ALI­SON’S PARTY

What Ali­son Stead­man did next: write!

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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

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