Lifting the iron curtain on TV in Russia; Merseysider Martyn Andrews is rubbing shoulders with Victoria Beckham and Russian oligarchs in his TV job. Dawn Collinson reports.
As a presenter for the Russia Today news channel, Martyn Andrews has experienced every diverse inch of the country, from living with Eskimos in the Polar Circle to basking on the beaches of the Black Sea.
It's all a very long way from his Crosby home. But Martyn insists there's an unlikely familiarity between his birthplace and his workplace.
"I've discovered that the Russian women are very similar to those in Liverpool - it's all about bling and glamour," he laughs.
"The only difference is they wear coats to go out here ... but then it is -20 degrees!" Post-Soviet Russia is a very different place than many people imagine, explains Martyn.
"When I tell taxi drivers on my way to the airport that I'm going back to Russia they usually say 'oh, sorry mate'," he smiles. "But I tell them, honestly it's the most amazing, buzzing place I've ever visited - full of skyscrapers, bars and incredible nightclubs."
Martyn has called Russia his home since early 2006, soon after the Russia Today channel launched, but it's far from his first foreign assignment. In fact, most of his TV presenting life has been spent jetting around the globe on what seems like an impossibly adventurous itinerary.
Although, he says, it wasn't actually even his first choice of career. His heart had been firmly set on acting, ever since he first trod the boards as Frederick in a Crosby Theatre Company production of the Sound of Music.
"Once I did that I was obsessed with acting," he says. "And my poor parents Helen and Derek - who still live in Crosby - ended up taking me every night to singing lessons, or piano, dancing or speech and drama.
"I did all the Liverpool drama festivals and poetry festival, you name it and my parents were harassed by it!" Leaving Manor High School, Martyn did a Btec in visual and performing arts at Southport College before heading to London for three years to study drama.
But he'd already had his first taste of presenting too, aged 17, when he was invited to front a BBC North programme called Mersey Glory.
And so, after five years of musicals - "whizzing around and singing Andrew Lloyd Webber's miserable tunes for hardly any money" - he decided it was time to try his hand at on-screen work instead.
"I started through the joys of selling pillows on QVC," he recalls, "which, believe me, is the best training in the world for any would-be presenter." He'd notched up a few more shows, and infomercials, when he had a chance meeting over a dinner in New York.
"I was living over there and I met a producer over dinner," he says. "She was the wife of an oligarch who owned TV channels, a few in America and a few in Moscow. He was like a Russian Rupert Murdoch. She asked me what I did and invited me over to host a project they were planning in Tel Aviv.
"We all got drunk, said goodbye and I thought nothing more about it. Then two weeks later, when I was back in London, I got an e-mail with an Expedia attachment and a first class ticket to Tel Aviv.
"So it turned out to be the best dinner date I'd ever had ...
and she paid!" Martyn ended up presenting several shows with them between 2003 and 2005, including one which involved him visiting dangerous dive sites around the world.
"Basically we visited them, I dived them and they saw if I died or not!" he jokes. "It was seriously dangerous stuff and two of them almost killed me but I lived to tell the tale and it was an amazing two years." It was when he arrived back in Britain in late 2005 that he heard about the launch of three new global news channels: Al Jazeera International, France 24 and Russia Today.
"I met up with Russia Today and they were looking for news presenters, but they thought I was far too gobby for that," he says. "They asked me if I'd be interested in doing something else, though, so I packed my case and flew to Moscow. I'd taken risks before and they'd all come up trumps so I thought I'd do it again." Since then Martyn, who's just turned 30, has fronted several programmes, including ones on cookery, entertainment and travel.
He's keen to stress that the channel isn't aimed at Russian people or those wanting to holiday in the country, "it's all in English and it's basically like Sky News with a Russian twist." He's currently fronting shows from Russian Fashion Week, which has this year attracted interest from Victoria Beckham and Vivienne Westwood.
Shown on Sky channel 512, it is now seen in 100 countries and watched by millions. Which means Martyn gets recognised everywhere from Times Square to Soho. "And I get poked on Facebook by people in Bolivia!" he laughs.
So, having spent three years there, how's his Russian coming along? "It is unbelievably difficult," he admits, "although I have got one word which is perfect.
The word for hello in Russian is 'does your a**e fit ya' very fast in a Scouse accent. Honestly, it's true!"
OUR MAN IN THE EAST: Martyn Andrews is a presenter on Russia Today