As a father of four daughters, Andy Phythian wanted to do everything possible to ensure his girls could look after themselves as they grew up.
And so from an early age, the sisters found themselves schooled in martial arts.
Zara, the eldest, quickly excelled, and had a karate black belt by the age of 14. Having learned everything her local club could teach, she joined an academy in Nottingham run by coach and Taekwondo master, Victor Marke.
Zara quickly became his star pupil, with Marke telling her parents the teenager was so good she should ditch her dreams of university to pursue martial arts full time.
Mr Phythian came to regard Marke as a friend. When Marke married, he was invited to the wedding along with his wife and Zara.
So imagine Mr Phythian’s shock when, barely five years later, his then 19-year-old daughter told him it was not just the sport she had fallen in love with — but her instructor too.
‘I had no suspicions at all,’ her father told the Daily Mail.
‘I could not believe what I was hearing and to say I was not a happy man would be an understatement. I felt betrayed by him and very angry.’
Victor Marke (left) and Zara Phythian (right), who are married, have gone on trial at Nottingham Crown Court accused of a series of serious sex crimes. Zara was Victor’s student for years when she first joined the martial arts academy in Nottingham run by the coach and Taekwondo master at the age of 14
Such a reaction was hardly surprising given that Marke was 22 years older than Zara, his wife had recently had their baby — and he was supposed to be Zara’s teacher, not her lover.
For two years, Mr Phythian and his daughter did not talk until relations thawed to the extent that Marke felt able to ask Mr Phythian, a joiner, for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The pair seemed happy enough and, as the years passed, appeared to have created a successful life together.
Not only did Zara rise to become a Taekwondo world champion, but she managed to turn her passion for martial arts into a successful acting career.
Talent-spotted at a tournament in the United States, she began to work as a stuntwoman as well as taking part in Guinness World Record attempts on Sky TV.
But her big break came when she successfully auditioned for the role of ‘Brunette Zealot’ in the 2016 Marvel superhero film Doctor Strange, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton.
At the time, she was described as enjoying ‘unprecedented personal and professional success’ — even telling of her ambition to star in a Bond film.
Today, those dreams of Hollywood fame are consigned to history.
On Wednesday, Zara, 37, and her husband were found guilty of grooming and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old schoolgirl.
The first time it happened they got the teenager drunk on Captain Morgan rum, and Zara dared the child to perform a sex act on her husband.
On subsequent occasions, Marke filmed the incidents in an ‘attempt to recreate pornographic scenes’ with the assaults progressing to include full sexual intercourse — said to have taken place on numerous occasions.
Marke, 59, was also convicted of indecently assaulting another girl, aged 15. Sordid details emerged about the couple’s love life, including how Marke would film Zara having sex with other men.
The couple always denied any abuse had taken place, claiming their accusers had made up the allegations.
And throughout the trial at Nottingham Crown Court, Zara’s family stood by her, watching from the public gallery as guilty verdicts were returned and the couple were remanded in custody ahead of sentencing next week.
Speaking exclusively to the Daily Mail barely a day later, it is clear Zara’s father is struggling to come to terms with events.
He says the family expected her to be cleared, echoing claims made by others in the martial arts community who say Zara had herself been groomed by Marke.
‘Victor groomed Zara as well as his other victims,’ a former training partner of the couple said last week. ‘He used his power and influence as a master of martial arts to dominate and control young girls.’
Mr Phythian agrees: ‘We have all got along over the years, but now there are no words for how I feel about him. I have always thought he groomed Zara.
On Wednesday, Zara, 37, and her husband were found guilty of grooming and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old schoolgirl. Throughout the trial at Nottingham Crown Court, Zara’s family stood by her, watching from the public gallery as guilty verdicts were returned and the couple were remanded in custody ahead of sentencing next week
He got into her mind and messed her head up to control her. For her, martial arts meant everything. He used that to get a hold over her.’
He adds: ‘In my opinion he should have owned up to grooming Zara, pleaded guilty and let her walk. She is another of his teenage victims. I just feel awful about it.’
Of course, the truth is that any sympathy should be reserved entirely for the couple’s victims.
The abuse of which Zara was convicted was committed when she was an adult, starting in 2005 when she would have been about 20, and her partner 42.
In addition, the offences continued over a three-year period, having a devastating impact on the teenage victim and damaging her relationship with her mother.
Because of the couple’s not guilty pleas, she was then forced to relive her ordeal in court.
The woman’s anguish was clear as she tearfully told the jury she regarded what had happened to her as her ‘darkest secret’, adding that she had always planned to ‘die with my shame’.
She had only decided to speak out after becoming a mother herself and being contacted by police who told her another girl was claiming to have been abused by Marke.
The victim described how, aged 13, the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ couple had seen ‘the vulnerability in me and preyed on that’.
‘I was ashamed,’ she added. ‘It was a power they had over me. I never knew how to get out of that situation. I could not see a way out.’
When she did finally pluck up the courage to say she never wanted to see them again, Zara was said to have told her: ‘Don’t come back, I’m burning your stuff.’
While Zara dismissed the claims as lies and ‘bulls***’, the victim was able to describe a Chinese calligraphy tattoo her abuser had in an intimate area, signifying Marke’s name.
She also referred to a range of sex toys owned by Zara, which Zara admitted to having.
Evidence was also heard in court about video footage of the couple ‘swinging’ while Marke admitted having sex with one of the girls when she was 18 — and he was married to Zara.
Her father spoke about how the actress began a relationship her now-husband at the age of 14 when she joined his martial arts academy. Marke was 22 years older than Zara, his wife had recently had their baby — and he was supposed to be Zara’s teacher, not her lover
All of which has left Mr Phythian struggling to understand why his daughter stayed with Marke.
‘My other daughters would have kicked any man doing that into touch, but not Zara,’ he says. ‘He had properly got into her head.’
Does he regret introducing her to martial arts in the first place?
‘No, I can’t say that,’ he says, speaking from the family’s bungalow in Nottingham. ‘I know there are a lot of good people involved in it making improvements to peoples’ lives. Marke is the exception.
‘Having four girls, I wanted them to learn martial arts so they could defend themselves. I liked the respect and discipline that it involved.
The other girls became very good swimmers, but Zara loved martial arts and took to it like a duck to water. She liked the fighting element and wanted to compete.’
A friend recommended he try the School of Champions, an academy run by Marke and his then partner Juliet, also in Nottingham.
So it was that in 1999, 14-year-old Zara was introduced to her future husband.
‘Juliet basically ran the set-up,’ said Mr Phythian, ‘but Victor was the boss, an exceptional trainer. I watched him work and it was clearly a very good club, but he controlled everything.’
Marke, 59, was also convicted of indecently assaulting another girl, aged 15. Sordid details emerged about the couple’s love life, including how Marke would film Zara having sex with other men
Mr Phythian, a former amateur footballer, was so impressed he took up the sport himself.
‘I joined. I became very close with Vic, he was a good mate,’ he says. ‘We would go to all the competi- tions together. ’
Within a year of Zara joining the club, Marke opened a second nearby and asked Zara, then only 16, if she would run it.
Mr Phythian says: ‘It was a difficult one for her mum and me because Zara was exceptionally bright. She got A-grades in almost all her GCSEs and she was certainly university material.
‘It would have meant a lot to me if she had gone to university but she was taken over by Vic. He told me she had a career in martial arts right there for the taking and my wife and I thought that she should follow her dream as she could always go to university as a mature student.’
That same year — 2000 — Mr Phythian, his wife Sue and Zara attended Marke’s wedding to Juliet.
Also with them was Zara’s first boyfriend whom she had met on holiday in Spain.
‘She seemed really happy with him,’ said Mr Phythian. ‘He came from Manchester so they would sit on the phone, racking up the bill.
‘Then, out of nowhere, she dumped him and just said he was mean to her. I suspect now that Vic intervened and told her to concentrate on her martial arts.’
Zara was still living at home, when, aged 19, she told her father that she and Marke, then 41, had started a relationship. He did not take it well.
‘My wife said it looked like Zara and I were going to start fighting,’ he recalls.
‘I then found out that she had already organised a flat for them both to rent and he was leaving Juliet. They moved to another townhouse together a bit later but for the next two years Zara and I had no contact.’
He adds: ‘I missed her so much but had to accept she was besotted with him. There was nothing I could do or say to change that.’
Others in the martial arts world were also taken aback by the relationship. ‘He took an instant shine to her and devoted a lot of time and energy to her development,’ one told Mail Online last week.
‘It was obvious that she was his favourite pupil, and she worshipped the ground he walked on.
‘It was very odd when we found out he and Zara were having a relationship because of their age difference and the fact that he was such a senior martial arts figure. Juliet was devastated and was left to bring up their baby alone.’
The abuse of which Zara was convicted was committed when she was an adult, starting in 2005 when she would have been about 20, and her partner 42. In addition, the offences continued over a three-year period, having a devastating impact on the teenage victim and damaging her relationship with her mother
In the end, it was left to Mr Phythian to repair the damaged relationship with his daughter, attending a local celebration after Zara returned triumphant from a competition in America.
‘I shook Vic’s hand but as far as I was concerned Zara was still a kid,’ he says.
When the couple subsequently turned up on his doorstep, it was for Marke to ask for permission to marry his daughter.
‘I gave them our blessing and I have never seen Zara so happy,’ said Mr Phythian. ‘But we all thought it was a bit strange.
‘I don’t wish to be rude but Vic is not the prettiest picture and Zara is a very pretty girl. My mates would say, “What is she doing with him?” But she was happy and her career was going very well.’
With Marke’s backing, Zara set up her own martial arts school in Mansfield in 2007 before finding success in the film world. She also ran a production company and set up a clothing brand.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, in 2017 the couple were arrested for sexual abuse.
Police had received a complaint that Marke had indecently assaulted the 15-year-old. That led detectives to knock on the second victim’s door.
Recalls Mr Phythian: ‘I got a call from Zara asking me to let her dogs out as she had been arrested. Later she said she had been accused of rape and sexual abuse. I just could not believe it.
‘The investigation took so long. She was still teaching all ages at the martial arts academy and was confident justice would be done and she would walk free.’
Instead, the pair were convicted of 14 counts of sexual activity with a child. Marke was convicted of a further four charges of indecently assaulting another girl, aged 15 at the time, between 2002 and 2003.
‘It was the worst day of my life,’ Mr Phythian says of the moment the verdicts were returned. ‘I would rather have a heart attack than listen to that.’
Does he still believe his daughter is innocent?
‘I believe 100 per cent that he messed her head up,’ he says. ‘Even through all this she has stood by him and we don’t understand it. She should have filed for divorce.’
In the dock, the pair hugged after hearing the verdict. They will be sentenced on Monday but the judge has told them to expect a ‘considerable period of custody’ —marking the end of their careers, in martial arts and film, if not the end of their toxic relationship.