Alison Steadman on BBC’s forthcoming drama Life and the 23 walks film
- Credit: NICK WALL
The Gavin & Stacey star reflects on art imitating life in her latest role which will be on our screens this month
Alison Steadman returned to her northern roots for the upcoming series Life, which was shot in and around Manchester last year. Centred on the residents of a large house divided into flats, filming wrapped long before lockdown, but the drama will no doubt have extra resonance given we’ve all spent so much time at home this year, and consequently more time with our neighbours.
‘You might be living in close proximity, but it’s quite a normal thing where you go, “Oh hi,” when you bump into your neighbours and then you don’t say anything else, so you don’t really know what’s going on with each other’s lives,’ says Liverpool-born Steadman, 74, who now lives in north London.
She recently revealed to the Radio Times she kept herself busy these last few months ‘making puppets and costumes from old bits and pieces that I have at home’.
And there’s been plenty of time to indulge in her favourite pastime - birdwatching, which she finds is an effective way to relax.
But her true passion, aside from family (she has two sons from her 28-year marriage to filmmaker Mike Leigh, and a grandson) is acting of course, and she’s rarely stopped since graduating from East 15 Acting School.
She even managed to film a short film during lockdown as part of BBC Four’s Unprecedented series, which was shot by her partner Michael Elwyn on a camera phone.
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But Life is the next big project. The six-part series, created and written by Mike Bartlett, interlinks four storylines, and marks a crossover with another of Bartlett’s series, Doctor Foster. One of the characters is Foster’s former friend, Anna (Victoria Hamilton), who’s now trying to build a new life for herself as Pilates teacher ‘Belle’.
Her neighbours include David (Adrian Lester), a married man whose his head is turned by a new acquaintance; and heavily pregnant Hannah (Melissa Johns), whose quiet life is upended when the man she had a one-night stand with suddenly reappears.
‘It’s seemingly ordinary storylines that become quite explosive,’ notes Peter Davison in passing during the set visit at Space Studios in West Gorton.
He and Steadman play Henry and Gail who’ve been together for almost 50 years, but the marriage has been notably one-sided.
‘Henry’s a pompous prat, although he doesn’t know it,’ says Steadman, laughing as she takes a break between takes.
‘On the surface, Gail’s happy and they have quite a good life, but Henry tends to not listen to her, and over the years she’s gone under the radar. The fun begins when she realises she needs to do a few things with her life and not just be his servant.’
The epiphany follows a chance encounter with an old school friend. ‘They’ve not seen each other for 50 years and the woman remembers Gail to be this completely different person. She was lively, adventurous, and everyone looked up to her. Now, she’s this nice middle-class lady whose husband talks over her.
‘When someone else points out something to you in life, it opens a window. It can make you think, “What have I done with my life, good or bad?” and when this woman points out a few things, it makes her think, “Hmm, maybe I have been a bit silly to let this happen”, says Steadman who remembers friends of her parents had a similar dynamic.
‘It was awful, this chap would clap his hands and go, “Right, c’mon woman, get the tea on” and she would tootle off and put the kettle on. She was an intelligent lady and it was really sad because she didn’t have the courage to stand up to this very domineering man. I think a lot of women will identify with Gail or know people like this couple.’
Gail’s reaction to this wake-up call is to rebel. ‘Nothing too outrageous, it’s just really her finding her independence.’
And it’s not a day too soon as Gail’s about to celebrate her 70th birthday.
‘I’ve had a 70th myself and it is a significant birthday. You do feel different. You have your 40th, 50th, 60th and then you think, “Oh gosh, how many years have I got left? and so you start to think, “I’ve never done this or that, or maybe I should branch out and do this”.
‘I do value every day of my life much more than I did,’ says Steadman who rose to fame in Leigh’s iconic Abigail’s Party in 1977 but has no desire to draw the curtain on her career.
‘A friend of mine was a headmistress for years and had to retire eventually. She didn’t know what to do or how to carry on and was desperate for something to do because she felt her life wasn’t over.’
A newly acquired stage fright has scared her off future theatre work, but there’s always radio, such as BBC Radio 4’s Relativity, and television. Only a few months ago, Steadman reprised her role of Pam Shipman in the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special. There’s film, too, including 23 Walks which is out this month.
She and Dave Johns play two dog walkers, Fern and Dave, who meet one day when Fern takes umbrage with Dave’s German Shepherd. After a rocky start, they begin to forge a friendship, but a burgeoning romance is impeded by secrets and misunderstandings.
‘Fern’s twice married but lives alone, and has a very sweet dog, a terrier called Henry, who she walks every day, but you sense she’s someone who is perhaps looking for companionship,’ explains Steadman who recalls the first few days on set were difficult.
‘The dogs didn’t know us, we didn’t know them, and they were being asked to do all sorts of things and to look as though me and Dave are their owners. They did settle down, although I had to have a pocket full of sliced hot dogs as little treats,’ she Steadman who’s thrilled there are so many stories now for a demographic that’s been ignored for too long.
‘Thank god writers have suddenly woken up and realised there are interesting stories for people over 60 because people don’t suddenly stop living when they get to a certain age. A lot of people live even more, and so there are lots of interesting things to discover and talk about.’
Life airs on BBC One this autumn and 23 Walks is released on September 25th.