An audience with Gavin and Stacey actress, Alison Steadman

When actress and national treasure Alison Steadman returned to her native Liverpool Paul Mackenzie was there to meet her

If the woman from Radio Merseyside was annoyed, she hid it well. Kept waiting in the hotel lobby, her frustrated glances through the door of the lounge did nothing to derail Alison Steadman's train of thought.Steadman is - as that radio reporter discovered eventually - an interviewer's dream.

Each of her answers led to an entertaining anecdote, each of which was performed with accents, impersonations and much waving of hands. And all of which meant we overran our allotted time with the national treasure actress and left the reporter outside clutching her microphone ever more tightly.

She has made her name as the nation's favourite Essex housewife, but Alison Steadman is as Liverpudlian as she is chatty. And she is remarkably chatty.

Reading previous interviews she has given before we met in the swanky city centre Hope Street Hotel, the same words kept cropping up - mumsy, ordinary, animated, energetic and conversational seemed to be the most popular descriptions. Within a minute of her arrival it was clear those adjectives hardly did her justice.

Energetic, yes; animated, certainly; conversational, definitely; but there's more to her than all that - she possesses a down to earth honesty and openness unusual among the luvvie set. And with her flawless skin, twinkling blue/grey eyes, stylish dress and chic accessories she could pass for at least ten younger than her 63 years.

Steadman grew up in Anfield, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a housewife and made her stage debut as a nine-year-old in a school production. 'I can't remember what the play was, but I remember loving it,' she says. 'I had to carry a bunch of twigs on my shoulder' - at this point she mimes her young self bent-backed, carrying the twigs - 'and I really enjoyed myself.

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'My mum came to see it and she was talking to the drama teacher afterwards and I overheard him say to my mum that he thought I had done well and was good enough to be an actress. At that age to hear someone saying you're good at something - especially as I was pretty hopeless at everything else at school - gives you a real boost.'

Her parents had already spotted her talent and would ask the young Alison to perform her party pieces for the family. 'I used to love Hylda Baker, Beryl Reid and Flora Robson and other really strong women and listening to Round the Horne and radio comedies.

'I was the youngest in the family and I used to do impressions of people from the radio and the Scottish woman next door and my parents used to ask me to do a turn. At school I used to impersonate the teachers and it was great to know that I could make the other children roll about with laughter.


'Acting all seemed so natural to me, I never really thought about doing anything else.'

She joined Liverpool Youth Theatre as a 15-year-old and was there every Friday for four years until she went to drama school in London.'The youth theatre was a life-saver for me. It gave me focus and really helped me find my place

'I had no theatrical background and although there are courses here, there and everywhere now, then they were five drama schools and I had only heard of Rada. I had been to London once before, for a day, so going down there on my own and not knowing a living soul within 300 miles was really quite scary.'

She enrolled in the East 15 Acting School and that's where she met Mike Leigh. The couple married in 1973 and she went on to become a mainstay in his work on stage and screen, most famously as Beverly in Abigail's Party. They divorced in 2001 but have two sons, the younger, Leo, is a film-maker like his father, and Toby is an illustrator. She now lives in Highgate, London, with the actor Michael Elwyn.

'Beverly was a man-eater and a real monster, who saw her husband's death as an inconvenience and you can imagine she'd have been quick to move on to the next man.

'I have been lucky to have been offered such good roles and to have played an interesting mix of characters, from Beverly to Pam in Gavin and Stacey. She's a tough Billericay woman but she has a gentleness, I love the sweetness of the woman.

'I think there's a bit of all of us in their characters. The way they want everything just right, as they see it, when people are coming round. I'm the same - if someone's coming, I have to plump the cushions and put those magazines away.

'Gavin and Stacey is all about the brilliance of the comedy, but it's not simply funny situations woven together, it's all about the characters and it's brilliantly written. When I first saw the script the character was all there and I knew straight away I wanted to be involved. Scripts that good are few and far between these days.'

Her career spans almost 40 years and she speaks of the characters she has played as old friends and as she flits from one to another she gives impromptu performances including voices, mannerisms and even the voices of other characters.

Her one-woman show in the hotel lounge takes in Beverly; the painfully neurotic Candice Marie from Nuts in May, along with her domineering husband Keith; Pam, Gavin's mother in the BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey and other members of the cast.But the show is cut short by that radio reporter who, unable to wait any longer, at last gets the opportunity to hear the anecdotes herself.

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