Alison Steadman:
From Essex girl to
national treasure

She was the original Essex girl in Abigail’s Party, plays Billericay mum Pam in Gavin & Stacey, was a larger-than-life Mrs Bennet, and is now in  pinny and perm for Alan Bennett… Alison Steadman, who has given us some of our best-loved characters, shares her wisdom over a cup of tea

By Maureen Paton for MailOnline

Alison Steadman

Alison Steadman sits before me, defiant streaks of silver in the fringe of that familiar honey-blond hair. She’s a bonny woman with the kind of broad cheekbones that the camera loves, but the actress who has played so many hilarious domestic monsters has no real vanity.

Like her good friends Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn, she wears her national treasuredom lightly and admits she was ‘shocked’ at being awarded an OBE in 2000. Yet her talent for satire has made her one of the best-known faces on stage and screen.

It was Alison who first personified ‘Essex girl’ when she created the nasally-challenged Chigwell hostess Beverly – brisk dispenser of ‘cheesy bits’ and ruthless nicker of other women’s husbands – in the TV play Abigail’s Party, created by her then husband Mike Leigh, and she has never been allowed to forget her most famous role.

Alison (right) with Janine Duvitski in Abigail's Party

Alison (right) with Janine Duvitski in Abigail's Party

That was back in 1977, and she hasn’t stopped
working since, except by choice during her sons’
school holidays.

We meet in a café near her home in Highgate, North London, to talk about her return to the West End stage in a revival of Alan Bennett’s 1980 play Enjoy, which was such a hit on its opening in Bath last autumn that it’s now transferring to London’s Gielgud Theatre, where Alison made her West End debut 30 years ago.

She thinks of herself as a character actress, not a star, despite the fact that she’s recognised all over the country when she’s on tour.

But her one concession to her remarkable reputation is that, as she puts it, ‘I’m getting more and more choosy because I don’t want to do just any role. And I have a bit more say about how I’m photographed because of the age I am.’

For although she’s not remotely grand, no one dares to tell her what to wear any more.

‘Photographers would always ask me to lean forward for shots when I first started out as an actress, and it took me quite a while to work out why,’ she says dryly. ‘And when I was first on TV in my 20s, I was told by a publicity guy to pop a bikini in my bag when I went to a photo session. But I just thought, “I’m not doing that!”

'I feel lucky because I have never been out of work, touch wood, and I feel sorry for young actors now because it’s harder and harder with fewer and fewer jobs – and so many more people going into the profession.’

All of which makes her an important figure in more ways than one in Gavin & Stacey, the hit BBC1 comedy series in which she has graduated to Essex woman as Gavin’s endearingly neurotic mum Pam. Ever since the Liverpool-born Alison was bullied by a female director in her first TV role 36 years ago, as a policewoman in the BBC series Z-Cars, she has tried to ensure it doesn’t happen to others by keeping a protective eye on young actors.

‘I wouldn’t say I mother the rest of the cast in Gavin & Stacey, but we do feel like a family because we get on really well’

‘I was awful in the role, I won’t deny it, but that woman made me a million times worse by making my life a misery. I was young and inexperienced, and in those circumstances you need someone to nurture you.

'It was a total nightmare from start to finish, so now if
I see any young actors who are worried or floundering,
I will always give them an encouraging word or any help I can,’ says Alison, who has since gone back to her old Essex drama school, East 15, to direct several student plays.

‘I wouldn’t say I mother the rest of the cast in Gavin & Stacey, but we do feel like a family because we get on really well. I feel as if I’m married to Larry Lamb, who plays my husband – it’s an easy relationship,’ adds Alison, who in real life lives with actor Michael Elwyn after her split from Leigh in 1996.

Alison is pleased about the recent announcement by Ruth Jones and James Corden that they are making a new series. ‘We were hoping there would be a third series of G & S, but writing is not like manufacturing – Ruth and James are brilliant writers and they needed to feel they’d got the right storylines to continue.’

Alison Steadman

Clearly the county of Essex bears no grudges against her for sending it up over the years, because she even has
an honorary doctorate from its university. Yet the low-maintenance, ecologically minded Alison, a member of Greenpeace for 30 years (as well as the London Wildlife Trust and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust), admits she’s rather glad of a brief escape from high-maintenance Essex women to star opposite David Troughton in Enjoy, the funny-sad story of a couple in their 60s faced with the demolition of their back-to-back in Leeds and the discovery of disturbing truths about their son and daughter.

‘There’s one moment during Enjoy when I stand in front of a mirror... and I can see my mother looking back at me. It’s quite uncanny’

‘The role is very challenging because my character Connie is hardly off stage – and also in the early stages of dementia.’ Yet she finds the nostalgic pull of the play incredibly moving.

‘I remember how they were knocking down oceans of terraced houses like that in Liverpool back in the 1970s. I’m 62 now, like Connie. And although Pam in G & S is fun to play, with her clothes, her hair and the way she holds back the years, it’s great to play someone like Connie, who wants to be the age she is, for a change.’

Having said in the past that life is too short for a face-lift, Alison hasn’t changed her mind, even after acquiring her bus pass. ‘I’m terrified of anaesthetic and surgery, so why would I possibly put myself through anything I don’t have to?’ she points out in her down-to-earth way. ‘I dread the day I have got to have an operation for something, because I hate hospitals. And there’s no way I would let a knife near my face.

'I think it’s really sad that women feel they’ve got to have all this treatment. I would hate to look in the mirror and see not me but this woman who looked a bit like me. I just couldn’t bear it. Imagine waking up and taking the bandages off and you can’t do anything about it. It would just be so terrible. No, make the best of what you’ve got, that’s what I say – look after yourself, eat well and put on a bit of moisturiser.’

Alison in the revival of Alan Bennett's play Enjoy

Alison in the revival of Alan Bennett's play Enjoy

Her beloved mother Marjorie was, she says, still trying to keep up appearances and paint her nails until the day she died in a Marie Curie hospice in 1996.

‘But she couldn’t manage to do it herself towards the end, which was heartbreaking, so I did it for her,’ says Alison, who has found the experience of playing Connie a particularly poignant one because of the memories it brought back as soon as she put on her pinny-and-permed-hairdo costume.

She explains: ‘My mum always wore an apron over her dress in the morning before getting changed to go out in the afternoon. We have lost that ritual of getting dressed up to go out – and women in their 60s look much younger now with their jeans and highlights than they did 30 years ago.’

Her widowed mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 22 months before she died, and Alison and her two older sisters, Sylvia and Pamela, took it in turns to nurse her till the end.

‘There’s one moment during Enjoy when I stand in
front of a mirror backstage to put on a hat in semi-darkness before coming back on stage. And I can see my mother looking back so clearly at me in every way. Until that moment I didn’t think I looked like her;
it’s quite uncanny.’

As she muses over how Alan Bennett’s own mother inspired his creation of Connie, Alison suddenly confides to me: ‘I think there’s a very good chance I might get pancreatic cancer the same as my mum. Although I may not, and in your heart, you think, “Oh no, that won’t happen to me.” But there’s a tiny bit of my brain that thinks, “Will that be the way I’ll go?” As sure as hell I’ll die of something, so maybe it will be that.’

As well as being the year her mother died, 1996 turned out to be an eventful year in other ways for Alison. Her marriage to writer/director Mike Leigh ended around the same time that she played a controversially vulgar
Mrs Bennet in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice that made a heart-throb of Colin Firth.

‘Mike and I still have meals together. People assume that if you’re not living with somebody, you must have fallen out, but that’s not necessarily the case’

She left the reputedly moody Leigh for Michael Elwyn, now 65, when they met while making the BBC TV drama series No Bananas. She has described Elwyn as ‘wonderful and brilliantly supportive’.

They’re a close couple who do poetry readings for charity and go off on long country hikes together (evoking yet another of her famous characters, the earnest, bobble-hatted camper Candice-Marie from Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May).

Alison is still on good terms with Leigh, from whom she was finally divorced in 2001 and who is based only a few miles away, but she has resolved not to talk any more about her relationship with the two Mikes in her life.

Ten years ago she found herself targeted by paparazzi for the first time after she mentioned to me during another newspaper interview that she still saw her ex-husband ‘all the time’.

As she explained to me then, ‘We still have meals together. People assume that if you’re not living with somebody, you must have fallen out, but that’s not necessarily the case. Just because you aren’t living with someone, relationships don’t have to break down. If you can avoid that, so much the better.’

At first, the end of their 28-year marriage seemed to spell disaster for one of the most famous creative partnerships in the business, but Alison has worked with Leigh since, on Topsy-Turvy, his Gilbert & Sullivan biopic. ‘He’s a very clever man,’ she says.

She and Leigh have two sons: graphic designer and illustrator Toby, 30, and film director and cameraman Leo, 27. ‘Sadly they haven’t made me a grandmother yet – that would be nice,’ says Alison, coming over all motherly. ‘They are too busy with their careers at the moment, which is great – that’s the way round I would rather have it; you don’t want young fathers who are miserable!

'They have their own places and are very independent, so I’m really glad that I made sure I was there for them when they were little – what’s the point of having children if you can’t enjoy them at that age?’

As Pam in Gavin & Stacey

As Pam in Gavin & Stacey

She doesn’t regard herself as a role model for women, perhaps because, she admits, she has always been the baby of the family, mothered by her two older sisters.

Very much a woman’s woman, she has been friends with Brenda Blethyn for more than three decades and is also
a huge fan of fellow Liverpudlian Julie Walters, with whom she worked at the city’s Everyman Theatre back in
the 1970s.

Having begun her stage career with a nude scene in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, playing a schoolgirl posing as an artist’s model, she is now very comfortable with the compensations of her middle years. As she explains: ‘I don’t like wearing anything too revealing or inappropriate. The older you get, the less you relish having to show bits of flesh.’ 

I ask her why, unlike Brenda and Helen Mirren, she has never been tempted by Hollywood, especially now that it has realised the box-office power of the grown-up woman with such hits as Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City. She laughs at the question. ‘I’ve never been interested in going there. Why would I want to do that?’ she says. ‘I’m British – and I like playing British characters.’

And you can’t get any more quintessentially British than Alan Bennett and Alison Steadman.

  • Alison Steadman stars in Enjoy at London’s Gielgud Theatre from Tuesday, tel: 0844 482 5130


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