James Mottram meets Alison Steadman, our 2016 Richard Harris Award recipient.
A couple of years ago, Alison Steadman was in a shop when she was approached by a young girl, explaining that her little brother was a big fan. ‘There was this very, very shy ten-year-old standing there, with big, brown eyes, looking at me, trying to smile, but very shy and nervous,’ remembers Steadman. ‘I said, ‘I know what you like – Gavin and Stacey.’ And he didn’t say anything. But his sister said, ‘Oh no! It’s Nuts in May!’ I was so thrilled with that.’
Cultivating mini-Mike Leigh fans is one thing, but for the Liverpool-born Steadman, the recipient of this year’s Richard Harris Award, this encounter hints at something else: the breadth and diversity of her work. Since her first professional engagement, in a 1968 stage version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she’s appeared in feature films, shorts, TV dramas, sitcoms, theatre and radio shows, working with some of the finest British talent of the past forty years.
Steadman admits she was a little hesitant at first when she heard that the BIFA – which naturally celebrates British independent film – wanted to crown her with the Richard Harris award. ‘I’m obviously totally thrilled to bits, but I was slightly cautious of accepting it because I felt maybe I hadn’t done enough films,’ she says. It’s a rather modest statement for one whose film credits include Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, the enduring Shirley Valentine and the Alan Bennett-penned A Private Function.
Yet if anything, Steadman’s award this year is testament to the work she did at the BBC with her former husband Leigh, whom she met in 1966 in her second year at East 15 drama school. ‘They were radical, the things I did with Mike,’ she says. ‘They were off-the-wall. No-one had seen anything like it before.’ Made in the 1970s when the home-grown film industry was in the doldrums, television film strands such as ‘Play for Today’, like Hard Labour, Nuts in May and the generation-defining Abigail’s Party, laid the ground work for the British independent film scene to come.
Nor was it just the uncompromising Leigh that set the tone. Steadman remembers David Rose, head of English Regional Drama at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham, offering Leigh the chance to develop a one-off drama, as long as it happened in Dorset. ‘He said, ‘I’m sick of every drama being in towns and cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, London. They’re all city-based.’ Before she knew it, 1976’s rural comedy Nuts In May was underway and Steadman’s wonderful Candice Marie was born.
Much the same happened the following year, as Steadman found herself playing the overbearing social climber beautician Beverly in Abigail’s Party, developed by Leigh for the Hampstead Theatre. Steadman recalls producer Margaret Matheson coming to see the play. ‘Off her own bat, she just said, ‘This has got to be recorded. I’m not having this just finishing.’ And within a fortnight of us finishing, we were in the studio recording it. That was down to her. That sort of courage… well, that was terrific.’
The resulting TV version – which attracted 18 million viewers – was a turning point for Steadman, who gradually made the move into film as the 1980s arrived. Working with three of the six Monty Python members in five years – Michael Palin in A Private Function, John Cleese in Clockwise and Terry Gilliam on his 1988 fantasy The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – was impressive, but if there was a high point in the decade, it was back on television, working on Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective.
‘It was just amazing to do that,’ says Steadman, who was nominated for a BAFTA for her turn as Mrs. Marlow. ‘I still remember that scene on the train. When my character leaves home, leaves her husband, and she gets on the train and she’s going along and all the soldiers get on and sing ‘Paper Doll’ to her and she starts crying and she looks out the window and sees the scarecrow. It was just so brilliant… something I look back on with such fondness. It really meant so much.’
Shortly afterwards, Steadman got to reunite with Leigh on arguably their greatest collaboration – the 1990 family drama Life Is Sweet. If Wendy remains one of her most memorable creations, Steadman’s skill lies in bringing all her characters vividly and unforgettably to life, be it Pamela, the Essex mother in sitcom Gavin and Stacey, Mrs. Bennet in the BBC’s definitive Pride and Prejudice or her Olivier award-winning Mari on stage in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
‘Even now, I’ll mess about at home and pretend to be people and improvise,’ she says. ‘But that’s just in me and always has been since I was a child. I just get bored being myself and I love listening to people in conversation, hearing the way they speak and their accents. I’m always making notes of things people have said, if I overhear them on a tube or a train, because that’s life. I’m constantly, hopefully, looking at life. What are we as actors? We’re representing people and life.’
Steadman, now 70, remains committed to British independent film, most recently appearing in first-timer Chanya Button’s road movie Burn Burn Burn. ‘There wasn’t much money around,’ she says, ‘but we all got paid enough and the level of commitment was terrific.’ It’s this desire to get out there and create – just as she and Leigh did in the 1970s – that inspires her. ‘We all have to try things out and have a go, and be willing to fail.’ She pauses. ‘Everyone’s terrified of failure now.’
As for those Steadman admires, of course she can’t help but nod to Richard Harris. ‘He was so much a presence over the years…he was so versatile.’ But she reserves her highest praise for Ken Loach, whose ‘terrific’ I, Daniel Blake leads the BIFAs this year with seven nominations. ‘He’s such a strong personality. He knows what he wants to do, he does it and he won’t compromise. I think that’s pretty amazing.’ Perhaps the same could be said of Alison Steadman.