Alison Steadman has been crafting. “I couldn’t go out and go shopping,” she says from her home in north London. “So I make puppets and costumes from old bits and pieces that I have at home. I love it.”
Steadman didn’t mention puppets at the start of lockdown. Then, the star of Radio 4 comedy Relativity told Radio Times she’d get by on gin and tonics and watching her bird feeder. Months later, Steadman admits she wasn’t feeling quite as cheerful as she sounded. “I was dreading it,” says the 73-year-old actor. “I like company. I need friends around to comfort me and I need to talk to my family.”
Steadman has done some of her most memorable work in a family setting: Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Pam Shipman in Gavin & Stacey, Edith alongside John Cleese in Hold the Sunset. Now she’s back in a third series of Relativity, Richard Herring’s series about three generations of the same family. She plays Margaret, wife of Phil Davies’s Ken. Their son, Ian, is played by Herring: “Richard is such a great guy,” she says. “He has a real warmth about him.”
Steadman seems to like everybody she appears with – “I loved working with John Cleese” – but radio comedy is her great pleasure. “I’m at my happiest when I’m in the studio with all the actors.” This is partly, concedes Steadman, because she doesn’t have to memorise the script.
Learning lines, she admits, is one of the things that has got harder as she gets older – and it has caused her some heartache. “I bumped into a journalist two years ago at a party and he asked, ‘How are the lines going?’ I said, ‘It takes me ten times as long, but I can do it.’ And he put something like ‘Alison Steadman losing her short-term memory’ in the paper. It was awful, and it just devastated me.”
She’s happy to admit to feeling the years in other ways. “I can’t multi-task any more. I get tired,” she says. “Suddenly, in your 70s, you go, ‘Aha. I get it.’ I find myself now accepting that I can’t do this and I can’t do that. I’m quite happy. It’s not horrible, in any way.
It’s just the journey of life. I can remember when I was about 14, I put in a diary, ‘I think I’ll probably die when I’m 35’, and back then that seemed old, really old. It’s just mad, isn’t it?”
Like Margaret in Relativity, Steadman is a grandmother herself. Three-year-old Freddy is the son of her son Toby who, along with brother Leo, was the product of her 28-year marriage to writer and film-maker Mike Leigh. “I absolutely adore him,” Steadman says, revealing that making things for Freddy kept her sane during lockdown. “I made him a papier-mâché Mr Punch puppet. You just need newspaper, flour and water. I haven’t made Judy yet, but I intend to. You can’t not have a Mrs Punch, can you?”
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He’s not very suited to the #MeToo age, I suggest. Isn’t Punch a violent bully? “He’s changed now. He doesn’t hit his wife on the head any more. But he is pretty scary, Freddy doesn’t like him. When I showed him Mr Punch on FaceTime he bowed his head down and looked at the ground, and I thought, ‘Hmm.’ My son said, ‘Mum, put Mr Punch away. He’s terrifying.’”
Earlier in lockdown Steadman was in a ten-minute film for BBC4’s Unprecedented series, filming the scenes with partner Michael Elwyn on an iPhone. She is thrilled by modern technology. “It’s amazing,” she says. “My parents didn’t have a landline until I was 15 and you had to ask permission to make a call – it was expensive. Then, when I left Liverpool to go to drama school, I remember phoning home and scrambling for coins at the beep beep beep sound, which meant put more money in. Skip 50 years and you can Skype people in America and chat.”
At East 15 Acting School Steadman was “surrounded by Essex women”, and later drew on their estuarine accents for Beverly, the ghastly yet tragic suburban housewife in Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, her first big TV success in 1977. She was already acclaimed for her stage version of Beverly and, until 2014, Steadman was still appearing in the West End. “I’ve got a bit of stage fright now,” she says ruefully. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing theatre again. I remember being in Uncle Vanya [in 1979] with Ian Holm, who died this week. He’d had stage fright and we talked about it. I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I wonder what that’s like. How does that happen?’ Now I’m there myself. Initially, it made me very sad, but now, I think, ‘OK, accept it. You can do telly. You can do radio.’”
I ask Steadman which of her roles have the most of her in them – Beverly, Pam Shipman, Margaret in Relativity? She picks hippy-dippy Candice Marie in Leigh’s peerless Nuts in May. “Waving a scarf in the breeze and imagining medieval Corfe Castle with all the people in their fineries, there was a lot of me in that,” she says. “It was so long ago, when I watch it, it doesn’t look like me. It looks like somebody else.”
Her next live performance will be in her garden, where Steadman can now meet up with Freddy for impromptu puppet shows. “No, not Mr Punch!” she says when I ask. “I have an old Sooty. I keep it in a bag and he calls, ‘Sooty, where are you?’ until I bring it out. Your heart just melts.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.