I'm a homely person, says Britain's funniest actress

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Old 17-Feb-2011
I'm a homely person, says Britain's funniest actress

UNP ImageThere is no such thing as a boring Christmas party. People are so endlessly fascinating that you'd have to be a pretty dreary person yourself not to be entertained."

Alison Steadman, arguably Britain's funniest character actress, is in full flight. Having played sweetly neurotic Essex wife Pamela in Gavin and Stacey, and monstrous Beverly in Abigail's Party, that classic dissection of the British class system unrivalled since its broadcast in 1977, she's a professional observer and deft mimic of the minutiae most of us miss.

"I people-watch wherever I go, which is completely absorbing and illuminating; wondering why he chose to wear that particular coat, why she hasn't got any make-up on, what makes that pair over there gel as a couple," she says.

"Whenever I come across a young actor treading water between jobs, I urge him or her to get out and learn the craft by watching human beings. The world's an acting class and it's free."

Steadman, 64, does brassy like few others, but is no longer a honey blonde-with-help. On a recent tour of Coward's Blythe Spirit she stopped dyeing her hair and, to her great delight, she has emerged as striking Scandinavian ash.

With enviably creamy skin and rounded, line-free cheeks, she's a much slimmer and neater figure than her on-screen alter egos would suggest. Elegantly swathed in warm shades of plum, pomegranate and mauve, a pair of fabulous aubergine, suede ankle boots on her feet and a fashion-forward melamine pendant at her throat, she looks like she ought to be topping the bill in the Christmas advert for Marks & Spencer.

Steadman was married to writer and director Mike Leigh for 28 years and has two adult sons; filmmaker Leo 29, and illustrator Toby, 31.

She lives in Hampstead with her long-term partner, the actor Michael Elwyn and is unapologetic about her conspicuous absence from the showbiz party circuit.

"I'm a homely person," she says. "I've never been one of those people who goes stir crazy and thinks ‘If I don't get into the West End today I'll scream!' I'm not in the cocoa-and-Slanket bracket yet, but I do enjoy a good potter round, and I have binoculars at the windows so I can spot the dunnocks and woodpeckers."

Middle England interests

She has the gift of transforming an interview into a chat, not least because she has a plethora of Middle England interests that she talks about with the pin-you-to-your-seat passion. There's squirrel-proofing her birdfeeders, membership of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, hearty hikes and, more emphatically, the need to crusade against plastic bags.

"What I hate about Christmas is knowing that cargo ships are coming here from China laden with eight tons of trinkets and tat, and that the plastic never fully biodegrades, but ends up entering the food chain as molecules," she says.

Then she launches into a grisly account of how mother penguins are mistaking discarded disposable lighters in the Antarctic for bright little fish and thrusting them down their chicks' throats.

"There's an island of plastic the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific. Mussels and other shellfish are effectively eating the remains of bottles and as we eat them, we are consuming our own plastic. I wouldn't be surprised if that is the cause of the rise in cancers."

Whether pastiche or hommage, her approach is to think herself deep into every character she inhabits; Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejuidice, Wendy in Fat Friends, Betty in Life is Sweet. There's no doubt that she has a shrewd understanding of human nature and deploys her emotional intelligence both on and off stage and screen.

"I'm a grandmother-in-waiting," she confesses. "Hovering in the wings, as it were. But I wouldn't dream of putting pressure on my sons to settle down before they were ready," she says.

"I have friends who are caring virtually full time for young grandchildren and they're utterly exhausted; this new thing of being expected to charge after toddlers when you're in your 60s isn't a terribly positive development. I've no intention of doing all that when any grandchildren come along."

I'm not sure I believe her; Steadman has always claimed the pinnacle of her career was taking time out to bring up her boys. Quietly getting on with things has been her modus operandi; when I bring up the subject of Dame Helen Mirren's recent outburst that older women are "invisible" in Hollywood, she chooses her words carefully.

"Helen Mirrren is a different kind of personality to me and she speaks very forcefully about things she feels strongly about and that's great, but when you think about it, things have got a lot better for older actresses since I started 40 years ago. I'm not going to shout my mouth off about it. I've done very well and been in work constantly, as has Helen Mirren, so we can't complain."

She has, she says, never coveted a role, and is simply happy to have got to a point where she can pick and choose parts.

"The main thing in work and in life is to have a sense of empathy and try and understand what motivates people, what makes them tick. Once you start doing that you'll never have a dull moment again."

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