnham, was cheating on her and attending sex orgies without her knowledge, she got the same public sympathy as her soap character did when Tiff was mistreated by Grant Mitchell, the chief bully-boy.

The same thing happened when Martine suffered a miscarriage and then stumped up the 75,000 bail for Barnham when he was arrested on a drugs-smuggling charge.

Martine McCutcheon singing
Her first solo single reached No. 1
Martine's decision to leave the safe cocoon of a popular soap was a sign that broader ambitions were driving her. They took her in the direction of music; or, rather, she manoeuvred them that way.

She had been asked to sing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at a charity event at the Royal Albert Hall. She personally telephoned all the major record companies alerting them to the event.

After the performance McCutcheon had them competing for her signature. The result was a 1.6 million recording deal with Virgin. Her first single, Perfect Moment, surprised many with the quality of its vocals, and went straight to No. 1 in the UK charts.

Even 'Enry 'Iggins would have been surprised at this modern-day Eliza's success story. At the end of the musical, Eliza Doolittle leaves you with the feeling that while her social rise has brought her great benefits, it also involves a loss of some of that cockney charm.

One hopes that fame does not do the same thing to Martine McCutcheon.

She might well say "not bloody likely".

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