The Weekend's Viewing: A Civil Arrangement, Sunday, BBC4; Nuts in May, Sunday BBC4

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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment