A ground-breaking moment for British television took the nation by storm on the evening of Tuesday November 1st 1977.

It was a drama from the BBC’s Play for Today series, which often pushed TV boundaries by giving opportunities to bold new writers.

But this time, no-one could quite believe what they saw.

Liverpool actress Alison Steadman, October 2019

Liverpool actress Alison Steadman, October 2019

The play was Mike Leigh’s modern classic Abigail’s Party. And at its heart was Liverpool actress Alison Steadman.

She played the monstrous Beverley who invites the neighbours round for drinks resulting in an appalling evening of domestic entertaining.

All the action takes place in the living room of the suburban home of Beverley and her husband Laurence. The party, for the teenage daughter of one of the guests, is in another house and entirely off screen.

Nigel Hawthorne and Alison Steadman at the BAFTAs gala night, April 1997

Nigel Hawthorne and Alison Steadman at the BAFTAs gala night, April 1997

Joining Beverley and Laurence, played by Tim Stern, are neighbours Angela (Janine Duvitski) and her husband Tony (John Salthouse). Abigail’s anxious mother Susan, played by Harriet Reynolds, is the fifth member of the quintet.

The overbearing Beverley brilliantly cajoles and hectors her guests into listening to Greek singer Demis Roussos, and drinking and smoking (even when they’re trying to give up).

She flirts with former footballer Tony and eventually drives her estate agent husband Laurence to a heart attack as the humour turns increasingly dark.

Movie director Mike Leigh, October 2014

Movie director Mike Leigh, October 2014

Abigail’s party has rightly been described as the most celebrated TV play of the 1970s. But for Steadman, it was just one of many triumphs.

Born in Liverpool, Steadman attended Childwall Valley High School for Girls before moving on to the East 15 Acting School in Loughton, Essex, in 1966.

Her first stage role was schoolgirl Sandy in Muriel Spark’s play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in Lincoln in 1968. She acted for various repertory companies before appearing in Leigh’s TV play Nuts in May in 1976.

Topsy Turvy star Jim Broadbent, May 2008

Topsy Turvy star Jim Broadbent, May 2008

Steadman won an Olivier Award for her portrayal of Mari Hoff in Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice in 1992 and played Elmire in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe in 1983.

Her TV work ranges from playing Marlow’s mother and murder victim Lil in Dennis Potter’s pioneering series The Singing Detective in 1986 to Mrs Bennet in the BBC‘s famous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1991.

The Liverpool actress also played Betty in the 2000 TV drama Fat Friends, Pauline Mole in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years in 2001 and Edda Goring in the ITV drama-documentary series Selling Hitler in 1991.

John Hurt in the role of cancer survivor Bob Champion for the film Champions, April 1983

John Hurt in the role of cancer survivor Bob Champion for the film Champions, April 1983

Steadman is well known for her film roles. Her early work included appearances in Jack Rosenthal’s story of young love P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang in 1982 and Champions, the story of jockey Bob Champion, in 1983.

She played Mary Hussey in Champions while John Hurt took the lead role of Champion himself. The movie told the story of the jockey’s fight against testicular cancer, eventually winning the 1981 Aintree Grand National on Aldaniti.

Steadman was reunited with director Mike Leigh, her husband from 1973 to 2001, in the 1999 film Topsy Turvy. Other cast members included Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. The movie focused on opera writers W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Former jockey Bob Champion with John Hurt, February 1984

Former jockey Bob Champion with John Hurt, February 1984

In 1989 Steadman played flamboyant friend Alison in the film version of Willy Russell’s iconic Liverpool play Shirley Valentine. The lead role was portrayed by Pauline Collins.

As well as being honoured with the OBE in 2000, Steadman has won a string of acting awards. These include the 1991 National Society of Film Critics’ Award for her portrayal of Wendy in another Mike Leigh film, Life is Sweet.

In 2007, Steadman was ranked 42nd in a Channel 4 poll to name the 50 greatest British actors.

Shirley Valentine actress Pauline Collins, July 1985

Shirley Valentine actress Pauline Collins, July 1985