14 Oct 2007: Thirty years after it caused a TV sensation, social comedy Abigail’s Party has a power to stir devoted fans and stern critics. By Amy Raphael.
It’s not often that Mike Leigh gets to feel like Mick Jagger. He is not the most rock’n’roll of film-makers, but for one night in 1999 he felt like a pop star. As part of the National Theatre’s year-long project charting 20th century drama, the original cast of Abigail’s Party read extracts from the play in London’s Olivier Theatre. It was the first time they had been reunited on stage since the play made its debut at Hampstead Theatre in 1977. Public response was phenomenal. ‘It felt like a Stones concert,’ says Leigh.
The box office was mobbed and the overflow audience watched the action on a TV screen outside the auditorium. Leigh knew the play was popular – it was a sell-out for two runs at Hampstead, received well as a BBC Play for Today in the same year and, when repeated for a second time in August 1979, around 16 million people watched – but nothing could have prepared him for that night on the South Bank. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so surprised. In the 30 years since Abigail’s Party was first shown on television, the drama has taken on a life of its own. It is a simple story brilliantly done: Beverly and her husband Laurence host a drinks party for a few neighbours in their suburban house. The guests – Angela, her husband Tony, and Sue, a divorcee whose daughter Abigail is having a rowdy party nearby – are subjected to Beverly’s desire to be an exemplary hostess. Swishing around in her voluminous dress, she plies them with alcohol and nibbles. After a series of awkward silences and arguments about music and art, Laurence, tense from the outset, dies of a heart attack.
Beverly, the personification of the gauche, aspirational hostess, has become a gay icon and a drag-queen favourite; there are Abigail’s Party parties where fans recite lines to one another (Beverly: ‘Tone? A little cheesy-pineapple one?’) People are endlessly drawn, it seems, to finding inappropriate moments funny: it’s even hard to stifle a horrified laugh when Beverly flicks ash over Laurence as he lays dying. The play is continually being staged around the world, whether by professional or amateur actors. Alison Steadman gave a sublime, almost untouchable performance as Beverly but others have got close – notably Elizabeth Berrington in the 2002 West End revival and Jennifer Jason Leigh in an Off-Broadway production in 2005. Right now the play is running in Sao Paulo. Some have tried daft experiments: Hornchurch Rep had real drinks instead of pretend alcohol in one rehearsal and didn’t make it to the second act. Recently, Tony Grounds wrote The Dinner Party for BBC1; starring, among others, Steadman and Berrington, it drew inevitable comparisons to Abigail’s Party. Leigh would rather not discuss it.
Pale imitations aside, it is still hard to think of another play that offers such a relentlessly uncomfortable and yet hilarious take on strained relationships and awkward social situations – on what Leigh calls ‘the done thing’. It is a deep, dark, moving and beautifully-observed period piece. Three decades on, this comedy of bad manners is hard to beat. Richard Eyre, the film and theatre director who is a contemporary of Leigh’s, says it has reached classic status. ‘Abigail’s Party has become adjectival. You can describe an event as being “Abigail’s Party”. Which, of course, means that Mike’s work has acquired the status of a playwright such as Pinter.’
Eyre remembers seeing Abigail’s Party at Hampstead. ‘It was one of the funniest and most terrifying things I’d ever seen. I thought then what I think now: a great piece of work. I didn’t think it would be remembered in 30 years time – more that it was an astonishing genre that Mike had invented: social horror.’
Yet, as a stage production, Abigail’s Party almost didn’t happen, and as a BBC Play for Today it was a last-minute affair. By 1977, 34-year-old Leigh had already made several films for the BBC’s prestigious Play for Today slot, including Hard Labour and Nuts in May but had only done ‘one proper, fully fledged, two-act stage play’: Babies Grow Old was staged at The Other Place in Stratford before transferring to the ICA in London. The reviews were good and, after years of being overlooked by the Hampstead Theatre, Leigh was finally invited to lunch with David Aukin and Michael Rudman, who were respectively general manager and artistic director. Leigh was preoccupied with preparing the next Play for Today with producer Margaret Matheson, but agreed to meet. ‘Lunch is always a good sign. Aukin and Rudman took me to a Chinese restaurant in Belsize Park and said they had enough money for a 10-week rehearsal and half a dozen actors. I had to say yes or no before leaving the restaurant. I was reluctant but finally agreed.’
He went home and said to Alison Steadman, whom he had married in 1973, that he was doing this play purely as a ‘stopgap’. He added: ‘Whatever it turns out to be, it will sink without trace because the important thing is to make another film for the BBC.’ But Abigail’s Party was such a success at Hampstead that half a dozen West End managers wanted to put it on. However, Steadman discovered she was pregnant, and the West End was not an option. At the same time, Matheson told Leigh she had an empty television studio on her hands and suggested recording Abigail’s Party. Leigh thought it wouldn’t translate on to television but was persuaded otherwise. Three decades later, it remains one of his best-known works – despite the fact that Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake were all Oscar nominated, and the latter is also his most commercially successful film in the UK to date.
Despite its phenomenal success, Leigh has an issue with the technical side of Abigail’s Party. We talked about the play while working on a book together, and I was surprised at his very first comment: ‘For a film-maker, it’s a work of deep embarrassment and pain.’ He is referring not to the Hampstead version, however, but ‘the stage play that was wheeled into a television studio’. Talking again, he is slightly less damning. ‘The cast had done 104 performances, and so they steamed into the studio and we did it with a confidence that television plays didn’t normally have. But for all the commitment of those taking part, it is appallingly and inconsistently lit. And at one point you actually see the boom in the shot. It’s as amateur as that.’
Leigh usually enjoys seeing his films time and time again: Abigail’s Party is an exception. ‘I feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with anyone’s intentions or commitments; the crew were enthralled by it and didn’t pull the plugs at the agreed time of 10pm but continued till almost midnight. It has everything to do with a cumbersome medium that died a very natural dinosaur death: the five-camera television studio drama. Having said all that, the flaws are overshadowed by the remarkable enthusiasm whenever it’s aired.’
So where did Beverly, who Alan Bennett once described as ‘a brutal hostess with shoulders like a lifeguard and a walk to match’, come from? Alison Steadman discloses that she had two different sources. When she left her native Liverpool for East 15 Acting School in Essex, Steadman was struck by the local women. ‘One of the girls in my class lived in Romford, so we went to a few pubs round there. Very flash cars parked outside, all these rich Essex guys looking at the well turned-out women who had clearly dressed up to click with them. They were lower middle-class women looking for money.’
She also remembers one particular woman from Liverpool. ‘I grew up on a nice private lower middle-class estate in Anfield in the Fifties and early Sixties. There was this one very glamorous woman in her early thirties who lived nearby with her mother – the sort of woman everyone would whisper about: “I think she’s going out with the doctor, don’t know if he’s married…” She had flame-red hair with a rinse on. Not tarty, very attractive. I was fascinated by her. Eventually Mike asked what sort of work I thought this woman might do and I immediately thought: beauty therapist.’
Steadman spoke to personnel managers at cosmetic companies and spent a few days wandering around Selfridges, watching beauty therapists at work. She saw one pulling a reluctant woman – no make-up, a bit drab and damp from the wet weather – out of the crowd and doing a makeover on her as she sat on a stool, embarrassed but unable to leave. Later Steadman was improvising with Janine Duvitski. Beverly was giving Duvitski’s character Angela advice about lipstick, and the Selfridges experience was in the back of her mind when she said: ‘Now, can you take a little bit of criticism?’ She then encouraged Angela to sit in front of the mirror and repeat to herself: ‘I’ve got very beautiful lips.’ It has since become a famous scene; Duvitski tells me that just the other day a make-up artist quoted the line back at her. ‘My god, Abigail’s Party was 30 years ago! But I find it very flattering. People still remember it more than any other work I’ve done.’
Abigail’s Party is not without its critics. Leigh remembers seeing Kenneth Williams at one performance, ‘dressed in black and with a face as long as a fiddle’. Leigh watched him leave at the interval. ‘He thought it was awful. He saw it as sneering and braying at suburban people.’ Dennis Potter was equally furious after watching it on television. He wrote in the Sunday Times that the play was ‘based on nothing more edifying than rancid disdain, for it was a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful suburban tastes of the dreadful lower middle classes… It sank under its own immense condescension.’ Leigh is still affronted. ‘The play is so in love with the characters… Abigail’s Party is not a play about them, it’s a play about us. Which is why it works for the audience.’
If it still works for a contemporary audience, Abigail’s Party has also left a lasting impression upon its cast. Steadman has spent the last 30 years working hard not to repeat the aspirational hostess in her subsequent roles. Yet she occasionally feels nostalgic for that period. ‘When we were rehearsing, I brought some music in from home that I thought might be appropriate. One was Sam “The Man” Taylor’s “Blue Mist”, which I loved. It ended up being the smoochy music that Beverly plays to seduce Tony. I put it on last night, and took me straight back to the Hampstead Theatre in 1977. It’s a bit painful to listen to. Almost like returning to a house you once lived in that has got lots of memories but is empty now.’ She smiles. ‘Having said that, we laughed so much when we were putting the play together. Being Beverly was just terrific fun.’
Although she says Beverly is one of her saddest characters, Steadman has only good memories of the TV play. ‘We were in the studio for four days and on the final night the head cameraman came over to me, shook my hand and said it had been an absolute pleasure. Such a gesture was unheard of. There was a real sense that we were doing something a bit different, a bit unusual.’ Steadman had already made her name with Leigh’s earlier Play for Today, Nuts in May, but it is Abigail’s Party that she still finds herself talking about. ‘Many of the comedians around now say they watched it when they were very young; it was a real stepping stone.’
Where is she now? She has continued to work with Leigh since they separated in 1995. Other roles include Mrs Marlow in The Singing Detective and Pam in Gavin & Stacey.
As he had already worked with Leigh on The Five Minute Films for the BBC and Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Royal Court, Stern was surprised to hear his agent’s response when he was offered a part in Abigail’s Party. ‘She lived in Swiss Cottage and advised me not to do it; she said that people who went to Hampstead Theatre didn’t like what she defined as “experimental plays”. I ignored her and agreed to take part. But I had no idea how much it was going to catch on…’
Where is he now? Stern has appeared in Heartbeat, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and Holby City.
When the cast was improvising early on, Duvitski remembers feeling anxious. ‘I didn’t know if my character would be good enough. I couldn’t quite believe that the stuff we were doing would ever get on stage – until John Salthouse and I, in character as Tony and Angela, met Alison Steadman as Beverly for the first time. We had been improvising alone as a couple for weeks and finally we went to the drinks party. I couldn’t stop laughing. It was amazing.’ Duvitski hasn’t watched Abigail’s Party for years, apart from the odd clip. ‘People often quote lines at me, and it usually takes me time to work out what they’re talking about.’
Where is she now? Duvitski worked with Leigh on Grown-Ups in 1980. She appeared in One Foot in the Grave and The Worst Week of My Life; she is now filming the ITV comedy Benidorm.
Tony is memorable for not saying much, but Salthouse is the opposite. ‘By the time we opened, I was exhausted: Tony had so much anger inside him and I had no way of releasing it. So the process was tough but absolutely worth it. It marked me for life. It had a profound effect on me.’
Where is he now? After a spell on The Bill as DI Galloway, Salthouse, who played football for Crystal Palace until serious injury ended his career, appeared on Sky’s Dream Team as manager Frank Patcham. He is now working on projects with Shameless creator Paul Abbott.
Thelma Whiteley played Sue in the original production of Abigail’s Party at Hampstead. But when the play returned to the theatre for a summer run, she declined to take part. Leigh’s initial reaction was to ditch the play, but he decided to recast. ‘Sue is uniquely reactive rather than proactive, which meant I could recreate the character with another actress and then slot her into the play. When we put Harriet Reynolds in an improvised situation with the others, she came out with nearly the same lines.’ In 1992, Reynolds died of cancer. In 1999, when the cast was reunited at the National Theatre, Whiteley agreed to play Sue again. She died in 2000.
· BBC4 is hosting a night dedicated to Abigail’s Party on 28 October. Amy Raphael is editor of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (Faber), to be published next spring.
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