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THE couple sitting close together at the secluded restaurant table last week would have seemed familiar to most people. 

Only that morning, the papers had been brimming with speculation about them. "Claire and Adam call it quits"...was the general verdict. 

And yet here they were - soap actress turned mega-star Claire Sweeney and millionaire impresario Adam Kenwright, as cosily knee-to-knee as they ever were. 

This didn't look like a romance being re-kindled. This seemed to be a flame that had never gone out. "You must have heard the saying, 'just good friends'," says Claire. 

"Well, Adam and I went for dinner last night and what's more we had a lovely time, because that's what we are and what we have always been - very good friends." 

Their friendship was so close that Adam was photographed nibbling Claire's ear as they frolicked in the pool of a luxury Majorcan hotel this summer. "Yes we had a lovely time," Claire says. "But we're both very busy. People were looking for a serious romance, I know. 

"But the truth is we're great mates. We have a laugh. Does that mean that we're both free to see other people? Well...possibly!" 

Summer must seem a long time ago in Claire's fast-moving world. She started the year as a relative unknown, playing lesbian single mum Lindsey Corkhill in Brookside. She will end it as a star of the West End. 

That was another reason for dinner with 31-year-old Adam, son of the theatre producer Bill Kenwright. 

She was celebrating landing the lead role in the hit musical Chicago, taking over from Denise Van Outen in December. 

It's a tough act to follow, and Claire admits: "I'd be creased up with nerves by now...if I had half a minute to think about it." 

Meanwhile, her new TV series Challenge Of A Lifetime is already running - the revamped version of Don't Try This At Home, with Claire taking on the presenter's job vacated by Davina McCall. And all this, she reflects, because of Celebrity Big Brother. She only took part because she had a week to spare from her Brookside schedule. But she finished as runner-up having won over legions of new admirers. 

Celebrity agent Jonathan Shalit then took her on - and the girl whose showbusiness career had started in the social clubs of Merseyside 15 years earlier became a sensation. 

Isn't it ironic that the success seems to have come at the cost of her emotional life with Adam? 

"Don't try to put words in my mouth," she says. "But I will admit I was more gobsmacked than anyone at the way Big Brother took off." 

Yesterday Claire flew to Sierra Leone to see how Comic Relief has been spending some of the Celebrity Big Brother money on a centre for former child soldiers there. 

But she found time to meet me in a North London studio where she is recording a track on a Christmas album of numbers from the great stage musicals. 

Others in the line-up include Celine Dion, Liza Minelli, Barbara Dickson, Judy Garland and Elaine Paige. "I can't believe it," says Claire. "Me alongside Lisa Minelli! If anyone had told me, even this time last year, that I'd be keeping this kind of company I would have told them they were bonkers..." 

But she adds: "I've served the apprenticeship. I grew up singing and dancing in the Labour clubs and social clubs, where the audiences were tough." 

Along the way, she found herself in a chorus line backing Ken Dodd. "He spent an hour chatting with me, giving me encouragement, telling me it was there if I worked for it," Claire says. "Doddy's a national hero in Liverpool, so when he gives you advice, you listen to it. 

"He told me always to follow my instincts - that I thought something was a good idea, then I should go for it. So I've always remembered that. If there have been bad times, well I've always tried to look beyond them. 

"That's the trick, isn't it? Keep singing and the good times follow the bad times, just like in the musicals."