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Being killed off left me in shock.. I thought I was going to be in EastEnders a long time; EXCLUSIVE: FRANKIE FITZGERALD ON HIS DRAMATIC TV DEATH.

Byline: IAN WOODWARD

FRANKIE Fitzgerald props his toothpick-thin body against the kitchen wall and runs agitated fingers through his short, dark hair.

His EastEnders alter ego, Ashley Cotton, is about to die in a dramatic motorbike accident and Frankie is distressed for several reasons. "I'm getting all these sad letters from girls saying, 'Please, please, we don't want you to die,'" says Frankie.

"Others write, 'I'm so upset that you're about to be killed,' and, 'My friends will be crying their eyes out when they watch you die.' It's really upsetting when you think what they're going through."

Since his arrival in Albert Square nearly a year ago, 'Nasty' Nick Cotton's son and Dot's grandson has clearly become one of the more popular teenagers in EastEnders.

But if his fans are upset, what about Frankie?

He says he'll never forget the moment when he was told he was being axed. His mum took the phone call from his agent.

"I was sitting in the living room when my mum came in and told me the news," he says. "I could tell she was upset - for me as much as anything else - and although she and dad were very supportive, I couldn't hide my shock and disappointment.

"I was dumbstruck. I thought I was going to be in Albert Square for a long, long time. It's a great place to work and I didn't want to leave the show.

"I sat there for quite a while just thinking about all the things I'd miss - the other actors, the on-set fun atmosphere, the parties, the long car journey to Elstree Studios."

And 16-year-old Frankie also found it difficult filming the death scenes.

"I thought about death a lot before we filmed my fatal last scene," he says. "I went over and over in my mind the whole aspect of dying. Even though I knew it was pretend time, it had a big impact on me. It freaked me out.

"I felt utterly drained. I walked back to the dressing rooms with June Brown, who plays my grandma, and she was near to tears.

"My mum watched me film the scene and it upset her then and I'm sure it'll upset her again when it's screened. My gran probably won't watch it because it might be too much for her, seeing her grandson on the telly in such a distressing way."

Frankie had a lively send-off with a cast and production party in the BBC's Green Room. He was showered with goodbye presents and experienced actors such as Todd Carty took time to reassure him his acting career was not over.

"It really cheered me up and made me feel that maybe it wasn't the end of the world after all," says Frankie.

He has nothing but praise for the rest of the cast. He says everyone from Barbara Windsor and Todd Carty to John Altman, who played his on-screen dad went out of their way to give him advice and encouragement.

EASTENDERS was Frankie's first major role and he didn't come from a showbiz family.

His dad, Barry, is the director of a London distribution company and his mum, Wendy, is a full-time housewife. Frankie first trod the boards at primary school in south London.

"I was in a nativity play," he says. "Even then I liked the adrenalin rush that being on stage gave me and I said, 'Mum, I want to do this.' But when I was 10 or 11 I realised I had to start working for it."

His mother took him to auditions for drama schools in London until Frankie was accepted at the famous Italia Conti Performing Arts School and then the Sylvia Young Theatre School.

After roles in amateur productions of My Fair Lady and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and in the West End production of Blood Brothers, he was appearing in a variety show when a talent scout saw him and suggested he send some photos to the BBC's casting department.

A few months later he was asked to go along for an audition. "All I'd been told was that I was going along for a casting for a drama series," he recalls.

"I got there and they gave me an EastEnders script to read and I thought 'wow!' John Altman was there. He asked if I wanted to go through the lines a couple of times with him before the audition. I said: 'Thank you very much.'

"Afterwards, my mum and I were on the train on the way home when her mobile rang. It was a lady from EastEnders. She said: 'What would you do if we gave you the part?' I said: 'I'd be really happy.' She replied: 'Well, we'll see you next week for rehearsals.'

"I wanted to shout 'YESSS!' but I was on a packed train so I had to contain myself. My mum was in tears."

Frankie, who was born just two months after EastEnders hit the small screen for the first time, adds: "I've been a lifelong fan of the show. When I turned up at Elstree for my first day's work it blew my mind. I was meeting all these people in the flesh that I'd known all my life on the TV screen.

"On days when I was actually at school it was all right after the initial buzz of, 'He's the one off EastEnders,' had settled down. But the new pupils were all excited about seeing me.

"I had quite a bit of grief at lunchtime - 'Can I have your autograph, Frankie?' - but no-one tried to suck up to me or hang around me all the time just because I was Nick Cotton's son on the telly."

But while he may have had his first taste of fame, he learnt a bit about the downside of being an actor in a top soap.

GIRLS aren't really a problem, but it's difficult for me to walk down my local high street without swarms of them suddenly appearing from nowhere," he says.

"I go into a shop and I turn round and there are 25 girls staring through the window monitoring my every move. It can get a bit much at times, getting mobbed by 200 girls - yeah, really! But mostly it's pretty cool."

But he admits that much less cool is aggravation from lads intent on flexing their tough-guy muscles.

"There are the likely lads who think they're right on if they walk into me. And there are the guys who shout things that aren't exactly nice.

"There are the jealous types who see me as someone off TV who walks around thinking I'm 'the man' because I'm in EastEnders. But my friends see me as me and they know who I am.

"If people I meet don't want to see me as I am, then they try to have a pop at me or decide they're going to dislike me. I don't know why.

"One time I was waiting for a bus when a guy walked by who was a bit drunk and mouthy and he started hassling me with jibes and threatening behaviour. Luckily, my bus arrived just as it was turning nasty."

And Frankie has also learned about the effect stardom can have on relationships.

"When you're on TV it's not hard to find a girlfriend, but it's hard to find a genuine girlfriend who likes you for you and not because of who you are. OK, I can go out for an evening and pull a girl and give her a kiss and enjoy the night, but it's hard to find a girl I want to be in a relationship with," he says.

"But I don't want to have a girlfriend at the moment because I'm concentrating more on work and sitting my GCSE exams because I want to take four A-levels."

NOW that Frankie's days in Albert Square are numbered he is putting on a brave face and trying to be philosophical about his departure from the soap tomorrow.

"Being in EastEnders has changed my life in a big way because I'm famous now," he says. "People ask me for my autograph instead of me asking them for theirs.

"I don't think it's changed me as a person but it's changed my lifestyle. I go to celebrity parties, I've got a chauffeur-driven car, I'm going out and having a good time and I'd be doing none of this if I was a normal kid. I can afford to buy myself a new pair of trainers or some new Gucci shoes, or go out and buy loads of CDs by my favourite artists - Travis, Eminem, Oasis and The Commitments - a lot more easily than many people my age can."

The soccer, tennis and cricket-loving actor adds: "I've still got most of the money I earned. I've only spent about 20 per cent of my EastEnders money, the rest is in a high-interest bank account.

"I've got to look to the future now. There's no point in being upset about what's going to happen. I enjoyed myself while I was in EastEnders and now I have to convince myself that it will lead to bigger, better things.

"I can see myself with millions of pounds coming in, beautiful women at my side and a big Jacuzzi in my even bigger house on my even bigger estate. I want to do it all. I want to be a movie star. Full stop."

CAPTION(S):

CAMERA READY: Frankie at three; PLAYER: At eight he had the acting bug; NASTY: With screen dad John Altman; CRASH: Ashley dies in Dot Cotton's arms; AXED: Frankie is sure that he's heading for bigger things after leaving Albert Square Picture: JOHN FERGUSON
COPYRIGHT 2001 MGN LTD
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 13, 2001
Words:1626
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