Love, Actually is full of epic, logic-defying, and often bizarre love stories. But only one of them changes the fate of a nation: that of Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister and his tea lady, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). No one but Natalie does so much and yet so little.
McCutcheon, who plays Natalie, belongs to a distinct breed of barely famous British celebs: you are aware of her but you’re not sure why. Before Love, Actually, she had shot to TV stardom as the ill-fated Tiffany Mitchell on EastEnders, until her departure in 1998 to pursue a pop career. This was similarly doomed: after a few hit singles, her career petered out and finally ended with the musical theatre cover album Musicality (2002). It reached 55 in the charts and caused her contract to be cut.
But EastEnders had made an impression: Richard Curtis saw McCutcheon as so important to the execution of Love, Actually that the part of Natalie was written for her. While her character is mainly a prop for the men around her, reduced to fat jokes, chocolate biscuits, and saying “piss it”, McCutcheon’s presence in the film is prominent enough that my parents won’t even watch it. Year after year I can depend on one of them speeding out of the living room as Heathrow Airport arrivals loom on the screen: “Oh Jesus, is that the one with Martine McCutcheon again?”
So as research for this piece, I texted my mum to ask why she and my dad hate McCutcheon:
“Lol I wouldn’t say I hate her. Just a bit irritating really. She reminds me of the woman in the pizza ads. Your dad says she’s a complete gobshite but he can’t really say why.” So then why is Natalie, who essentially spends the film hanging about waiting to be kissed by various members of the G8, so memorable and divisive?
In contrast to her co-stars’ theatre school trained performances, Natalie is a more realistic model of an every-day Londoner: semi-Cockney accent, foul-mouthed, knows the back entrance to the school, loves a biscuit, has a mean – and unseen – boyfriend, lives in Wandsworth (the Dodgy End). When the Prime Minister meets Natalie’s entire family on their way out the door to the school Nativity, we’re presented with a loud, imposing group with no notion of the embarrassment they cause: “Eight is a lot of legs, David,” quips her mum about the hassle of making an octopus costume for a child. Natalie’s awkward, unpretentious version of London is a familiar one.
And it is under her unpretentious influence that the Prime Minister is able to access a level of authenticity and integrity so stirring that his “David Beckham’s right foot” speech has been poached by at least one British Prime Minister. This influence makes Natalie one of the major connectors across the plot of the film. Thanks to her, the Prime Minister tells the Americans where to stick it, endeavours in an impressive bout of canvassing in Wandsworth, reunites with his sister (Emma Thompson’s Karen) in her hour of need, and provides a surprise headline act for the local school’s Nativity play.