The new star of the BBC Radio 4 soap also looks back at her trailblazing career, and how the TV industry has changed since the 1970s
Alison Steadman is explaining why she loves being on the radio. “I haven’t got the nose to do Virginia Woolf on telly,” she says, “but I can be her on the radio. I can be Princess Di, even Margaret Thatcher. I can be anyone.”
Right now, the 71-year-old Liverpool-born and Olivier Award-winning actor is Olwen, Pat Archer’s outspoken old friend from the Elm’s Homeless Shelter on The Archers, a show Steadman has listened to since she was a child.
Olwen is a dramatic vehicle – as old friends tend to be on The Archers – for various social woes, including abusive relationships, heartless employment practices and homelessness.
And quite right, too, says Steadman. “You might say it’s a bit of a middle-class bubble, but The Archers deals with people’s real worries. On the surface, you think that when men abuse or bully their wives, it must be those horrible situations where men get drunk and hit their wives. But it’s not always like that. I’ve met women who have been controlled by awful men to the point when men would tell them when they could go to the toilet, and the Helen and Rob storyline brought that to public attention.”
Steadman has been part of some of the best film and TV of the past 40 years, including Gavin & Stacey, Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party. The last two were directed by her first husband, Mike Leigh, with whom she also made Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies. Leigh and Steadman had two sons and separated in 1995.
“I’m very proud of Abigail’s Party,” she says. “For the first three years after it came out, I used to think, ‘Oh, will I ever do anything that anyone talks about apart from this?’ But then as time went by I began to think, ‘My God, it’s great that people still remember this’. My son is 40 and I was four months pregnant with him when we recorded it, so I’ve got the living calendar there. People still tell me how much they love it.”
She looks back less fondly on other aspects of the decade that produced Abigail’s Party. “It was a time when women just had to be housewives and mothers. Obviously there were millions of very happy women with lovely husbands, but if I recall growing up and being a young woman in the 70s, I can remember that situation in the workplace and in a pub where men thought it was their God-given right to touch you up if they wanted to. They would touch your boobs or touch your bum and think that was perfectly acceptable. And it isn’t.”
It was a period of profound change on TV, when taboos were broken seemingly every week. In 1974 Steadman starred in the BBC drama Girl, which featured the first lesbian kiss on British television. “My mum loved my success,” she says, “but I think she was a bit embarrassed when I did the lesbian kiss. I had to tell my parents beforehand, it would have been too awful of me not to. My mum just said, ‘Oh, here we go…’
“And sex scenes as well, not that they were explicit, but obviously it’s difficult when you’re living in a suburban area of Liverpool where your neighbours are saying, ‘Oh, Mrs Steadman, I saw Alison on television last night…’ My mum put up with it magnificently.”
Marjorie Steadman sounds like a delightfully old-fashioned woman. “She was very reluctant to go into pubs,” Steadman recalls. “She saw that as a thing that women didn’t do. It wasn’t until the mid-70s, when I had my kids and I said we were going for a pub lunch, that she sort of accepted that and it was fine. But the idea of going to the local pub for a drink was something you never did.”
If life has changed for women, Steadman says, it’s because women have made it change. “We’re living in a time when women are having more control and are able to say, ‘No, that’s not fair.’”
She is a lifelong Labour supporter and hopes one day to see a woman leading the party. “It was so sad when Jo Cox was killed. I thought she was heading towards being a leader. But there will be others. They’re coming up.”
Steadman herself shows no sign of slowing down. As well as The Archers, she has just been seen in the BBC1 sitcom Hold the Sunset with John Cleese. It divided opinion, but Steadman says she loved doing it. “It’s not a hilarious comedy, but I don’t think it ever set out to be that. It was kind of gentle and a bit different.”