We all used to say if you can get past the age of 40 and still be working, you’re OK,” says Alison Steadman. She was 31 when she sauntered across the living room in a red gown, put Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” on the record player, and hosted a suburban soiree from hell in Mike Leigh’s TV play Abigail’s Party. She counts herself lucky that she hasn’t stopped working ever since.
“So many actresses’ careers at 40 just went,” says the 74-year-old over Zoom. “Not because they are not good or talented, but because there weren’t the roles. It’s that idea that you have to be young and sexy to get work, which is absolute nonsense. So it’s great that roles are being written for all ages all the time now.”
To a younger generation, Steadman is known for the BBC hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey. From 2007 to 2010, and in a one-off Christmas special last year, she played Gavin’s big-hearted mum Pam, a brassy Essex housewife who pretends to be vegetarian while secretly scoffing ham and who calls her son “my little prince”. This month, she stars in Mike Bartlett’s dramatic six-part BBC series Life – as a woman who realises at her 70th birthday party that she doesn’t love her husband of more than 40 years, gets on the dancefloor and moves like she's Theresa May at the Tory party conference. She also takes the lead (quite literally) in the comedy drama film 23 Walks, as a pensioner who finds love with a stranger while out walking her dog. We’re here to discuss both of them.
“It’s what comes your way, isn’t it?” says Steadman, shrugging her shoulders. “I seem to be in a comedy slot, which is lovely, but I also want to do serious parts.”
Dressed to the nines in pearls and a snakeskin-pattern dress, her blonde hair in a bouffant style, Steadman chuckles dismissively when I mention her smart appearance: “Oh, it’s what I call easywear.” She’s having some technical issues – I couldn’t see or hear her for a while – but it’s not down to inexperience. She’s filmed a couple of comedy projects about lockdown from home during the Covid crisis, starring with Katherine Parkinson in the BBC’s Unprecedented, a series of plays written and produced in quarantine, and with Tim Downie for the YouTube comedy Housebound. Professionally, it’s been a pretty successful lockdown. With one slight blip.
In June, as Black Lives Matter protests gripped the world in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a wider cultural conversation around race began to take place. Little Britain was removed from Netflix and BBC iPlayer for its frequent use of blackface; old episodes of Fawlty Towers, The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen were also taken offline. There was talk that Gavin & Stacey might receive the same treatment because characters in the show are referred to as “Chinese Alan” and “Seth, the black fella”.
“I was shocked and upset by it,” says Steadman. “It’s like, Pam’s got a friend called ‘Japanese Margaret’, but it’s not because she is being racist. They are fun names and we all do it with friends.
“I can understand why suddenly people start going, ‘Argh’. But come on, no one wants to be racist. No one wants to be disrespectful. I think sometimes we take political correctness too far.”
It sounds like Steadman is slightly missing the point; weren’t we meant to cringe at those names because they were racially insensitive?
It’s easier for the younger generation, she says, but for her “the rules have changed” and “we all have to be careful”. She recently wrote a rap called “The Granny Rap”, about people throwing chewing gum on the floor. “It costs Westminster Council millions of pounds a year to scrape it off the roads,” she says. “I was going to record it myself. And my son said to me, ‘Mum, I don’t think that is appropriate. I think you should give it to someone else’.”
Steadman has since decided not to impersonate a black rapper. “Looking back, it was wrong,” she concedes, “but in my head I’ve loved doing impersonations since I was a child. Suddenly I’m not allowed to do that because that would mean I am poking fun or not being respectful to someone. And I would never do that. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t even kill a fly.”
Comedy is where Steadman sparkles but it seems she is continuing her trajectory towards dramatic roles. Her 2018 turn as an elderly mother in the brilliant but bleak BBC dementia drama Care, alongside Sheridan Smith, was agonisingly real.
Yet unlike the latest handful of OAP parts she plays – including her role in last year’s second series of the BBC sitcom Hold the Sunset with John Cleese about a couple’s dream retirement that goes pear-shaped – Steadman isn’t somebody “looking back”, trying to have a second chance at life or love. She has few regrets. Especially not when it comes to her career choices. “I remember when I was 17 and I was thinking I’d like to go to drama school but I was a bit apprehensive. But I had this wonderful teacher in youth theatre who said to me, ‘Alison, you should do it. Do it because I don’t want you one day to be standing there saying to yourself, if only I’d become an actress’. And I’ll never forget those words.”
There’s hardly any trace of her hometown Liverpool accent left, but she has stayed close to her northern working-class roots ever since she won a grant to attend East-15 Acting School in Essex at the age of 20. “I remember when I left drama school, I had no money,” she recalls. “I was just starting out. It was very scary. Now, young actors have all the weight of this huge debt behind them as well. It makes me sad that people can’t get grants to go to drama school.”
Steadman lives in London’s Highgate with her partner Michael Elwyn, 77, who is also an actor, but she’s talking to me from her holiday home in Dorset. It’s a stone’s throw from where she filmed Leigh’s classic 1976 camping comedy Nuts in May, in which she played the timorous Candice Marie, alongside Roger Sloman as her controlling and regimental husband Keith. The couple’s idyllic trip – which inspired Steadman to buy a house in the county – turns explosive when they get into confrontations with other campers.
“Nuts in May is one of my favourite things I’ve ever done,” says Steadman of her first major role on TV. “It was fun; we were just improvising and going on walks. It suited me, even though it was over the top.”
Steadman met Leigh in 1967, when he directed her in a play during her second year at drama school. The filmmaker works in a unique way, assembling a troupe of actors who then spend weeks or months devising the screenplay by improvising together. “I remember thinking, oh I like the sound of the kind of work he does,” says Steadman. “I’m in my comfort zone when improvising.”
In 1972, Leigh went to see Steadman in Ted Whitehead’s play The Foursome. “We had a drink afterwards and a little chat,” she recalls. “He said, ‘We are going to do a BBC drama called Hard Labour, would like you like to be in it?’. I said, ‘Yes please that would be grand!’.” They got married a year later.
The couple separated in 1995 but they are still close friends, says Steadman, and have two sons – illustrator Toby, 42, and filmmaker Leo, 39 – together. “He gave me the opportunity with Beverly and with Candice Marie to do two completely opposite parts – they couldn’t be more different – and yet I was happy doing both. I wasn’t typecast.”
The only time their children came on set was during Leigh’s hit 1990 comedy drama Life Is Sweet, in which Steadman’s irrepressible Wendy is concerned about her troubled daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who is bulimic. “Never again!” she says of the experience. “It’s so boring on set, unless you’re in it. But luckily, the make-up team gave them some scars.”
Will Steadman team up with Leigh again? She isn’t sure what’s next. But more than three decades since turning 40, she’s not retiring any time soon.
‘Life’ is on BBC One on 29 September; ‘23 Walks’ is out 25 September