A school trip sparked a lifelong fascination with nature for Alison Steadman. Jeananne Craig catches up with one of the UK’s best-loved actresses and blackbird mimics...
Alison Steadman was keen to try everything out when she visited Shetland for a new ITV documentary, from otter spotting at dawn to sea kayaking and foraging for razor clams.
But the Gavin And Stacey actress put her foot down when she was asked to take a dip in the bitterly cold sea – with a local pony in tow.
“Before the director went to the islands, he said, ‘There’s this girl and she swims with a Shetland pony in the sea, would you be prepared to do that?’ And I said, ‘What?’” recalls Steadman, back in the comfort of her home.
“I can swim and I love the sea, and I love Shetland ponies, but I just knew that the temperature was going to be minus something or other in the sea.
“I’m nearly 68, I’m a pensioner,” she exclaims. “I’m not 21 any more.”
Steadman was very fond of the pint-sized ponies, but admits that even feeding them proved nerve-racking.
“A horse will gently take from you. This thing just grabbed the carrot out of my hand! I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, I could have had my fingers off, easy’. Thank goodness it was a very big carrot.” Lifelong nature lover Steadman had always dreamt of visiting the Shetland archipelago, which spans across about 100 islands and is inhabited by around 23,000 people.
Growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool, a school nature trip at the age of nine cemented her love of wildlife.
“As a child, my favourite thing in the summer was rummaging around for different kinds of caterpillars. My grandma used to know and feed all the birds, so you grow up knowing and listening.
“That moment [on the school excursion], we were all on a country walk, going along a country lane and I could hear the blackbirds, so distinctive and loud. So I started impersonating them. I remember the teacher saying, ‘That’s really good’.”
She adds: “We had a little party at the end of the week on the Friday night, before we were going home, and everyone had to do a turn, sing a song or whatever. My turn was doing birdsong.
“When I think of it now, the teachers must have been stuffing hankies in their mouths laughing...”
Steadman – who has two grown-up sons from her former marriage to Abigail’s Party director Mike Leigh – lives in Highgate, north London with her partner, actor Michael Elwyn, who shares her passion for nature and birds.
“We love walking together, going to nature reserves. We often visit Rainham Marshes, an RSPB reserve not far from here. We absolutely love it.
“We’ve got our feeders where we live and he helps to do those. He loves it.”
Visiting Shetland was a welcome break from the rigours of city life, however.
“Not that I don’t love people, but our cities now are so crowded.
“It was great to be in a place where if you didn’t want to see anyone, you didn’t have to, because there was nobody there!
“And the sky is so clear, it was great. And, of course, the other thing that comes from that is wonderful fresh air, so you can breathe without taking in a load of fumes.”
Steadman’s only gripe with the beautiful islands was the temperature.
“It was freezing,” she says, dragging the word out for dramatic effect.
“I’ve never worn so many thermals and layers in my life. I’m not a slim person, but I look a stone heavier than I really am [in the programme].
“I thought, ‘I don’t care what I look like, I am being warm’, so I had thermals and a warm jumper, then a zip-up jacket with a padded waistcoat over that, and I took a puffa jacket, and a windcheater as well. And most of the time I was wearing all of them.”
She continues, laughing: “One day, I had two pairs of water-resistant trousers on and eight layers, and a woolly hat with my hood up. The wind was howling and the poor sound man would say, ‘If only I could get some sound without the wind buffeting my microphone’.”
It’s been a busy summer for Steadman. She’s filmed a new BBC series, Grey Mates (also starring Russ Abbot and June Whitfield), a pilot for another comedy, and has rehearsals for a Theatre Royal Bath stage adaptation of the Emile Zola novel Therese Raquin. Sometimes it’s like buses, you don’t work for ages and then they all come at once,” she admits.
“I have had a lot on these last 12 months and I’m glad of that, I’m enjoying what I’m doing. But I think, come the end of September, when the run of my play’s finished, if – and it’s a big if - it goes into the West End, I’m hoping there’s going to be a nice gap so I can rest a bit and re-gird my loins, or whatever the phrase is.
“I think you need that, you can push yourself a bit too hard. And I am quite tired at the moment.”
She’s nervous about taking to the stage for the first time in two and a half years, at the Theatre Royal Bath.
“Stage is quite terrifying until you get confident with it.
“It always takes me a couple of weeks and then suddenly I start to fly, and then I’m happy.”
:: Alison Steadman’s Shetland airs on ITV on Tuesday, June 24