Saturday, 20 May 2017

Celebrating 40 Years of Abigail’s Party

Celebrating 40 years since the BBC broadcast of Abigail’s Party. Actress Alison Steadman OBE, and producer Margaret Mattheson reminisce about this wonderful play, and the wonderful experience making this cult classic.

I’m a lucky individual. I get to see films and then interview the filmmakers all about it, it really is the perfect job. And on Sunday, 14th May at the Arthouse cinema, Crouch End, following a screening of Abigail’s Party, I had the opportunity to exercise my passion.

“OK, you’re up,” said the duty manager.

I was so caught in conversation with Margaret Mattheson about the current state of television, I’d lost track of time, as we walked towards the screening room.

“Errr, but where’s Alison?”

“She’s on her way, she’s a little late.”

Well, that threw the interview I’d planned out the window. Time to follow Abigail’s Party director, Mike Leigh’s lead, and …. Improvise!

I made my apologies to the audience that our star, Alison Steadman was going to be joining us imminently and commenced with the Q&A.

“So, what was it about the play that attracted you in the first place?” OK. I confess to going into default mode.

The BBC producer began her answer, as the door flew open and in walked the tour de force that is, Alison Steadman.

“I’m so sorry,” she appealed to the audience.

She took her seat, and the Q&A could truly begin.
Claire Bueno interviews Alison Steadman & Margaret Mattheson
Alison picked up the question, and took us back to when they originally performed the play at the Hampstead Theatre.

The actors had no script, not in the traditional sense. Mike Leigh’s improvisational technique was such that that the five actors built their own characters, they were not allowed to talk about each other’s characters and on stage the performance was completely improvised.

I imagine thrilling and terrifying at the same time!

At the time the BBC broadcast a series called Play for Today. This series heralded plays that became series in their own right, such as Rumpole of the Bailey and Boys From The Black Stuff.

Margaret explained that Abigail’s Party’s broadcast happened serendipitously.

The play scheduled to film, fell through and they needed to fill in with another one; urgently. Cue Abigail’s Party.

Alison was pregnant at the time, which made recording this play even more time sensitive.

Margaret informed us that Abigail’s Party was filmed chronologically in three days, with a three camera set-up. They wouldn’t do it like that now.

Alison enlightened us that at the time the BBC worked to time. But the crew were so impressed by the performances and the quality of the work, they were happy to work through until 10pm.

On her character, the overpowering Beverly, Leigh had asked Alison, “What did Beverly do for a living?”

“She sells beauty products in a department store.”

So, as part of her preparation, Alison visited a department store in Essex and watched how the demonstrator, with a tiny microphone mouthpiece worked the crowd. Alison noted how the demonstrator picked out a girl in the audience with no make-up who would have the biggest transformation to impress her audience. And from this demonstrator, Beverly was created.

Having performed Beverly on stage and projecting to an audience, did Alison have to tone her down for TV?

“No.” Was Alison’s answer, she was going to play her big!
Cast of the BBC broadcast of Abigail's Party

I asked if the secret to the play’s success was the characters having relatable traits. They could been anyone’s neighbours.

“I hope they’re not mine!” Margaret and Alison laughed unanimously.

Forty years on, would Margaret and Alison like to revisit Beverly and see what she’s doing now?”

“No, I don’t really like sequels,” said Margaret.

And for the lady who, as a child loved to do impressions and make people laugh. Who confessed was no good and English and Maths, and whose mother would turn off the TV so she could impersonate Hilda Baker. Would she like to inhabit Beverly once more?

She confessed if it hadn’t been for the Play for Today recording, it would have been incredibly difficult to have let the part, the play and her fellow performers go. But no, she is happy to leave Beverly where she left her back in 1977, though she imagines she’s on her fourth husband now.

Alison recalled how Mike Leigh had to sit and write the script as it was being performed, and that it had to be dramatically reduced to 90 minutes to fit the BBC’s time slot.

Well, that 90 minutes has lasted the test of time. The themes may have changed; women needing permission from their husbands to take driving lessons, for instance, but some things don’t. Solid performances that reveal something new with every viewing, solid direction from a director who understands the magic of acting and the institution that is the BBC.

Happy Birthday Abigail’s Party.
Words by Claire Bueno

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