What Alison Steadman did next: write!
That’s my claim to fame,’ says Alison Steadman with a smile, but can you guess what it is? No, not playing the monstrous host in Abigail’s Party – a landmark of British drama – or the hilarious Pamela in Gavin And Stacey, for which she is so well loved. Not even one of her great movies or television series like Life Is Sweet or Pride And Prejudice. Steadman has just become a grandmother at the age of 71 and written her first children’s book, but that’s not the claim to fame she’s talking about here. No, it’s a kiss.
The first lesbian kiss ever seen on British TV, to be precise.
‘Forget about Holby City or whatever it was,’ says Steadman in the bar of the Groucho Club in Soho, where she is a member. She is one of our finest actors and a formidable presence in a cream jacket and pearls, so I don’t like to tell her it was Brookside.
The kiss between Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson on that soap in 1994 was hailed as ground-breaking at the time. But that was because everybody forgot about Girl, a television play that Steadman made with Myra Francis in 1974, playing two female soldiers who fell in love. It only came to light again last year when the British Film Institute held a season in her name. Prejudice was still strong in the early Seventies, so this kiss was a really big deal at the time.
‘I was young, fearless, a bit nervous,’ she says. ‘Myra was great, we got a good relationship going, but we were both apprehensive, as you can imagine. You don’t go to the heavy snogging straight away because it’s embarSteadman rassing. You kind of do a tentative kiss, then once you’re in the flow and you’ve rehearsed the piece you go for it.’
Were they aware of the social significance of what they were doing? ‘Yes and no, because the director made it seem so ordinary. He was gay, so he wasn’t fazed by it. That helped. I was worried about my parents. Although they are quite liberal, they lived in the suburbs of Liverpool. You know what neighbours are like.
‘My mum was quite shocked and said to my father, “I can’t look.” But then it was repeated and she did watch and she told me: “I thought it was rather good, actually.” So she got over it, you know?’
was raised in Liverpool but studied acting in Essex. That was where she met her future husband, Mike Leigh, and together they created Abigail’s Party, first broadcast on the BBC 40 years ago this year and regarded as one of the finest moments in British TV history. These days it probably wouldn’t even be made. ‘It was a different world. A BBC producer came to see the play at Hampstead Theatre. She had power that producers don’t have now. They have to have 50 meetings before they can do anything. Within three weeks of finishing at the theatre we were in the TV studio recording. It was amazing.’
Leigh and Steadman went on to make Life Is Sweet and other movies together but they were divorced in 2001 and she now lives with the actor Michael Elwyn in north London.
Her eldest son Toby, 40, is a graphic designer; Leo, 36, is a film-maker. She is glad neither chose to be an actor, but her reasons are surprising. ‘One of the problems with the profession is that there are too many of us. The number of drama schools just goes up and up every year. Basically, anyone can open a drama school. Universities have latched on to this. They charge a fortune to audition. They’re making a fortune. I don’t know how you regulate it, or stop it.’
Young people are being conned, she says. ‘For the majority, there isn’t the work. When you look at a hundred drama students, maybe two of them are actually going to end up doing it as a living. It’s really tough.’
Some do make it, of course. Her former colleague James Corden, the co-writer of Gavin
And Stacey, has become a huge star in America. Presumably it’s hard to get to see him now?
‘James is a superstar, yeah. Absolutely.’
Despite strong rumours, she is adamant the cast of the hugely popular sitcom are not likely to get back together for one last show. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I haven’t been told that, but I can almost guarantee it. Our lives have gone in so many directions now. We have such good memories of Gavin And Stacey, such a fondness for those days, but we hardly ever see each other.’
Steadman is known for playing characters who know their own minds and in person she is just as assertive. ‘I like to think of the next thing really.’ And for her, surprisingly, that is Spider! This fun, educational story is about a boy called Rafael
‘My mum was quite shocked by the TV kiss, but she got over it’
who is terrified when a big, hairy creature suddenly plops down in his living room – but who learns to love his eight-legged visitor, against all the odds.
‘I love spiders,’ she says, as a passionate supporter of animal charities of all kinds. But isn’t the market already flooded with celebrity books for kids? ‘I can’t help that. I didn’t write it because I was a celebrity. I wrote it because I am passionate about how we’ve got to teach children to take care of our creatures: our worms, our snails, our slugs, hedgehogs, spiders. Teach them the balance of nature.’
The idea came while she was making a series called The Syndicate. ‘I was working with the actress Sally Rogers and her little boy was on set during a break. I said to him, “Do you like spiders?” He said: “No! They’re horrible.” And I said, “Well, that’s a shame. They wouldn’t bite, they’re frightened of you, they don’t want to be in your house, they’d rather be outside spinning a web, but sometimes they can’t get out.” And I started telling him how many eyes they have and how you can tell a male from a female because the males look as though they have boxing gloves on. And he listened, not saying anything.’ Did he freak out? ‘The next day his mum came in and said: “Oh, you’ve had an influence on Rafael. He’s telling me I mustn’t kill spiders any more.” So I just thought, my God, if it’s as easy as that to get a child interested and to inspire their imagination, I’m going to write a book.’
And a charming thing it is too, with amazing spider facts and gorgeous illustrations by Mark Chambers. When she was recording the audio book, a money spider actually landed in her hair and stayed there until she was finished. ‘It was extraordinary. I thought, “Is this a good omen?”’
She shows me a picture of the spider on the cover of the book, next to the illustrated version. ‘And then we killed it! Smack!’ She laughs, wickedly. Is that true? ‘Of course not,’ says Alison Steadman, warm, witty and just a bit fierce, like one of her great comic creations. ‘Ha! Haven’t you been listening at all?’
Interview by Cole Moreton ‘Spider!’ is out now (Hodder Children’s Books), £12.99
Steadman with Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine, and with Pete Postlethwaite in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice. Inset right: with Mike Leigh