‘I was ready to grab life again’: Martine McCutcheon on her return to music
- Credit: BMG/Pip
Martine McCutcheon is still remembered as Tiff off EastEnders, but she's also had a number one single, won an Olivier for My Fair Lady and starred in Love Actually. Ahead of her show in Hunstanton, she tells us how her love of music has helped her overcome debilitating illness.
'It's the most personal thing I've ever done, it was really never meant to be for public consumption it was just meant to be for me, so it was nerve-wracking to release it,' says Martine McCutcheon, about her return to public prominence for music.
'I was sharing with people some of my inner most demons. But what is nice is there are also moments where I was ready to grab life again. The song Any Sign of Life is about remembering who you are and who you were. My whole journey is really all laid out.'
Her first album in 15 years, Lost And Found, released last year, didn't just mark her return to music, but was also a reflection of just how far she's come in recent years.
The actress and singer, who shot to fame as Tiff in EastEnders, has been open about her struggles with ill health. She was diagnosed with ME in early 2012, but she'd been suffering with debilitating pain and exhaustion for six years by that point, to the extent of needing a wheelchair and help getting washed and dressed.
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'It felt as though I was swimming against the tide, hitting brick walls, and being in this bewildering, scary, pain-ridden place where nothing ever went right. It took doctors years to work out what was actually wrong with me, which made it even worse,' she said.
Martine, 41, who has a three-year-old son, Rafferty, with her husband, musician-singer Jack McManus, is in a much better place now and says putting her experiences into her new songs was 'cathartic'.
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Not that she ever fell out of love with music. 'It is something that was always in me,' she explains. 'I've always written lyrics and songs going right back to when I was a kid. It's always been my comfort zone, the place that I go to when I'm trying to make sense of things. But it had been lying dormant because I had other things and issues that I needed to deal with through the ups and downs.
'My husband is the one who said to me 'look, you need to do it again because you love it'. Try to ignite that spark because you are not as happy without doing it. So I did and over a period probably of almost 10 years, I ended up with this body of work that felt really pure.'
Now after launching the album with a series of big production shows last year, she is back on the road and heading to this region with a more stripped back intimate affair.
'Someone said you should do a 'Night with Martine' for TV, but I thought it actually might be quite nice to do that live, have some interaction with the audience,' she says. 'I will be talking about my journey and my influences and then singing some of the songs from over the years that have really meant something to me. It's going to be a real mixture. There will be cover versions of songs I loved growing up, then my songs right from the older stuff right through to the present day.'
Martine's first major music success came after 22 million viewers tuned in to see her EastEnders character Tiffany Mitchell killed off in a special episode screened on New Years Eve. Her subsequent solo album, You, Me & Us, was platinum-selling and spawned the number one single Perfect Moment.
But does she think her soap success meant she was not taken seriously as a musician? 'I think it is not the easiest start if you want to go on and do other things, especially in this country,' she ponders. 'In America if you'd been in the number one TV show and then gone and done music it would be embraced a lot more easily. Over here people like to put you in one bracket or another.'
Not that she looks back on EastEnders with anything but fondness. She joined the cast aged just 18 and was unsuspecting just what a big deal it would be.
'I remember one of the writers saying to me that my life would never be the same again and that I'd never be able to go back to working in a supermarket,' she recalls. 'But I was only initially employed for 17 episodes. I thought in 15 of those I'll probably only have a line, so it's not going to change my life. I took the job for 17 episodes because I was broke and needed the money, not realising it'd turn out to be as big as it was.'
Tiff was introduced as a school friend of Bianca Jackson, played by her friend Patsy Palmer, but went on to become a huge character due to a combustible relationship with Grant Mitchell. Her rise to stardom coincided with the height of the 1990s Britpop-era.
'I'm still so grateful that I was in it at that time because you had Top of the Pops being filmed, all the Britpop stars hanging out, Oasis, Blur, even Meat Loaf was once there, and we were all hanging out in the bar,' laughs Martine. 'And weirdly they were just as keen to meet us as we were them. You couldn't move for people knowing the storylines. It was a bonkers but brilliant time.'
Her subsequent solo music may have struggled to escape Albert Square but it did open doors. She went on to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at the National Theatre, winning her an Olivier award despite some controversy over the number of performances she missed due to health problems.
'That was special to me because I felt like I was doing the work that I'd always dreamed of doing; the more romantic, glossy stuff that I loved,' she says. 'That show was a massive turning point for me because despite a bit of a backlash from the press, winning the Olivier just seemed to put me in a different bracket, a different sphere. As a result people like Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis started to take an interest and wrote a part for me in Love Actually.'
The Love Actually cast reunited for a Comic Relief special last year and Martine has also recently also worked on a forthcoming film The Bromley Boys, starring alongside Alan Davies. 'It's the most beautiful story of a young boy who falls in love with a rubbish football club, a coming of age as his mum helps him realise his dreams without his dad knowing.'
Now she is preparing to head off on tour — a family affair as she is joined by husband Jack. 'We are very much family first,' she stresses. 'We realised that it's just now our kind of success, we've tried it, when we are without the family.'
• Martine McCutcheon: Up Close and Personal is at Princess Theatre, Hunstanton, on April 29, 7.30pm, £28, , 01485 532252, princesshunstanton.co.uk