She’s one of the UK’s best and best-loved actors and she’s 70 today. What better time for Karen Campbell to profess her devotion?
A few years ago when I lived in Highgate, I was in the local village and walking towards me was none other than Alison Steadman. I kept thinking, “I need to speak to her – it’s bloody Alison Steadman!” So I did.
I told her that I loved her work, that Abigail’s Party was life-changing for me and that her ability to effortlessly switch from piss-funny to serious thesp in her roles was an inspiration. And she smiled, thanked me and gave me a hug. They say never meet your heroes, but I am SO happy I met her; everything I imagined and more. And she smelled lovely.
I first became aware of her in the mighty The Singing Detective which my mother adored and I was allowed to watch, even though it was “very, very rude” (Mum’s words).
In it, Steadman played two characters, Mrs Marlow (the amazing Michael Gambon’s Philip Marlow’s mother) and murder victim Lili, and stole scenes as both. I remember thinking she was curiously beautiful and mesmerising. I was about nine and, as happens when you are nine and get obsessed with things and people, I got a little bit obsessed and wanted to know everything and anything she’d been in.
It was then I discovered something else, which ignited another obsession with Mike Leigh, that has been with me ever since. The wonderfully multilayered Abigail’s Party sees Steadman playing Beverly, on the surface a super flirty, almost bitchy, hierarchical type who subtly bullies her husband and friends due to her desperation to be seen as middle-class in taste, language and acquaintances. What transpires is that she is bitterly disappointed when the reality is that not only do the people around her fall short, so does she.
Steadman’s performance in this is nothing short of amazing. Mixing humour (Demis Roussos anyone?) with dark drama, Beverly epitomised households throughout the UK in the late 70s, filled with women desperate for more but struggling to know how to adapt. The Mike Leigh masterpiece is arguably still as relevant – and even more loved – today.
What I love about Steadman is her diversity and her non-conformity. She can smash it in period dramas (Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Hill), show up – and show-steal – in murder mysteries (The Midsomer Murders, Lewis), play pivotal roles in iconic films (Shirley Valentine, A Private Function) and be hilarious in offbeat comedies (Inside No. 9).
And we’ve not yet talked Gavin and Stacey, which gave Steadman one of the greatest comedy characters out there and introduced her to a new bunch of nine-year-olds who can get obsessed. Gavin and Stacey’s supporting characters are the best thing in it and, of those characters, the brilliant Pam is top of the tree, flexing her drama and comedy muscles with aplomb. With slightly similar tendencies to our Beverly, Pam’s quirks, obsessions and gobby nature land the best laughs.
Steadman is currently filming We Can Be Heroes with Phil Davis; Notes, a short film on dementia, as well as revisiting her numerous key characters.
I could bang on about her all day and haven’t even scratched the surface of her other bloody amazing work (Orphan Black, Boomers, Fat Friends, Adrian Mole). I can’t wait to see what she does next and might be hanging around in Highgate most weekends.
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Karen Campbell is a life coach at www.your-dreamcatcher.com. She likes gin, James McAvoy and pretending she's not from Scunthorpe.