Alison Steadman: ‘Watching people on the tube inspires me’

The actress is preparing to star in Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit

DESCRIBING an actress as “surprisingly down to earth” is rather a backhanded compliment – as though normality is rare in such a faddy, neurotic profession.

Well I wasn’t surprised to find Alison Steadman thoroughly grounded and open.

It’s that very quality – along with her estimable gift for comedy – that has made her such a favourite in shows like Gavin And Stacey, Fat Friends and as a larger-than-life Mrs Bennet in Pride And Prejudice.

Sure, like most actresses she dresses stylishly and looks great. (good bone structure, lovely skin).

But she’s warm without being luvvie-ishly effusive and as interested in other people – and the way the world works – as her own successful career.

We meet in Caf� Rouge in Highgate (she lives near Highgate Wood with her partner the actor Michael Elwyn) and talk about having flu over Christmas and being a mum to two sons – before getting down to her latest role.

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Steadman plays eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati in a West End revival of Noel Coward’s classic comedy Blithe Spirit.

It’s a peach of a part that she should romp through. Invited to author Charles Condomine’s dinner party to conduct a s�ance, Arcati accidentally summons the jealous, spiteful ghost of his first wife Elvira.

The spirit taunts second wife Ruth who can neither see nor hear her. But when she pulls a wicked stunt to lure Charles into the afterlife, her plans go awry.

Steadman talks about mastering Coward’s distinctively clipped dialogue, without making it sound like a pastiche.

“People spoke very differently then, particularly the middle classes. The use of language was very different, it’s a question of learning a new rhythm.

“I always do my own research before a part, because I love it. There’s a website where they have recordings of real people from every period and listening really helps you get the right sound and music to it.”

She adds with a twinkle in her eye: “Part of the appeal of the part is Noel Coward’s wit and naughtiness. There are terribly well-hidden double entendre all over place.”

Steadman is undaunted by following in the footsteps of actresses like Margaret Rutherford, Beryl Reid, Marcia Warren, Penelope Keith and Angela Lansbury.

“You can’t go there, you can only do what you do and make it your own. It’s like when I played Mrs Bennet in Pride And Prejudice, everyone’s got their idea of what the role should be. But if I am playing it, I can only do it my way.”

Although it’s largely a romp, Blithe Spirit contains a micro moral. Condomine summons Arcati as a figure of fun to be mocked and exposed as a fraud in front of his friends, but ends up regretting meddling in things he doesn’t understand.

Steadman started researching s�ances, ancient runes and cabalistic signs, but soon gave up.

“I’d messed around with a ouija board in my youth but I’d never been to a s�ance by any professional medium and I wondered whether I should go to one for research. But I don’t like the occult, I believe it’s all a lot of nonsense and most of them are charlatans.The play is a bit of fun, you have to take it absolutely seriously as an actor but I am not going to be silly about it, racing around the country frightening myself to death with all these seances. Both my parents are dead and nothing would give me greater comfort than to think they were looking down on me and were able to send a comforting message but I don’t think that’s the case.”

Steadman was born 64 years ago in Liverpool to parents who were “incredibly supportive” of her acting ambitions.

“There were no theatricals in my family although my grandmother and mother could have been in the business. My grandmother was quite a wild character who came from a big family and loved dressing up and larking about.”

Steadman’s grandfather was a painter and decorator, so skilled in wood and marbling effects that he taught at Liverpool art college. Her father could also draw and might otherwise have gone to art college. But if her relatives’ creativity was stifled by working class social expectations, Steadman was determined to escape her fate.

Although her older sisters married, had children and stayed in Liverpool, as the baby of the family, born just after the war, she enjoyed more freedom and opportunity.

She would watch TV actresses like Beryl Reid, Joan Turner and Dame Flora Robson, and take them off – a neighbour once caught her actorishly declaiming from her back window

“I found I could impersonate them and I enjoyed doing it.”

Another time, she overheard her mother praising her role in a school play.

“She was saying how good I was and how a drama teacher who watched it said I could be an actress, and I thought, ‘Oh this is something I’m good at.’”

Steadman later attended youth theatre and now thinks she was fortunate that such activities were opening up in postwar Britain.

“That’s why I believe you have to give people opportunities, open doors and windows, if kids are never exposed to it then how can they choose it?”

By the age of 19, she was working in a probation office and knew she wanted to go to drama school.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t’ want to do this.’ I had a boyfriend but I didn’t want to get engaged and married at that moment and I knew if I didn’t get out that year I was going to get stuck.”

Advised to try for East 15 drama school, she took two days off work and told no-one of her plans.

“I think if I had auditioned anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have got a place. It was very anarchic and off the wall. The principal asked me to improvise playing Cassius Clay after winning the World Heavyweight title and I really threw myself into it and got in.”

It was there that she met her future husband Mike Leigh, the father of her sons Toby and Leo, with whom she did career-defining work in the likes of Abigail’s Party, Life Is Sweet, Nuts In May and Topsy-Turvy.

“When you work with Mike, you base your characters on someone you know that he chooses from a list you give him. For Beverley (in Abigail’s Party) I had this image of an Essex woman that wasn’t terribly clear. So he said, ‘Go home and bring some clothes in tomorrow from your own wardrobe to help you with your character.’

“You have to know why does she walk like this, why does she treat men like she does? By the end of rehearsals there’s not a thing I couldn’t tell you about that woman from the minute she was born.”

Leigh’s style of social observation suited Steadman’s natural inclination for people watching.

“I do observe people. I love being on the tube and watching people and seeing what people are wearing. I think, ‘Why has she put that on? What makes her want to dress like that?’ It’s so interesting.”

Beverley’s sashaying walk, for example, sprang from her frustrated aspirations to be a model.

“She’s a nobody who wanted to be a someone and, when she walked, she was copying the women on the catwalk.”

The play enjoyed two sellout runs at Hampstead Theatre in 1977 and was due to transfer to the West End when Steadman fell pregnant.

A hasty plan was hatched to film it for the BBC which attracted a record audience for a TV play of 16million.

Steadman took time off after her son’s birth, but thinks it was handy to leave right after Abigail’s Party.

“Getting pregnant was planned, it was the next thing in my life and I loved being a mum so much, I adored staying at home and being supermum, doing all the mouli-ing of food, making him clothes and taking him swimming.

“Because of Abigail’s Party, I ended on a high. It put me in the limelight so I was very lucky as an actress to turn down some things and take the jobs that suited me – like an Ayckbourn play in the West End – or not working during the summer holidays so I could spend time with them. I didn’t want them to grow up and not remember me as a mum.”

Although she’s a household name and works regularly, the actress, who says she’s more comfortable the further away from herself she is playing, is still aware she’s in a precarious profession.

“I get offered work but it’s not always the work I want to do. It’s a very weird life because you have to earn a living, there are too many of us and too few jobs, too many courses and too many false hopes.”

One that she was delighted to land was the hit comedy Gavin And Stacey, which sent her back to Essex as Billericay mum Pam.

“It’s wonderful when a job like that comes along. Like all the best jobs, it was good fun but hard work with a lovely group of people.

“Very often on TV you are sent a script and learn it, only to turn up and find pink pages of rewrites. I never remember getting a change on that job which says it was well thought out and everyone had confidence in it.”

o Alison Steadman is in Blithe Spirit at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue from March 2 until June 18. Box office on 0844 412 4658.