Who cares?

Play­ing a stroke vic­tim whose fam­ily must nav­i­gate the new care sys­tem in a pow­er­ful drama, Ali­son Stead­man says she hopes it will make peo­ple stop and think

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Ni­cole Lam­pert Care, to­mor­row, 9pm, BBC1.

Ali­son Stead­man walks into the trailer with her hair all skew-whiff. She’s wear­ing a hos­pi­tal gown and pink makeup to make her look se­ri­ously ill. ‘Well, as you can see, I’m full of glam­our,’ she laughs, giv­ing me a twirl. ‘I’m ab­so­lutely gor­geous!’

Ali­son’s work, though, has never been about her looks. From Abi­gail’s Party and Life Is Sweet to Gavin And Stacey and

Fat Friends, she’s one of Bri­tain’s best-loved ac­tresses, of­ten play­ing out­ra­geously loud char­ac­ters. But her role in Care, the new drama from Jimmy McGovern, who wrote Cracker, Ac­cused and Bro­ken, is pos­si­bly the one that will win her the great­est ac­claim of her long ca­reer.

The 90-minute one-off show is not an easy watch. Ali­son plays Mary, who’s as bright as a but­ton and en­joys look­ing af­ter her grand­chil­dren un­til a se­ri­ous stroke leaves her los­ing her mind and no longer able to care for her­self. She eats teabags, thinks ev­ery man she sees is her late hus­band and, be­cause she’s par­tially paral­ysed, she can’t speak prop­erly. Ali­son’s por­trayal is heartbreaking, bril­liantly ar­tic­u­lat­ing Mary’s fury and con­fu­sion – and all with barely a word said.

Sheri­dan Smith, Ali­son’s for­mer Gavin And Stacey cos­tar, and Sinead Keenan, who was nom­i­nated for a BAFTA last year for the emo­tional drama Lit­tle Boy Blue, play her daugh­ters. Sheri­dan is sin­gle mother Jenny who re­lies on Mary’s sup­port with her two young chil­dren, while Sinead is busi­ness­woman Claire. They’re both top-notch ac­tresses, but it’s Ali­son’s per­for­mance that you can’t take your eyes off.

‘This is what I’d call a chal­leng­ing role, but I ap­proached it with rel­ish,’ she says when we meet on the set of the drama, in Liver­pool. ‘I knew I was go­ing to have to work to get into Mary’s brain and un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing to her, what she was go­ing through. It’s such a worth­while piece of drama and Jimmy McGovern is such a good writer I thought that what­ever he gave me I could trust.

‘Mary starts off as a very lively woman. She’s en­er­getic, and bril­liant with her grand­kids. And then, bang! She has the stroke and it changes her life to­tally. The ter­ri­fy­ing thing is that it could hap­pen to any of us at any time, and there’s noth­ing you can do to help your­self.’

Ali­son, 72, worked with a doc­tor to un­der­stand what hap­pens to peo­ple when they have a stroke, but did not have to look far for in­spi­ra­tion for Mary, who is left with de­men­tia and be­comes a dif­fer­ent per­son en­tirely. In a tragic co­in­ci­dence just a few weeks be­fore she started film­ing, one of her old­est friends suf­fered one. ‘I vis­ited her in a stroke ward, not for re­search, but be­cause she was my friend,’ she says. ‘I tried to talk to her but she couldn’t speak. When you’ve known some­one who’s feisty and chatty and full of opin­ions, then sud­denly they can’t even say yes or no, that’s very painful to see.

‘I’d ask her some­thing and she’d want to re­ply but she just couldn’t speak. She would bow her head be­cause she was about to cry, then she’d pull her­self to­gether and sit up again. It was painful, so painful to see. None of us know what’s in the loop for us in life, do we?’

Care was par­tially in­spired by the real-life story of Gil­lian Juckes, a writer for chil­dren’s TV whose mother had a stroke. She co-wrote the script with Jimmy, her f i rst ma­jor TV drama. It de­scribes the night­mar­ish sce­nario when an older per­son sud­denly be­comes se­ri­ously ill and their fam­ily has to nav­i­gate the care sys­tem. The sis­ters have to fight to get the sys­tem on their side, but with scarce re­sources that isn’t easy.

Ali­son sighs. ‘We all know the NHS does its best but it’s stretched. It’s just cel­e­brated 70 years and none of us would like to be with­out it, but my God, it needs mil­lions. It needs a com­plete re­vamp and a look at where the money is spent. Some of it is be­ing wasted. I’m hop­ing that even if peo­ple haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing like this, it will make them stop and think.

‘When some­one be­comes se­ri­ously ill you’re sud­denly plunged into this other world that you’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced. My mother had ter­mi­nal cancer and sud­denly you’re look­ing at all the ser­vices out there, and if they’re not good enough it breaks your heart be­cause this is a hu­man be­ing that needs care and kind­ness. It’s an added pres­sure for fam­i­lies who are al­ready deal­ing with a tough sit­u­a­tion.’

In the show the fam­ily take on the au­thor­i­ties to help get the fund­ing they need for the right care home. The prob­lem is that Mary didn’t own her own home and there’s no money to put to­wards her care. ‘You wouldn’t leave a child who needed care to fend for them­selves, yet we some­times do that to our old peo­ple,’ says Ali­son. ‘What we look at in the piece is that if you have loads of money you can go to a great care home, but if you haven’t got the money you can’t. ‘A friend of mine was sent to a care home a few years ago and it was ap­palling. The food was dread­ful, and this was a pri­vately owned place. The girls who were work­ing there were all lovely, they were do­ing their best, but they couldn’t cope. I wanted to scream ev­ery time I vis­ited.

‘This isn’t a story crit­ici sing ca re homes. They’re do­ing their best in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. It costs a for­tune to look af­ter some­one with de­men­tia or spe­cial phys­i­cal needs. In the story the sis­ters dis­cover that they could be en­ti­tled to bet­ter care, but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily ad­ver­tised very well. You have to re­ally hunt for it and push for it.’

Ali­son, who has two sons by her for­mer hus­band, the di­rec­tor Mike Leigh, and re­cently be­came a grand­mother for the first time, ad­mits that be­ing in the show has made her think about her own ad­vanc­ing age and frail­ties. She lives with long-term partner, fel­low ac­tor Michael El­wyn, and al­though she’s healthy she ad­mits to get­ting a bit creaky. ‘I’m 72 and it makes you think, “Oh my God, I’ll be 82 in ten years,”’ she sighs. ‘But this is life and it’s go­ing to hap­pen to all of us.

‘The ageing process is a funny old thing. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll live for­ever, and then you find your­self at my age. I think about my par­ents and my aunts and how they got old and changed, not in a mor­bid way but in a re­al­is­tic way, which is some­thing I’ve never done be­fore.

‘I’ve re­alised that over the past 12 months I’ve got a lit­tle creakier. Be­tween 60 and 70 I felt good, but now I’m sort of think­ing, “You know what, I don’t know whether I want to climb 80 stairs up to that restau­rant.” But do­ing this job makes me ap­pre­ci­ate that at the end of the day I can get dressed, put on my lip­stick and go and have a gin and tonic – some peo­ple aren’t so lucky.’

‘Dur­ing my 60s I felt good, now I’m creakier’

Ali­son and (in­set) with Sheri­dan Smith in the drama

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