Alison Steadman: ‘I’m more confident now – that’s the bonus of age’
By Gabrielle Fagan . Published 2020-07-06
From nature walks and bird watching to avoiding reality TV, Alison Steadman talks all things wellbeing with Gabrielle Fagan.
Upbeath and chatty, Alison Steadman is full of funny tales about her roles over the years – from Pam Shipman in hit series Gavin & Stacey, to Beverly in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which first put her in the spotlight back in the Seventies.
“Comedy’s my favourite but I love everything really. If it’s got a good script, I’ll go for it,” the Liverpool-born actor, 73, declares happily. And she certainly has a glittering, varied CV – with TV credits from Fat Friends to Pride And Prejudice, alongside movie roles including 1989’s Shirley Valentine.
Away from the screen though, there is one sadness in her life which, even nearly 25 years on, can still move her to tears – losing her mother, Marj, to pancreatic cancer.
“It was a long time ago but I still carry the pain with me,” confides Steadman, an ambassador for Marie Curie, the charity which provides care and support for people with terminal illnesses and their families (she’s currently supporting Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal).
“I’m a very happy, positive, upbeat person most of the time, but I can still shed tears about the loss of my mum. I’ll forget she’s gone for a brief moment and think, ‘Oh I must call mum to tell mum this or that’, or I’ll hear a piece of music she liked and it will hit me again that she’s not here. The grief never goes away really,” she admits.
“It was a very hard time, but the care at the end of her life from Marie Curie nurses, when she was in the hospice, was wonderful,” Steadman adds, recalling that tough final phase. “They were so calm, gentle and understanding. I’ve never forgotten it, as it made such a difference to her last days.”
She says her mother was “a real character and such a calming, steadfast presence in my life. She would always talk to me and give me the courage to carry on. Her famous phrase was, ‘Never say you can’t. Always say you can, and you will – you’ll do it’.
“If ever I questioned myself or got scared, she’d says: ‘You’ve done everything in your life well so far, and you’ll do this well’. And to have that on the other end of the phone, it was amazing. I still talk to her in my head and ask for advice on things,” Steadman shares.
Here, the TV favourite opens up about ageing, why she hates reality shows, and has no plans to retire…
Will Gavin & Stacey return again?
“I have absolutely no idea but I would love it if it did! When we got back together [for the last Christmas special], it was like a family reunion. We were all hugging, kissing, crying and laughing. Everyone seemed to click back together again as if there hadn’t been a gap, and it was so sad to say goodbye at the end.
“I was nervous about the return though. I kept thinking, ‘Can I get the character back properly?’ People were so excited about it, and I thought, ‘Oh My God, they’re building this up so much, what if their expectations are too high and it’s not so good?’ But luckily it went very well. It’s a joy to be in.”
How do you feel about getting older?
“Being in my 70s means I can’t rush around so much anymore – jumping out of bed and into the shower is a thing of the past – and I find learning lines harder. That’s so little to grumble about and I know I’m lucky to have got this far, and I certainly don’t feel old.
“The bonus of this age is that I’m more confident than when I was younger, and not inclined to worry about little things so much as I did. That’s quite liberating. I’m aware of my mortality and realise the next stage of life is moving towards an unknown place, if it exists, but I don’t dwell on it.
“There are two pieces of advice I try to follow: Morecambe and Wise’s ‘always look on the bright side of life’, and my mother’s ‘put a bit of lippy on and you’ll always feel better’.”
Will you ever retire?
“I never want to retire, but I suppose I’ll want to do less in time – although there are so many more good parts being written for older people nowadays, which hopefully means I can carry on even longer.
“When I first started out, it was all about being young and glamorous, and the view was you’d be lucky to be working beyond 40. There was also a belief that older people sort of went into mothballs and stopped doing anything interesting that could be written about. The reality is, older people are as complex as any other age group.
“Actually, now I feel sad for young actors because there are so many of them coming out of drama schools and universities and it’s getting so much more harder for them to find work.”
What does family mean to you?
“Everything. I’ve always said my two sons, Toby and Leo, are my biggest achievement, and giving birth to them was the happiest time in my entire life. I’m still good friends with my first husband, Mike Leigh, and my partner Michael Elwyn and I have been together 23 years and have a really harmonious, strong relationship. He’s so important to me and when he’s working away, I absolutely hate it.
“My grandson, Freddy, two, is literally the light of my life – although I worry about what sort of a planet we’re passing on to him. The world’s getting more scary as far as plastic pollution and politics are concerned. I was a Remainer and I’m sad about Europe, but we just have to get on with it.”
What do you think about reality TV?
“I hate shows like Big Brother and think they should be banned. They’re totally ridiculous and a waste of time. People who’ve been on them tell me they’re stage managed, with controversy deliberately introduced to start rows, turn up the emotional temperature and slant things.
“The celebrity jungle isn’t for me either. Insects wouldn’t bother me, but I couldn’t eat them when they’re alive because that’s so cruel. I won’t watch any of those shows – give me a good quiz like University Challenge any day.”
How do you look after your health?
“I don’t have any health problems. My diet is healthy – fresh vegetables, salads, fruit and very little meat. I like getting outdoors every day and walking in woods and a nature reserve near my home, but as I get quite tired walking long distances, I’ll often get the bus back! It’s all about pacing myself.”
How do you look after your wellbeing?
“Bird watching is one of my favourite ways to relax, and I have bird feeders outside my kitchen window and watch the birds through binoculars. I don’t even stop baby rats coming to feed as well, because without getting too sentimental, I think all creatures should be given a chance.
“Seeing awful things on the news, like Syria where children are suffering so much, can make me cry. It makes you very grateful to live where we do.”
Alison Steadman is supporting Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal. Every five minutes, someone in the UK dies without getting the care and support they need. Show your support by donating and wearing a daffodil pin and help Marie Curie be there for people with a terminal illness and their loved ones.
To find out more on the mariecurie daffodil campaign see here
- Marie Curie