Alison Steadman: "I remember"

BY Fiona Hicks

24th Dec 2017 Celebrities

Alison Steadman: "I remember"

Alison Steadman, 71, has appeared on stage and screen for nearly five decades. As well as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and Gavin & Stacey, she’s celebrated for her starring turn in Abigail’s Party.

...I was born in Liverpool 

It was in Oxford Street Hospital, the same hospital that John Lennon was born in. I arrived in 1946; it was after the war, a time for celebration, so they decided to have another baby in the family. I have two sisters, Sylvia and Pamela, who are ten and 12 years older than me. I was very spoilt—not with money, as my parents didn’t have any—but with affection.


…Sylvia being unimpressed with me

She was so excited when my mum came out of hospital; she and her friend ran all the way home from school. She’d been imagining a little doll in a cot, but—as she likes to remind me—she saw me and said, “Ugh!” Apparently I looked like a baby monkey with black hair. My sisters are both in their eighties now and, although we live in different worlds, we’ve stayed close.


…Sitting on Father Christmas' lap.

I was five years old. I remember thinking, This beard’s not real, so I got hold of it and started looking underneath to see if it was attached. My mum was saying, “Stop doing that to Father Christmas! Stop doing that!” Father Christmas was laughing.

Alison with Father Christmas in 1951, before she tried to look undermeath his beard

…My mum was a great character

She was the backbone of the family. I could ring her up and say, “Mum, I’m really scared of this job. I’m really nervous, what am I going to do?” She’d go, “Come on, come on— you’re going to be OK.” She died 22 years ago and I still miss her terribly.


...My dad was lovely 

He was a gentle man—he never raised a hand and very rarely told me off. He was also the go-to person if you wanted an ice cream. He was very artistic and when he retired, he started to paint. He loved music as well and he could play the violin. In a different period in history, he probably could have done a lot more. My parents were together from when they were 19 and when my dad died, at 79, my mum was brokenhearted. She never really recovered, and got cancer a couple of years later. She believed it was because she was grieving for my dad.


…My first day at school

There was a boy called Anthony, who was so upset when his mum left that he sobbed and sobbed. I remember thinking, Why’s he doing that? What’s the matter with him? I was fine; I was quite an independent child. The teacher gave us all a little blackboard and chalk, and she sat Anthony next to me and said, “Now, you look after Anthony and help him to draw some pictures.” I tried to help while the tears were streaming down his face. He got over it eventually.


…My sisters moving out when I was growing up 

They both married when they were in their twenties and moved out. Suddenly the house was quiet; before, it had always been full of their boyfriends, and on Sundays we’d all bake cakes. There would always be something going on and all of a sudden they were gone. I can remember being really sad, and rather lonely.

An early actor's portrait

…The Queen's coronation 

At school we had a big poster on the wall of the Queen in her golden coach. It was amazing. At the end of term, the teacher said, “The girl that can sit without giggling or moving until the bell goes, can have that poster.” I thought, That’s mine. All the others started giggling, but I sat and sat and sat and at the end she said, “Alison Steadman, here’s your poster.” I remember being so proud, coming out with it under my arm. I had it up on the wall in my bedroom.


…Going to commerical college 

I loved school, especially art and drama, but I didn’t do well in my exams. My dad was a bit upset by that. I kept saying I want to be an actress. He said, “You can’t do that at 16. Acting is a very precarious job and you’ll be in and out of work. You better learn some shorthand and typing, so you’ve got something you can fall back on.” So I went to commercial college, and then I worked in a probation office typing up court reports.


…My audition for East 15 drama school 

My audition pieces were hopeless; I read a poem and I did a Greek tragedy thing. The principle was great—she realised I didn’t know what I was doing, so she made me improvise. She asked me to pretend to be Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then, after he’d won the world championship. I just jumped up and shouted, “I am the greatest! I am the best! Nobody can beat me!” And she gave me a place.


…My very first job

It was playing Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the New Theatre Royal Lincoln. I was really nervous, obviously, but I had a sort of balance of confidence and being terrified. After the first performance, when I walked into the bar, a group of people turned at look at me and I said, “And this is the real me.” I just thought it was such fun.

As Beverly in Abigail's Party

…Being nervous in front of the camera

My first television job was a small part in Mike Leigh’s film Hard Labour, with Bernard Hill. When you first start filming, it’s quite scary to have the camera looking at you. I told myself that instead of being frightened of it, I had to see it as my friend. Once I did that, I got over it. It’s exhausting work, with long hours repeating scenes from lots of different angles. Sometimes after a long shoot, I have dreams where I’m just repeating actions over and over. I think it’s my brain getting rid of the repetition.


…Abigail's Party 

You just do a job—and then people are talking about it and you suddenly realise that you’ve made an impression. Abigail’s Party [a play, which was broadcast on television in 1977] was great because it established me as an actor. I could take some time off and come back to it, because people knew me. It’s a very difficult profession, more so now than ever. There are so many of us that there aren’t enough jobs to go round. You’re fighting all the time and if you’re not established, it’s tough.


…Going into labour

I was in the house on my own, because my husband [Alison was previously married to director Mike Leigh] was travelling back from filming. I phoned my mum and she said to me, “Now don’t you worry, you’re going to be fine. You’ve done everything well in your life so far, and you’ll do this well.” I met an actress some years ago, and we were talking about our parents. I told her this story, and she said to me, “Did your mum really say that? My mum has never said a positive thing to me my entire life. Never.” That’s the opposite end of the scale.


…Loving being a mother 

I always say to both my boys that out of everything in my life, I consider having the two of them the best thing that’s ever happened. Jobs are transitory and different and you enjoy them, but to have a child and to see that little person growing up and starting to speak, it’s like a miracle. I worked on and off when they were growing up but I always made sure I had plenty of time with them. I never wanted to be the kind of mother who was always walking out the door; I wanted to be part of their lives. I loved doing the parties, making them cakes and taking them out...it was just great fun.

Alison played Pamela in Gavin & Stacey, opposite Larry Lamb

…Winning an Olivier award

It was for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice [in 1993]. I was up against a lot of well-known actresses so I was thrilled to be nominated, but I was certain I wouldn’t get it. I remember sitting in the stalls and when they announced it I just said, “What?” I couldn’t believe it. I could hardly get to the stage I was so nervous—I was shaking. The award sits on the shelf in my hall. I’m very proud of it.


…Being asked to do Pride and Prejudice 

We had a sixmonth shoot, and the detail and the care that was taken over everything was extraordinary. They brought somebody in to teach us how to sit, and how to keep a certain distance from each other—in Austen’s time, there was a set distance from which you talked to somebody, and you wouldn’t overstep the mark. We had sessions of learning to dance and we all joined in, whether we were dancing on camera or not. And the food that we ate! They even had period caterers. I knew the series was going to be good.


…Buying an expensive moisturiser

I never spend much on make-up or beauty products because I don’t believe in it—I’ll just buy a £5.95 lipstick. But one day I thought I’d treat myself to a top-ofthe- range moisturiser that cost a fortune. I took it home, used it and a few days later all these spots started coming up. A friend of mine had the same problem, and it turned out we were both using the same bloody chichi moisturiser. I went home, threw it in the bin and went back to my Nivea. I don’t think I’ve had a spot since.


…The end of Gavin & Stacey

There are very few jobs you do that, when it comes to the end, everybody cries. We did three series and a Christmas special, but we knew instinctively that there wouldn’t be any more. It was such a lovely job and it was so special to us. Even now, people often come up to me and say that their mum or auntie is so like Pamela! It’s very nice that people identify with the characters.


…Realising that, as a society, we're too fond of killing things 

The other thing I love in life is wildlife. I’m a member of the RSPB, and my favourite thing to do when I’ve got free time is to go to a nature reserve. I get fed up when I go to garden centres and see what I call “the killing zone”. You’re in this wonderful garden centre—it’s all beautiful with lovely plants and perhaps a little café—but when you go to the back of the shop, there’s a whole wall of sprays and chemicals designed to kill. Slugs and snails are so important. Worms are important. Even flies have a place. Personally I wouldn’t kill anything; I think there’s always another way.


…Meeting my grandson

My first grandson was born this year, and I met him when he was just three hours old. I took my jewellery off so I wouldn’t hurt him and then I slipped my hand gently under his head, and his little face screwed up. Your heart just melts. Every generation has their own way of doing things. My son is very hands-on and even has a feeding app on his phone! I couldn’t believe it.

Spider! by Alison Steadman OBE (Hodder Children’s Books) is out now.


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