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TV LIFE: Office romance.

IT would be easy to envy Amanda Abbington. Not only is she very much in love, her boyfriend is one of showbusiness's most eligible men.

The actress, whose own career is blossoming, lives with Martin Freeman - he of The Office fame and one of the comedy world's brightest new talents - and she smilingly says they have been 'inseparable' since their very first date.

But two and a half years ago, she was a singleton who all but despaired of ever finding her perfect man.

Abbington, now 29, recalls discussing relationships - rather wistfully - with her make-up artist, between takes on the set of the TV drama Men Only.

'I said, 'I really want a boyfriend. I haven't had one for ages, and I want somebody I can fall in love with.''

The harsh realities of life meant no handsome prince would walk in and sweep her off her feet like in a scene from a popular romance novel - or so she thought.

But the make-up artist told her: 'There's a guy on this set who's looking for a girlfriend'.

Abbington, being a sensible woman, didn't didn't get her hopes up.

'Then Martin got on the make-up bus,' she remembers. 'Our eyes met and he said, 'Hi, can I make you a cup of tea?' I said, 'Yes,' then he got off the bus again and I asked who he was.

'The make-up artist replied, 'That's the guy who is looking for a girlfriend,' and I just said, 'Oh my God, I really fancy him.''

Their paths happened to cross several times that day and the love-struck actress admits she flirted with him a little.

'Then I had to go and do some work,' she says, 'and he went home. He got my number off the Second Lady and left a message. I replayed it about 20 times, it was just lovely. The next day we arranged a date, and we've been inseparable ever since.'

Still smitten, Abbington, who currently stars in the Channel 4 comedy drama 20 Things To Do Before You're 30, describes Freeman as 'very romantic'.

She explains: 'It's knowing that we both care about each other a lot. We look out for each other all the time, and that's romantic.'

Born on February 28, 1974, at Edgeware General Hospital, she now lives with Freeman in North London. They spend much of their free time together doing ordinary things.

'We go for walks a lot and visit historical places of interest. We don't do showbiz things at all, which is how we like it, we're very private. Sometimes we go out for a full English breakfast, and vegetarian bangers and mash is lovely on a cold day. We go a couple of times a week, either for lunch or evening meals. We both love food, it's gorgeous.'

Men Only didn't make Abbington into a star overnight, but she doesn't regret having worked on the show.

'It's my favourite job, because I met him on it,' she says. 'My part was cut to bits, but I didn't really care because I'd met Martin.'

The rising star initially started out as a dancer, but had a groin injury and had to give it up.

She says: 'It's such a strong discipline, but in turn that discipline has helped with the acting. So I did a play with a friend and his agent came to see it and said, 'Do you want to go up for The Bill?''

The opportunity for a role in a feature length episode of one of ITV's top dramas was too good to miss.

'The next day I went up and got it, so he the agent took me on. I did the Bill, then I got a costume drama called Plotlands, directed by John Strickland and written by Jeremy Brock. And it went on from there.

'I've done mainly TV ever since, short films, and I've just done my first play this year. It's called The Safari Party.'

Abbington describes acting in front of a live audience as 'absolutely terrifying'. She says: 'You can't hide behind good editing because it's live and if you get it wrong you have to get yourself out of it. You do have to work for your money.

'I always forget my very first line, always. Every night without fail, just before I'm going to step on stage. Then as soon as I'm on it suddenly comes and I don't know how or where. But it's a lovely feeling, there's nothing like doing a good play. I think most actors would agree with me.'

However, it's Channel 4's 20 Things To Do Before You're 30 that is catapulting her to stardom. In it, she plays Shona, a twentysomething who works for a market research company and fears that she is approaching 30 without having done anything with her life. The character also has a gay flatmate, Conrad, and the two have a pact to marry each other if they are still single at 40.

Abbington's life is, of course, no reflection of her character's circumstances. The actress is more than satisfied with her relationship, although they have no plans for marriage. 'Not yet,' she says. 'We're very happy though.'

Her career looks very healthy too. 'I've got a new thing coming out in April or May called the Debt, which is a BBC One drama, with Warren Clarke and Hugo Speer. I play Warren Clarke's daughter. That should be good, quite different from 20 Things,' she says.

Freeman isn't doing too badly either. 'I think he's an amazing actor, he's brilliant,' Abbington says besottedly. 'He's done a lot of theatre, he's in the Ali G film, and has recently done a film called Love Actually, by Richard Curtis. He's just doing a thing at the moment called Hardware, by Simon Nye.

'But we hope to work together. I really admire him - and he thinks I'm all right.'

20 Things To Do Before You're 30 is on Channel 4 on Thursdays.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 9, 2003
Words:999
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