HER real life is far and away removed from that of mousy Mariette, the comely country lass who lived down on't farm in The Darling Buds Of May. Today the sunshine of HE Bates' 1950s rustic idyll has been outshone by the blinding rays of Los Angeles and Catherine Zeta Jones, pregnant paramour of Michael Douglas, could likely rent the entire county of Kent for a weekend garden party.

Miss Jones was always a tabloid favourite - her celebrity boyfriends, her sunbathing habits, her shopping trips were all matters in the public interest until the day she drove her car into a lamp-post while trying to evade a pack of snappers. This did, indeed, prove to be a snapping point - ''I wasn't ready for the British press, where they'd print things completely out of context and make me feel like a bimbo'' - and so she sold her Fulham home and headed for the Hollywood hills.

Since then there may have been only two box-office blockbusters - The Mask of Zorro with the all-over-olive-oiled Antonio Banderas, and Entrapment, a crime caper with the rugged and berugged Sean Connery - but Jones has shown such astute business sense that, at the tender age of 31, she is reputed to have a bank balance almost #20m in the black.

She was brought up in Treboeth, a suburb of Swansea, with brothers Lyndon and David. Her first loves were gymnastics and dancing and, aged 10, she boogied her way to the finals of a junior talent competition as part of the

Welsh Butlin's Star Trail. Three years later she was in a West End production of Bugsy Malone.

But it was in 1990 she really broke through when she joined the Larkin family for ITV's immensely popular Darling Buds series. Perfick for the part she was, and studio bigwigs were soon waving their wads. Unfortunately, Catherine the Great became Catherine the Grate: several projects nosedived into oblivion - Columbus failed to discover an audience and the French adaptation of 1001 Nights saw her sans culottes, salivating the presshounds but doing little to further her career.

A disastrous dalliance with pop music seemed to have sealed her fate, but her flight to Los Angeles for a part in the phenomenal flop The Phantom threw an unexpected lifeline - a subsequent part in the CBS four-hour mini-series set aboard the Titanic saw her ship come in when she was spied by none other than Steven Spielberg. He opined of the Welsh wonder, ''The ship was worth keeping afloat just for her'', and two weeks later she was signed to swashbuckle in The Mask of Zorro. Such was the brouhaha surrounding her sizzling performance, she was able to negotiate $5m to star alongside Connery in Entrapment.

In tandem with her ten-rungs-at-a-time climb to stardom, she has steadily built a successful business empire; in January this year Zeta Films signed a two-year #60m financing deal with Initial Entertainment. Just now, of course, she is in the headlines for her forthcoming marriage to Michael Douglas, by whom she is expecting a child. Initially slated by the press corps for hitching her wagon to a star, many former critics are now realising this lady is a formidable force in her own right.

Catherine Zeta Jones stars alongside Sean Pertwee and Ewan MacGregor in Blue Juice. (C4, 11.05pm)