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Martin Kemp - For he's a jolly GoodFella...; Martin Kemp reveals how playing a soap baddie has helped boost his confidence.

He saunters around Albert Square with a proprietorial air, a steely glint in his bright blue eyes and an unmistakeable swagger in his walk. Surely this can't be Steve Owen, the man who got away with murder then found his life a living hell?

It is, he's back and he means business. And it couldn't be better news for his real-life alter ego Martin Kemp, the pop icon turned Hollywood actor who is now one of British soaps' most popular stars. It was for this role that last month he won Best Villain at the Soap Awards 2000.

Having been at the centre of some of EastEnders' most gripping storylines, when we last saw Steve slinking out of Walford he was a broken man. Hooked on amphetamines, he'd been on his knees begging lowlife Billy Mitchell for drugs - the same drugs that nearly killed his business partner Beppe di Marco.

Steve had lost his dignity, respect, a grip on his business and, more tellingly, his mind. In the wake of Saskia's murder, when he'd been found not guilty and Matthew was wrongly sent down, he'd never recovered from the youngster's psychological warfare that had almost driven him over the edge. This week he makes a dramatic reappearance, hellbent on revenge.

Martin, 38, may be all in black, but there's nothing menacing about him as he sips a cup of coffee in the canteen on the set at Elstree. We are a minute's walk from the Arches, where the cameras are rolling. On a patch of grass in front, extras are sunbathing, waiting for their call. A little further away stands the Queen Vic.

Martin has a long, hard day ahead but you wouldn't guess it from his laid-back manner. He is all charm as he checks that I have enough milk, and ponders the nation's love-hate affair with EastEnders' meanest baddie.

"Steve's fast, flash and confident - and that's the way he comes back but with a lot more depth," grins Martin. "Straight away he's an enemy. In some ways he's far worse because he's taken everything on board - the episode with Matthew and the way Billy humiliated him. He's got a score to settle. He wants to take it out on the Square. He's had his comeuppance, but it's his time now.

"My favourite bad guy was definitely Dirty Den," he adds. "That scene where he handed Angie the divorce papers was the best ever. People always ask me what's the difference between Den and Steve. I reckon Den was like Humphrey Bogart, whereas Steve reminds me of Ray Liotta in GoodFellas - the flashest guy on the Square.

"I think of Steve as a good guy. I really like him otherwise I couldn't play the part properly. If he was all bad, everyone would be bored sick of him by now. He's bad but he's vulnerable and that's his attraction. People are charmed by him and then he lets them down."

Aside from revenge, Steve intends to win back Mel, played by Tamzin Outhwaite. His first act is to scare off Dan Sullivan who waylays Mel on a dark night.

"Steve's convinced Mel will make his life complete," says Martin. "She kept him going during all the bad times and now he's determined to have her. It's true of a lot of guys who get into trouble, they hang their hat on one idea and that keeps them sane. When I was working on the film The Krays, I met guys who'd been in prison. I also have friends who've done time. They all say the same thing - there's a driving force that kept them going while they were inside. And often that's a woman.

"You know from those tender moments when Mel came to visit Steve that she was the thing that kept him going, and he won't stop 'til he gets her back..."

Martin is relishing every moment of his time on the soap, and he has certainly been at the heart of several compelling storylines. It's hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm - not simply because he is instantly likeable but also because, like Steve, he's been through his own private hell and come out the other side.

His recently repeated appearance on This Is Your Life is testament to his continuing popularity. He recalls the occasion fondly.

"It was the best night of my life," he says. "It was such an honour, not just for me but for my brother Gary too because our lives are so closely connected. Afterwards there was the most amazing party. There were showbiz stars such as George Michael and John Taylor mixing with my relatives from Wales and my mum and dad. It was lovely."

Until the age of 32, Martin led a charmed life. He began acting when he was six while training at London's Anna Scher drama school. As a teenager in the 1980s in the band Spandau Ballet, he sold records by the lorry-load. Then, when the popstar bubble looked ready to burst, Martin and Gary became film stars.

Released in 1989, The Krays starred the Kemp brothers as the famous criminal twins and became the biggest British movie of its time. Afterwards, Martin relocated to Hollywood with wife Shirlie - she and Pepsi were Wham!'s backing singers. They now have a daughter Harley, ten, and a son Roman, seven.

"The children love it that I'm in EastEnders," he smiles. "They're always asking if they can be extras. Entertainment's a great life but they need to learn their craft first. If they're serious enough, that's what they'll do, as I did, by going to drama classes."

He had everything he could wish for but then tragedy struck six years ago. Martin discovered he had not one, but two, brain tumours. He endured a terrifying operation to remove the first and spent the next two years praying that the second wouldn't grow. But he later had to undergo pioneering radiation at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London to remove it.

With the shock of all he had endured, Martin became convinced he had cancer and sank into a deep depression. The call to join EastEnders in September 1998 came at exactly the right time.

"It was a godsend," he admits. "I was working on a film in Hollywood with Rosanna Arquette which, like so many I'd made, went straight to video. EastEnders sent me the draft and the second I read it I was dying to get out of Hollywood and into Walford. I found the character fascinating. Steve's not a nice guy but there's something likeable about him. Plus I've been an EastEnders' fan from the beginning. I got videos sent over to me - watching it was like keeping in touch with reality. It reminded me of where I grew up - a terraced house in Islington, North London. The Square is the spitting image of Chapel Market near to my home."

Martin's agent was equally keen for him to move back to London and sent him a note: "You've got to take this part because it's just so much like you". I'm taken aback as Martin tells me this. Steve's a murderer, a villain. Are there really elements of him in Martin?

"Yes, the longer I'm in the show, the more our personalities cross," he grins. "I'm filming day-in day-out throughout the year, and the only way I can make it realistic is to give Steve some of my personality, otherwise it just ends up as a caricature. Steve has to react to things in the same way that Martin Kemp does. It happens every day in small ways."

There's no doubt he's got the same easy confidence, the same charisma - the very things you need to be a successful gangster... and a top pop star. When Martin walks into a room, heads turn. It's not just that he's tall and toned. It's not the glossy black hair or the piercing blue eyes. It's that air of being in control. Here's someone you wouldn't want to mess with.

It's no surprise when he says he's just back from a family holiday in Bali. Booked to stay for eight days, they returned after five because he found the place squalid and dirty.

"The hotel was superb but the place itself, the beaches and so on, just weren't clean," he says. "I always judge a restaurant by going into the loo. If it looks grotty, I don't want to see the restaurant."

Like his soap alter ego, Martin knows his own mind and is used to getting what he wants. But, surprisingly, he says playing Steve has brought him out of his shell.

"I'm a lot more confident," he says. "I was always shy. Although I may have appeared confident, it was something I put on but now it's become part of me. I'm more at ease talking to people. Steve's confidence has rubbed off."

Of course, Martin's outlook has also been affected by his past, life-threatening illness. He says he appreciates the here and now much more, and that includes his current work.

"I'm having the time of my life" he says. "There are very few occasions now when I think back to when I was sick because I've moved on. It's like a woman having a baby. She goes through that dreadful pain but then her body makes her forget so she can have another one.

"If you go through a trauma of a car accident or this brain thing, your body has to forget because if you compare things to the days you were sick you will never get anywhere. Your body convinces your mind to move on. In fact, it affects the people around you a lot more."

It's obvious Martin is thinking of Shirlie. They married in 1988 in St Lucia - seven years after meeting. She was a tower of strength during his illness. "Shirlie remembers me being sick far more than I do because it affected her far more than it did me," he admits. "She has got over it now but it was very tough on her."

He did discuss his tumours with Sheila Hancock, who plays Steve's long-lost mum Barbara in an upcoming episode. The veteran actress, who made her name in The Rag Trade, had her own battle with breast cancer.

Martin says, "We talked about our illnesses, but sadly we didn't have much time to chat outside filming. It was just great to be working with her, there was a great connection between us straight away. If you work with a wonderful actress like Sheila it raises your game. It's easier to be nervous when you're looking at someone who's not sure. When someone's totally at home and knows what they're doing, the nerves disappear. I got a great kick out of showing Sheila around the Square. She's a big fan and was keen to see everything."

Sheila's one-off appearance in the soap next month goes a long way to explain why Steve is the person he is. It soon becomes clear that he's never felt loved.

Although he has a punishing filming schedule on the show, Martin packs as much as possible into his life. To relax he goes to the gym. He's also working on another book following his well-received autobiography, True, in March, exclusively serialised in The Mirror. Martin wrote every word himself and is justifiably proud of its success.

"I love writing," he says. "It takes your mind somewhere else. I get up early when I'm still in a dream state and can carry my ideas on to the page. It's a bit like directing a scene. It's really relaxing."

Although he has no intention of quitting EastEnders, he hopes to join forces again with big brother Gary. After The Krays, Gary played Whitney Houston's press agent in The Bodyguard and now produces bands in Europe.

"I want to do another movie with Gary," says Martin. "The relationship we built up on that film was fantastic and we could make more of it. Gary and I have been doing our own thing since then. We go in waves with one having a bigger profile than the other. Now it's my time but the wheel will turn. It would be great to put our individual experiences together in another film."

Now that Steve is discovering long-lost family members, might it be time to unearth a brother? And, if so, who better to play him than Gary?

Martin throws back his head and laughs aloud. "Absolutely not," he says. "My success on EastEnders is all mine and my mistakes are all mine. I love that responsibility. I'd leave if Gary came in. Much as I love him, I couldn't work with Gary here."

Perhaps there is more of villainous Steve Owen in him than meets the eye. Make no mistake, Albert Square is Martin Kemp's manor. And no one's going to muscle in on it.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Cunningham, Tessa
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 24, 2000
Words:2159
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