Martine McCutcheon: All my bad times inspired great art
She’s been to hell and back with ill health and troubled times but Martine McCutcheon is back with a bold, bright album reflecting her sunny nature. . .
The word ‘survivor’ was invented for Martine McCutcheon. For a while, she felt suicidal. She was confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling bout of ME and periods of chronic depression.
It set in after she’d gone bankrupt and her condition became so bad that she begged her husband to leave her.
It was a sensational fall for the girl who’d enjoyed a number one single with Perfect Moment, who’d won a Laurence Olivier Award for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady while she’d become a national treasure while starring as Tiffany Mitchell in BBC’s EastEnders.
Her life was full of incredible highs and lows, wonderful experiences and terrible tragedies. She’d grown up without a father and had become the clichéd kid who’d wanted to prove something because she felt worthless inside. And yet her success took a terrible toll.
“I’ve been through a lot. When you’ve had eight years in the wilderness, when you’ve been trying to find your way again. . .” She pauses and sighs. “But bad times inspire great art.”
Her ‘great art’ is her new album, Lost and Found, which tells the story of those terrible wilderness years. It is her first album of original music in more than 15 years and is deeply personal. It deals with everything from relationships to Martine’s debilitating illness, which left her unable to work.
“Musically, with the album, you can only write from own experience. You have to be brave and be honest and authentic. Life brought this album about very gradually. It was a really unconscious thing; I started writing the songs at a time in my life when I’d lost everything.”
The record will be out on August 11 and has been preceded by her recent single, Say I’m Not Alone. It will be followed by a five-date tour, in November, which will feature a headline show at Birmingham Town Hall on November 13.
And while Martine naturally hopes it will be a hit, in truth, she’s simply pleased that it’s out in the wider world.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to get it out there. I didn’t plan to make an album because I was being a mum and had been ill. That’s not what it was about. But throughout those difficult years my husband encouraged me to get a pen and paper and write. He would write and produce and there were songs that got collated. It’s been a really personal album because we didn’t think anyone would hear it.”
Say I’m Not Alone is a song like nothing Martine has ever recorded before; big, bold, brash, merging melodic guitars, thumping drums and a hard-hitting lyric. Other album highlights include the rocky ‘Any Sign Of Life’, the beautiful ‘Stay With Me’ (which is a duet with husband Jack McManus) and album closer Rebellion.
“I think production-wise, it’s more gritty and edgy and rocky. But I think that’s inevitable. You have to have more substance when you get to a certain age. Luckily – I can write about it honestly. You can hear through the record that I have had difficult times because there’s an edge to me and my voice now. That’s where I’m at now. This record isn’t pure or innocent. There’s a different vibe now.”
Happily, it works.
Martine’s slip into darkness had seemed unimaginable. Having made her name and become one of the nation’s sweethearts starring on EastEnders, she graced the red carpet with Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley at the premiere of Love Actually.
However, bankruptcy hit hard and led to ME. She thought things might be better if she was no longer alive and even asked her beloved Jack to leave her. During that period, every muscle in her body ached and she felt as though she had a permanent hangover. The condition progressed to the point that she couldn’t move her legs – she literally crippled herself with stress.
And then she woke up one day not knowing what time it was, feeling hot and being unable to open a window. Jack became her round-the-clock carer, feeding and washing her after a doctor had issued her with a wheelchair.
“I’ve been through a lot. And I thought people wouldn’t be interested. I’ve never failed to understand that you can be the nation’s darling one day then never seen again the next.”
She’s been thrilled that people have welcomed her back with open arms. “I never took for granted that I would have success or the warmth and support I have. It’s been amazing to have that.”
Martine’s condition was dire.
“Basically, I wasn’t able to move at all. ME is completely debilitating. I couldn’t wash my own hair. Jack was my husband, best friend and carer. I’ve realised more than ever that the love we have for each other is strong. We’re by no means the perfect couple. There’s been times it would have been easier to walk away. But we’ve always had the same dreams and goals. It’s lovely when you find someone who is there in the bad times as well as the good.”
Her life started to turn around when she became pregnant with her son, Rafferty Jack McManus. That gave her new purpose and gradually her health improved.
“There’s nothing more important than being a mum. I didn’t care about the fame and fortune. I just wanted to be a mum. I was so weak at first that I couldn’t hold myself up. I didn’t have the strength to have a baby. When I got pregnant, it was a real milestone. But I knew I had to be strong enough to move forward with my life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since three years ago, when I became pregnant, everything seems to have changed. The energy just shifted. It gave me hope.
“Until you really get seriously ill, until you feel like you are dying with it, you just don’t know. It’s awful. Until you feel that bad you don’t realise the simple things you crave for. I just wanted to have a conversation and not need to sleep for 17 hours afterwards to recover. I wanted to be able to walk to the shop and back. Those were my goals.
“At the time, being able to make a cup of tea was a massive accomplishment for me. My husband never left my side unless he needed to. He kept the bills paid and kept the roof over our heads.”
ME left a permanent mark. Martine had no idea how painful and exhausting it was, nor how much she would be drained. She traded that exhaustion, however, for the joys of motherhood.
She laughs. “Being a mum, oh my God, it’s exhausting. But I had an exhaustion that was horrible while this is lovely. It’s so much better. You get to look at life with a whole new passion for everything when you become a parent. It’s just lovely to relive your childhood through your own child.
“I try to protect my son and make sure he has some privacy. I chose this public life, but he didn’t. He will make his own choices. I can’t resist the odd pic of us on Instatgram but I’ll let him make his own way and it’ll be a good one, I hope.”
Pregnancy wasn’t the only path out of the darkness. Martine also visited doctors and specialists to ensure her recovery was complete.
“Trauma or shock is often blamed for causing the illness I had. That can be physical or emotional. Some people get ME after a car crash or after someone has died. Other people get it from viral infections. Different people are cured differently. Like a lot of illnesses, everyone is different. I like to look at the whole picture. I looked at emotional triggers and physical triggers. I looked at western medicine and homeopathy. I didn’t rule anything out.”
Now that she’s well again, Martine is thrilled to be performing again. She’d dreamed of being an entertainer for the longest time and is back doing what she loves to do. It’s the best feeling in the world. She comes off stage to her husband and little boy and has a balance in her life that wasn’t there before.
“I’m a survivor. I do look at life differently now. I think everything is so much more precious to me now. The little things in life are so precious to me. I pick my battles, I pace myself, I don’t sweat the small stuff now. I’m excited to be doing this. I’m excited to be back. It’s been a long time in the making.”
The rehabilitation of Martine’s career has continued apace. In September last year, she was announced as a regular panellist on ITV’s Loose Women, having previously made guest appearances on the show.
“I’m not sure how things will go. There might be more TV, who knows. I’m just going with the flow, just seeing what happens. It took me a long time to realise when you fight less and let go, sometimes more happens. But I’m a grafter. I was scared to let go. Now I realise that what’s meant for you will happen.”
While a return to EastEnders is out of the question – 22 million people tuned in to see her character killed in a special episode on New Year’s Eve in 1998 – she has nothing but the fondest memories for the show that made her.
“EastEnders was one of the best times of my life. The minute I drove through the gates I knew that everyone had my back. They knew I was Martine, not Tiff. The crew and cast helped me laugh at things in the press at a very young age that I couldn’t have dealt with otherwise. There were only four channels at that time and no reality TV. It was the biggest show in the country and it was exciting to be a part of it. We had rock stars hanging out in the next studio and we were racing around having a great time. There’s nothing but fond memories. I still miss it.”
She also looks back happily at another red letter day from her career – the performances when she dazzled the National Theatre in My Fair Lady. That too provided a testing time. Martine missed numerous performances because of ill health and had to withdraw five months early.
“I had a difficult struggle when I got the virus that everyone else had but I had loads of nights on stage that I enjoyed. I did a year in the end, on and off. In that year, I absolutely loved it.
“There was the most magical feeling on stage and the sets were phenomenal. The excitement in the air is something I’ll never forget. My Fair Lady gave me the most magical, powerful feeling ever. Yes, there are blips in every job, but there’s not one – including that – that I wished I hadn’t done.
“I think most of the time I got through it and conquered what was in front of me.”
It’s a good way to sum up her life. She’s faced the hardest trials and tribulations, she’s suffered the lowest lows, and yet she’s found a way back. And now aged 41, happily married, and the mother of a two-year-old, the time is right to return. Aided by her much-beloved husband Jack, she has never sounded better.
By Andy Richardson