A Civil Arrangement, Sunday, BBC4
Nuts in May, Sunday BBC4

The Weekend's Viewing: It was from the school of Alan Bennett, a chatty monologue embedded with a twist

Alison Steadman is one of those actresses whom it's easy to take for granted. She keeps so busy and gives such dependably professional performances that you can forget that when she is excellent she is really, memorably excellent – and last night, in a BBC4 soiree dedicated to her, we got two such examples, separated by 36 years. Colin Hough's new drama, A Civil Arrangement, was school of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, a chatty monologue embedded with a twist, featuring Steadman as Isobel, the mother of the bride. We first meet her while she's buying an outfit six weeks before her lesbian daughter's civil ceremony. Isobel herself is unhappily married to Robert, who is having nothing to do with his daughter's big day, being strongly resistant to walking up the aisle to Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl".

Isobel, meanwhile, finds a sympathetic ear and free pot plants from her daughter's intended, Janice, who works at a garden centre. "If I was to pick the perfect son-in-law, Janice would be it," she confided, in turn making a same-sex cake decoration by splitting two bride-and-groom cake-toppings and sticking the brides together. Janice appreciated the gesture, and if it was pretty obvious where this was all going – especially after Isobel found herself attracted to Janice's smell ("three fifths Eternity, the rest Baby Bio") – the journey was sweetly believable, and that can only be down to Steadman's reading of Hough's script.

You could, I suppose, argue that A Civil Arrangement dabbled in gay stereotypes – the motorbike-riding girlfriend, the daughter who grew up only interested in reading car maintenance manuals, and so on – but as with everything that didn't directly concern Steadman, this was all background shorthand. It was the words that mattered and these were mostly uncliched (Janice, Isolbel told us, "had sparkling eyes and hands like shovels"), even as it veered, from time to time, towards what you can call Coronation Street whimsy. And does anyone outside this sort of monologue really drink creme de menthe?

They must do, I guess, but then perhaps that was meant as some sort of meta-reference to the world of Abigail's Party. Dating from 1976, the year before that classic Mike Leigh Play for Today, Nuts in May (also written and directed by Leigh, Steadman's husband at the time) had a welcome re-airing last night, reminding me of why I prefer Leigh's television plays to his later films.


Steadman played Candice Marie, the childlike girlfriend of Roger Sloman's anally retentive Keith Pratt, a man who, when not counting the number of times that he chewed his food, iss obsessively planning the next day's menus. Keith's neurotic sense of order extends to the environment – particularly litter and noise – and is set for a collision course with messy reality when the couple book into a Dorset camp site.

Leigh wrote Nuts in May in the same year that John Cleese was penning the first series of his masterpiece, Fawlty Towers, and they have in common the comedy of an uptight man going bonkers when his plans are frustrated. Keith's version of thrashing his car with a tree branch is to hit a fellow camper (after having attempted a citizen's arrest) who has been flouting the rules. And while Sloman was terrific as the easy-to-mock Keith, Steadman's performance as Candice Marie was a brilliant counterweight. She allowed herself to be treated like a four-year-old, as in the scene where she picks up pebbles on the beach, only to be reprimanded that, if everyone took a pebble, there would be none left. It made me realise what an atypical role Candice Marie was for Steadman. Any other of her characters would have rolled their eyes – and no actor rolls their eyes quite like Alison Steadman.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk