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Tamzin Outhwaite - The spirit of my nan is still with me...she helped me get the role on EastEnders; EastEnders star Tamzin Outhwaite, recently voted the Sexiest Female in Soaps, talks to Thomas Quinn about the loss of her beloved grandmother, how she discovered true love and why she actually quite fancies Ian Beale.

She's been in EastEnders just a matter of months, and already Tamzin Outhwaite has scooped a prestigious award. Yet as she stepped up to receive the Sexiest Female gong at last month's National Soap Awards, her amazing success was the last thing on her mind.

Instead, her thoughts were divided between worry at what her boyfriend Marty would make of all this fuss, and regret that her beloved grandmother was not there to share her triumph.

The unlikely romance between Tamzin's character Melanie Healey and Albert Square's wheeler-dealer Ian Beale has gripped the nation's imagination and helped make Tamzin the toast of the soap world. But she doesn't believe she made it without a little help from someone very dear to her, her late grandmother Elsie.

"I feel she is with me. I feel she had something to do with the EastEnders thing," insists Tamzin, 28. "And something to do with me meeting a beautiful man as well."

Elsie Outhwaite was 77 when she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. And Tamzin was on holiday in the Maldives when doctors first told her family that Elsie, who insisted on being called Nan because Gran made her feel old, may die.

Tamzin had just finished a run in the musical Summer Holiday, in Blackpool, and was going to take a few months off before joining the cast of Alan Ayckbourn's own production of Absent Friends in Scarborough. This break between jobs enabled her to spend all her time with her gran, and she was at her side right up until she died.

"Nan was nothing but goodness," says Tamzin. "I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. She was strong and independent and very funny. She was the kind of person who, when we were at a family gathering and someone was trying to say something, would be in a corner making silly faces, gurning almost."

Elsie's illness, from which she eventually died three years ago, was a major turning point for Tamzin. Though the experience drew her family - her dad Colin, 52, mum Anna, 48, and brothers Kes, 26, and Jake, 19 - closer together than ever before, Tamzin had lost her closest friend.

"Nan was a soulmate. When I was a kid growing up I spent almost every weekend with her," she recalls. "She was a real East Ender. She lived in Victoria Park in Hackney, where I spent a lot of time with her.

"My brothers and I are the only grandchildren - she only had my dad - so I spent a lot time with her while I was growing up. She was my best mate - this giggling, absolutely nutty woman who was kind and warm. All my friends loved her, my family loved her, my cousins and everyone.

"There was a time as a kid when I couldn't face school because I was going through some teenage dilemma. She let me bunk off and stay at her's for the day, and made me steak and chips. She'd do that all the time.

"I used to sleep in the same bed as her with the electric blanket wrapped round us until I was - I don't know - 19. It was unconditional love, just giving, giving, giving.

"Her husband had died years ago and she was never with another man. But she was a very strong woman."

Tamzin can clearly remember the weeks leading up to Elsie's death, and counts it as the most important period in her own life so far. "It was between January and April when she was really ill and then died. I spent an awful lot of time with her," she says. "The last couple of weeks the whole family were looking after her all the time, literally doing all those things that nurses do.

"It's not a nice way to remember her in those last weeks, but she spent all of that time calling my name. When a nurse came to change her bed - she stayed at home, she didn't want to go into hospital - she would call her by my name. She'd call, 'Tam, Tam'.

"It was apparent that I was in her thoughts all that time. And when she died I kind of felt she was still with me."

The experience taught Tamzin not to be scared of death and to live life to the full.

"My Nan and I never really spoke about her dying, which is quite sad," she says. "The last couple of days she said, "What's it going to be like? What's going to happen?' I said, 'Nan, it's going to be fine, it's going to be beautiful. It's going to be better than this'. I was trying to reason with her but I don't think she really realised. She had such a terrible fear of dying and actually to speak about it was a no, no.

"The last couple of nights I had a bed made up next to her - just so she knew I was there near her all the time.

"It was almost like she knew I was going to Scarborough, that she had that much time between January when I was unemployed and April when I started working again.

"It also brought me and my father much closer together - Nan was our link. At the end, we had Macmillan nurses helping us and, as a result of the amazing care they gave her, my brother Kes is trekking across Alaska this summer to raise money for them.

"I told them we wanted to be there when she died, so when her breathing changed they woke my dad and I up in the middle of the night. We sat up with her. I had Nan's head in my lap and my dad massaged her feet, and we were just talking to her.

"We just watched her drift away. It was beautiful and afterwards we just held each other and said, 'Thank God it's over'. She was no longer in pain, it was a relief.

"I don't want to fear death - you never properly live because you are always fearing your death.

"I carried around an awful lot of calm afterwards. As a kid, my Nan dying was my biggest nightmare, even though it was always inevitable. It's funny, I feel almost stronger now. I feel stronger than my Nan because she was always the one who looked after me - then I looked after her."

That strength of character has helped Tamzin cope with being suddenly thrust into the spotlight in EastEnders.

While it's hard to reconcile the idea of a beauty such as Melanie in the arms of Ian Beale - let's face it, he's hardly in the same league as Brad Pitt - she is quick to shout down any such criticism. In fact she actually thinks there is something likeable about Ian.

"I know I've fancied some not particularly attractive men in my time, but I don't think Ian is actually ugly," she insists with a giggle.

"He has a vulnerable side and that's what is attractive. When he is being all hot-headed and gets above himself then I personally don't like Ian. But when he is being vulnerable I can see the attraction."

She might be alone in thinking it. For most soap fans, the pairing of Mel with the oily chip shop owner has created the most unbelievable soap couple since Ian took up with Cindy...well, anybody really.

"People talk to me about it all the time," she laughs. "I have taxi drivers telling me I could do much better than Ian. The other day someone shouted that I should go back with Steve Owen. It's incredible, they'd rather I went out with a murderer than with a hard-working father raising three children."

Quite what it is about Beale (played by Adam Woodyatt) which rubs millions of Albert Square fans up the wrong way is hard to fathom. He was cruelly victimised by his ex-wife Cindy, who tried to kill him then kidnapped his children. And he's a battler when it comes to business. The problem is he's just so annoying with it.

He's not Dirty Den, he's not evil, he's just irritating," agrees Tamzin. "Adam has mastered that character and now knows just how to be really irritating. It's an art form. But he is such a nice person to work with, so I can't feel upset that Mel's with Ian. Adam is one of the nicest, most ego-free actors I've ever worked with."

While the odds are against her doing the dirty on Ian, as sinful Cindy did - Mel is after all the vicar's sister and mild-mannered waiter Jeff's daughter - how their romance will progress is anyone's guess.

"You never know," shrugs Tamzin. "There is definitely a side to her that hasn't come out yet. Something wilder. I don't think it will be malicious, but she'll probably hurt him."

Her dad, who runs an Essex-based mobile video rental company and her financial adviser mum have always encouraged Tamzin's acting ambitions. After leaving drama school, she worked on the London stage, performing in Grease and Oliver!. Her TV credits were scant - a glimpse in The Bill and a blink-or-you'll-miss-it role in Men Behaving Badly. It was working with Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough that made her believe in her abilities.

"He made me realise that I could make the move from musicals to straight acting, and encouraged me to do so. It gave me so much confidence. So much that I was tempted to audition for EastEnders," she says.

It was an audition which she passed, thrusting her into the spotlight. Suddenly she found herself, nine months after her first soap appearance, at a glitzy showbiz bash collecting an award. Her only worry was how her boyfriend would take her sudden fame. Talking for the first time of her love for director Marty, Tamzin reveals she was nervous about telling him of her award.

"Marty was in America," she says. "At the party people kept saying, 'What's your fella going to say?' I thought, 'At least he can now say that he is going out with the sexiest woman in soaps'. He got back the next day. We were at the airport and he hadn't seen a newspaper - and I'm just bursting to tell him but I'm thinking I've got to wait and let him tell me about his trip. In the end I held out just three and half minutes.

"I told him, 'I've won, I've won'. He said, 'What have you won?' I said, 'The Sexiest Female in a Soap, whatever that is'."

Laughing now, she recalls how ridiculous the title suddenly seemed to her at the time. "I was pleased that people had sat up and thought there is a new character in a soap - as far as the sexiest goes that's flattering. But I suddenly got the idea that he wasn't going to be that impressed," she says.

Mel may be in two minds about Ian, but Tamzin is sure she has found love with Marty. A friend introduced them a year ago after the relationship he was in had just ended.

"I gave him four weeks to get over her and then called him," she says. "It was about eight in the morning. I suggested we meet up for a drink and he suggested that night. So we went to see a film I had tickets for. We only stayed about ten minutes. We went and got drunk together instead. It was lovely."

They've been together ever since, and not even her onscreen canoodlings with Ian can threaten their happiness.

"He thinks the TV romance is funny," she says. "He thinks Adam and I are both making a very good job of it, making it believable.

"Marty doesn't seem to have a jealous bone in his body, which is nice at a time like this. It's a very equal relationship - we're just having such a good time.

"It's as serious as it can be after a year and we're very happy. As for marriage, some days I'm the big-white-dress type, some days the never- get-married type, some days the get-married-on-a-beach type. But I don't have to think about that or children yet, definitely not.

"I've got Ian Beale to deal with first before I deal with my own life."
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Beale, Ian
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 26, 1999
Words:2052
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