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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Kyle O'Sullivan & Sam Elliott-Gibbs

What happened to EastEnders' original Martin Fowler as James Bye appears on Strictly

James Bye may have played Martin Fowler on EastEnders since 2014, but the show's fans know the character goes back way further - and the Strictly Come Dancing star only got the chance after the original actor refused to go back.

James Alexandrou was just 11 years old when he landed the job on the iconic BBC soap.

The actor played the market stall holder from 1996 until 2007 - and he decided that he wanted to pursue different things and told execs he was calling time on his Albert Square stay.

James' alter-ego wasn't killed off when he left the show 15 years ago and it left the door open for Martin's return.

But bosses really wanted him bring the character back to life but he just couldn't let nostalgia take over.

James Bye plays market trader this days... (BBC / Kieron McCarron)
...but James Alexandrou was the first Martin we all remember (Getty Images Europe)

The 37-year-old, who appeared in a whopping 707 episodes, made the incredibly tough decision not to return to the place that made him famous.

Handing over his role to another James, he could at least watch the troubled favourite's big return.

Pauline and Arthur Fowler's son was the first baby ever born on EastEnders in August 1985, as part of a major storyline into late pregnancies.

Following the departure of Jon Peyton-Price, he took over the role with Martin transforming from a shy lad into a trouble maker.

He was part of some explosive storylines while playing Martin, including a stalker plot, giving his baby with on-off girlfriend Sonia up for adoption and killing Jamie Mitchell in a horrific car crash.

He left the show to explore other opportunities in 2007 (BBC)

When James decided to leave - bosses realised they could not kill off a character from an original family.

Soap bosses decided that Martin would go travelling with wife Sonia Fowler, so James and on-screen partner Natalie Cassidy left in February 2007.

Their exits tied in with the departure of EastEnders legend Wendy Richard after the tragic death of Walford matriarch Pauline Fowler, who Martin found lying dead in the snow in the middle of the Square.

James wanted to experience more opportunities and other acting jobs - but vowed to return one day if the option was available.

"I've decided to leave the show to experience other aspects of my industry," explained James after leaving in 2007.

He was offered his job when bosses wanted to bring Martin back (TV Grab)

"Having turned 21, I felt it was a good time to leave. I owe everything to the show and would love to come back one day - that's if EastEnders would have me."

James was in a real-life relationship with co-star Kara Tointon when he left EastEnders - but it wouldn't last.

He started dating the Dawn Swan actress in April 2006 and opened up on their relationship after they were spotted looking very cost together in public.

"Kara and I are very much together. Yes, we are dating and seeing how things develop between us," he told the Sunday Mirror.

"It’s early days, but I’ve been seeing Kara for a couple of months now. And we are really enjoying each other’s company."

Keeping coy on the details, he added: "I’m not the kind of celebrity who flaunts my relationships. As far as I’m concerned it’s just between me and Kara."

James Alexandrou said no to a return - and James Bye got the role instead (PA)

Sadly, the pair decided to call off their 18-month relationship in November 2011, having realised they had drifted apart after his EastEnders exit.

They were said to be spending far less time together while Kara's commitments on the show grew bigger with more intense storylines.

However, a spokesman told the Sunday Mirror that their break-up was "all very amicable".

Despite stating he would love to come back, when James did not make a comeback when Martin returned to Walford in 2014.

When the fruit and veg seller returned seven years later there was a new actor on-screen - James Bye.

Bye became the third actor to take on the role of Martin after extensive auditions and was said to have received Alexandrou's blessing.

He hasn't changed much since leaving the programme behind (Instagram)

Having previously claimed he would love to come back, the actor felt that returning to the role that made him famous would be "like someone asking you to go back to school".

Explaining it wasn't the right time in his life, Alexandrou said: "They were talking for a while about me going back.

"They made it very clear that they were bringing the character back and they would really like me to go back but it just wasn't right for me at the time."

The actor had fond memories of his decade on the soap - but it was not enough to drag him back to Albert Square.

"It's the place where I spent 10 years of my formative years," explained the actor.

"The attraction in it would be to see some of my old mates and have a bit of nostalgia, and that wasn't enough at the time to do it."

We all remember Martin's romance with childhood sweetheart Sonia (BBC)

While many soap stars have struggled since leaving, James has managed to get steady work across a variety of roles.

He carved out quite the career for himself on the stage, even playing roles in West End productions of William Shakespeare's works, and a stint at the Globe Theatre as Romeo in 2009.

That same year he also reunited with former EastEnders cast mates Natalie Cassidy, who played wife Sonia, and Nina Wadia, who starred as Zainab Masood, to star in comedy shorts for BBC Raw Words.

James played Iago in The Grassroots Shakespeare London adaptation of Othello in 2014, then performed sonnets at Guildhall with Damian Lewis.

Most recently in 2015 he was seen on screen as a police officer arrested for murder in a double episode of BBC crime drama Silent Witness, while also starring in one episode of Casualty in 2015 and The Prey in 2017.

Aside from acting, James also has presenting talents and used to regularly host documentaries on BBC Three.

In the last few years, James has moved into production behind the camera and is turning into a filmmaker, working as a scriptwriter for drama Myrtle and comedy The Show in 2015.

He regularly posts updates of his work on short films on social media and his unrecognisable appearance - with him once shocking followers by dying his hair bright orange.

Meanwhile, new actor James Bye had the unenviable task of making Martin his own without upsetting EastEnders loyalists.

"It's a huge opportunity for me to put my own stamp onto an iconic character and I can't wait to get started," said Bye when the news was announced.

After the decision got some criticism, Bye pleaded with viewers to give him a bit of time to make the role his own as he praised his predecessor.

"All I ask is give me a chance – give me a couple of months," he asked during an interview on This Morning.

"They are enormous shoes to fill because James did such a great job. They (the viewers) are going to see him as Martin Fowler, I watch me and think ‘who is this guy?’."

James did manage to win round fans and now plays a much tougher and more fearsome Martin, who has been involved in gangs and violence.

He has also become a bit of a lothario, getting married to Stacey Slater, Ruby Allen and briefly having a fling with old flame Sonia.

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