With their low-level affectionate mockery, in-jokes and obvious love for each other, it’s easy to see how Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb have remained firm friends for 25 years.
The nation fell in love with the pair as bickering Essex husband and wife duo Pam and Mick Shipman in Gavin & Stacey, and it turns out the British actors have just the same chemistry in real life as they do on screen.
And 16 years on from the very first episode of the British sitcom in 2007 – penned by James Corden and Ruth Jones, who both starred in it as Smithy and Nessa – Alison, 76, and 75-year-old Larry are finally setting foot in their onscreen hometown, Billericay, for a new documentary series.
They first met on the set of 1990s BBC comedy The Missing Postman, in which Larry played a lawyer and Alison his wife, but never appeared on screen at the same time until Gavin & Stacey. And it was only thanks to Alison that Mick and Pam were created: having worked with James and Ruth on Fat Friends, she was a shoo-in for flirtatious blonde bombshell Pam, but the producers still didn’t have their Mick.
“I remember coming to stay with you in France and you saying to me, ‘What is this Gavin & Stacey then?’ she recalls to Larry as they drive down to Essex for their travel adventure. “They were looking for a Mick, and they found you!”
Alison’s first big break came with Mike Leigh’s 1977 televised play Abigail’s Party, while Larry found fame with Superman in 1978, before landing the part of supervillain Archie Mitchell in EastEnders.
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But despite their respective groaning lists of TV, theatre and film credits, it’s Pam and Mick for which the pair are best recognised these days.
For the best part of two decades, fans have been quoting Pam’s flustered lines “Oh my Christ!”, her love of local gossip and her ability to grasp precisely the wrong end of the stick in any moment of drama.
Larry’s Mick, meanwhile, was the put-upon golfing husband who always smoothed things over and pandered to Pam’s demands with exasperated affection.
As soon as they read the script for the first episode, both of them knew Gavin & Stacey was going to be a hit. “Pam’s first scene, when she’s lying down with the cucumbers on her eyes, and Gavin comes in and goes, ‘alright Mum?’, and she says, ‘well no I’m not actually’… It was one of the best [shows],” recalls Alison.
The 2019 Christmas special, in which Nessa confesses her love to Smithy and proposes to him, was watched by 17.1million viewers – making it the UK’s most-watched scripted TV programme of the 2010s. Since then there has been talk of another reunion: Corden, back in England after his US stint hosting The Late Late Show, teased that he’d met up with writing partner Jones last year.
Meanwhile Joanna Page, who plays Stacey and provides the voiceover for their new show – Alison & Larry: Billericay to Barry which is on UKTV – admitted the cast are “constantly in touch” with each other. “I’d love to do another Christmas special,” Alison tells Larry wistfully, as he grins in response.
Unlike Mick, who could always be counted on to have a bottle of fizz chilling in the fridge, Larry no longer drinks after quitting the booze in 2010, the same year the show stopped filming. Decades of hard partying had caught up with him, and the hangovers were no longer worth the fleeting fun of drinking.
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“It was somewhere around 2010 I stopped,” he reminds Alison on the show. “What I can do now is if someone’s serving some really lovely wine, I can get just a little teardrop in the bottom of the glass and smell it and appreciate it, and not think I have to drink three bottles of it, which was the problem before.
“I’m fine with that gone out of my life. I suppose I could say I miss it, but I don’t. As a memory I loved it, but that’s it. And I love to serve what I used to drink to people, especially when I’ve got someone like you around who can drink industrial quantities!”
It was due to a lucky chance that Larry even started acting in the first place. “I was 25 living in Canada – I’d been working in the oil business, I was a very keen amateur actor, and a guy I knew said to me, ‘I read in the paper they’re looking for locally employable bit part actors,’” he tells Alison. “I phoned the theatre and told them I’d been thinking about it, the woman said, ‘can you get here in five minutes?’”
After running down the road, Larry was ushered into a rehearsal room and asked to perform some prepared pieces to the theatre directors. “I can sing a couple of songs my nan taught me?” he offered. “After 10 minutes they stopped me and said, ‘we think you should do this’, so just like that, I got the break.”
Liverpudlian Alison, meanwhile, nearly failed her audition to get into drama school. “I had some terrible pieces,” she jokes. “I did some Greek tragedy and I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, Margaret Bury, head of the drama school, said ‘stop stop, let’s do some improvisation instead.”
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Her attempts at being Muhammad Ali and a stately home guide luckily bagged her a spot.
During the first episode of Billericay to Barry, Larry and Alison meet up with another home-grown British star, Russell Tovey, 41, who plays Gavin and Smithy’s friend Budgie on the sitcom. His deadpan one-liners propelled him to fame on both sides of the Pond – he’s since starred as werewolf George Sands in Being Human, Patrick Read in American Horror Story: NYC and Kevin Matheson in the HBO original series Looking.
It was, he claims, down to him that the comedy is set in his own hometown: he and Corden had been starring together in The History Boys on Broadway when Gavin & Stacey was green-lit by the BBC, and as he’d spoken so much about Billericay, James decided to locate the sitcom there. “I still don’t think he’s ever been there to this day!” Russell jokes.
In the three-part series, the pair also encounter Rob Wilfort, who plays Stacey’s brother Jason, and Melanie Walters (Stacey’s mum Gwen) travels down to make them Welsh cakes using a treasured recipe from the late Margaret John, who played the sexually inappropriate elderly neighbour Doris and died in 2011.
“She’s sadly passed on but on YouTube you can watch Maggie baking Welsh cakes, and she’s absolutely brilliant and hilarious,” says Alison. “We used that as the inspiration because we love Maggie.”
The whole cast are clearly still adored by audiences all these years on, although they rarely get to meet up due to geography and work commitments. They still get a thrill from being recognised in the street. “With the popularity of Gavin & Stacey, you’re a part of so many people’s lives,” points out Larry.
Alison agrees. “We love it. Every time you watch the news it’s depressing and sometimes I’m in tears when I watch the reports,” she says. “So it’s lovely to be walking along the street and to have smiling people come up and say, ‘I love your show. We watch it as a family every year.’ They’re so full of joy and you think, ‘Yes! That’s what we need in life!’
- Alison & Larry: Billericay to Barry airs on August 14 at 8pm on Gold.
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