Stephanie Beacham went shoulder pad to shoulder pad with Joan Collins in Dynasty. But when she is being plain Stephy, she’s a partially deaf, fun grandma right at home in the supermarket, says Gerard Gilbert
Stephanie Beacham — actress, Sable Colby in The Colbys and Dynasty, and icon (shoulder pad to shoulder pad with Joan Collins) of camp Eighties glamour — is standing stock still amid the bustle of Centre Point, the once infamously empty, now fully occupied, Brutalist tower block in central, central London. She is wearing a red cape, her helmet of hair coiffed into submission, and looking for all the world like an extra for Mad Men awaiting her cue. The hair — or rather the requirement of a stylist — had become a bit of a sticking point in the lead-up to this interview, Beacham eventually providing her own. So she's obviously mellowed because she once got herself blacklisted in Hollywood rather than appear on TV without being primped by a professional.
But then there are two Stephanie Beachams, it transpires. Or rather there is ‘Stephy', whose interest is in decorating houses and making jewellery, and there is ‘Stephanie Beacham', who is sent out to work in order to keep ‘Stephy' comfortable in her pink, Malibu, cliff-top house (“better for tsunamis”), her mews cottage in Bayswater (“or a p***ed-in passage in Paddington”) and a house in Marrakech, Morocco, that she bought during the post-9/11, anti-Muslim hysteria in order to make up her own mind about Islam. “Stephanie Beacham feeds me,” confides Stephy. “She is the cash cow and we have to keep her going. She has to go and get her hair done. Stephy doesn't look in a mirror.
“Don't make me sound schizophrenic,” she adds hastily, but her arrangement seems admirably sane to me. Anyway, Stephy/Stephanie Beacham — for clarity's sake let's call her Beacham — has been on this side of the Atlantic for most of the summer, filming Sky1's supermarket comedy, Trollied, in which she plays a new manageress. “She's not Hilary Devey [of Dragons' Den fame], but she smokes 40 cigarettes a day,” says Beacham in a husky, Hilary Devey-esque Lancashire accent. “She does her eyeliner on the bus and from 20 feet away she cuts a figure, but close-up she looks terrifying.”
The 65-year-old Beacham is anything but terrifying in close-up. I'm far too ancient to be considered one of the ‘toy boys' that delighted tabloid hacks for so long, but it's plain to see her allure for all those young men she has now abandoned. “I had to give them up,” she says. “I was getting older and older and they were staying the same age — I always said they came in at 27 and I got rid of them at 32.” She's now in a long-term relationship with an older man, a West Country doctor called Bernie. “He came as a surprise ... out of left-field,” she says. “Before he came along I was thinking, ‘That's it — I retire'.”
She also thinks the role in Trollied may be “game-changing” for her, and the start, she hopes, “of really fun character roles” — although she took it originally to be near her grandson, Jude, in Bristol, and to help her daughter, Phoebe, who has well-publicised problems with depression and drugs. Any improvement there, I enquire? Beacham shakes her head sadly, but this is the one area of her life she refuses to discuss.
The stunning panorama of London from the top of Centre Point proves a bit of a distraction — Beacham breaking off midpoint to snap (Stephy likes taking photographs and painting) such landmarks as the Gherkin (“cheeky”), the Shard (“it looks unfinished”), her anecdotes as picturesque and wide-ranging as the view. Like being offered £40,000 for a one-night stand (“I was 20 — you could buy a house for four grand in those days, so I suppose that wasn't a bad offer”) and that blacklisting incident, instigated by the powerful Hollywood producer Joseph E Levine. “He said, ‘You walk out of this office with that attitude and you're dead'. Sam Peckinpah wanted to use me for Straw Dogs, apparently, and he said, ‘You must have done something really bad because I'm a son of a b***h who can make anyone do anything and they won't let me use you'.”
This was in 1972, stunting a highly promising career that had begun opposite Ava Gardner and continuing with Marlon Brando (who was to become a close friend), but was now largely restricted to the meagre offerings of the British film industry during its 1970s nadir, schlock such as And Now the Screaming Starts!, Schizo and Inseminoid.
“Insecticide as I called it,” she says. “If I just snipped the scissors through it you could make a really classy CV. Unfortunately it's got some ugly things in there. For example, I had a play I wanted to do and I had Inseminoid — but I also had two babies upstairs who were my responsibility and I had £2,000-worth of bills sitting in front of me and so that was the decision made.”
Single motherhood — bringing up daughters Phoebe and Chloe — began in 1979 after the break-up of her six-year marriage to the actor John McEnery. “Wrong man,” she says. “I was an idiot and he's the first person to admit it. But the point is we're now friends ... in fact he was round having coffee when I was in London a week ago.”
Salvation came in the form of Tenko, the acclaimed BBC drama about women inmates in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and the eponymous lead role in Connie, the underrated ITV rag-trade saga that was also a comment on Thatcherite Britain, and led directly to Beacham's casting opposite Charlton Heston in The Colbys — Aaron Spelling's spin-off from his hit US soap, Dynasty. When, after two seasons, The Colbys was cancelled, Beacham was invited to flounce off with Sable and join Joan Collins' Alexis Carrington on Dynasty for a season-long “battle of the b****es”. Catch them on YouTube — they're hilarious, a wonderfully insincere “whoops” as Sable spills a drink down Alexis's décolletage, or (my favourite) her description of an ex-parte agreement: “Don't you understand Latin? It means the party's over.”
“Camp enough for you?” asks Beacham wryly. “It got so silly but generally we did it. Bless Joan Collins. If it wasn't for Joan they would have thought an English accent wasn't understandable. Joan and I are nothing like each other, but she was very welcoming. We felt we represented the Eighties. Joan still is — if they've got a big enough spread, I'll be there too,” she says, referring me to a recent advert for Snickers, starring Collins in fully Dynasty rig, but also featuring Beacham. “I only get the tail-end of it,” she says. “Joan was kind enough to say, ‘Let Stephanie do it', because she didn't want Linda [Evans] to do it.” Ah, just like old times.
Sable was followed by a recurring role as Luke Perry's estranged mother in Beverly Hills 90210 and an oceanographer in Steven Spielberg's submarine adventure, SeaQuest DSV. But mainly, says Beacham, “the Nineties were about the death of parents. All my choices were so that I could be on the same time-frame as my mother ... so I could talk to my mummy every day”. Her mother, Joan, had been a housewife in Barnet, her father working in insurance, and Beacham once thought that sounded so uninteresting that she told as reporter she was born in Casablanca.
The Noughties saw her returning to British television — three years in Bad Girls (“fun, but not an absorbing job”) and a stint in Coronation Street as Ken Barlow's bit-of-cultured-posh-on-the-side, the barge-dwelling
Martha Fraser. “I started that with a lot of major problems and Bill [William Roache, who plays Barlow] was an ideal companion — he's so lovely. And then his wife died suddenly and I think it was a time that we were just meant to be working together. I think he believes the same thing as well.”
Beacham's “major problems” included the death of her older brother. “He was only 70,” she says. “The only thing I didn't do right was that he had a blackout — he thought it was a near-death experience — and he said, ‘Stephy, I didn't see anything' and I didn't reassure him. Foolishly with my beliefs I didn't send him off.” What are her beliefs? “I'm not a Christian ... I'm open to all-comers. The most terrible thing is the absolute certainty of teenagers and Hitler.”
I say I'm surprised she isn't a Christian, given the vivid nature of her own “near-death experience” in London's Royal Free Hospital in 1983. “I got gangrene,” she recalls. “It was a mucked-up operation and I did the old white-light business. I was going towards the most magnificent and beautiful light and funnily enough it was the stone of Jesus's tomb and the light was behind it. I was being led by rough-hewn, brown, Franciscan monks.”
In fact, there was speculation during her stay in Celebrity Big Brother in 2010, one of the reality show's vintage seasons, that she had been converted by Bible-thumping, born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin. “I loved that show,” she says. “It was like being in a convent — it was poverty, it was chastity and obedience.” Not a description many viewers would recognise, I suggest. “More obedience than I think people watching realise,” she says, “a lot of temperature turning down and turning up ... a lot of manipulation.
“I was doing it for the money,” she adds, straying into the blindingly obvious, although she won't say how much. “I turned it down three times and they offered me such ridiculous amount of money I would have been mad not to do it. I thought I was going to be kicked out after the first day because of my demographic.” Instead, audiences warmed to her relationship with Ivana Trump, bonding over life's little luxuries (“I was really jealous of the percale of her sheets”), and her role as peacemaker amid a volatile mixture of Vinnie Jones machismo, Stephen Baldwin eccentricity and Heidi Fleiss fragility. “I loved Heidi Fleiss, and I'm still in touch with Ivana,” says Beacham, who beforehand sought tips from someone she knew in the SAS about surviving in a hostage situation. “Always look after the weakest member of the group — that was Heidi Fleiss; never volunteer — humiliation is their tool; find everything that happens to you funny.”
And Beacham does see the funny side of most things, although she admits to being dragged down by her deafness in one ear, the result of her mother contracting chickenpox during pregnancy. However, there are small compensations. Disability means that her two dogs, Nutrina and the aforementioned Sienna, get to travel with her in first class when she jets between LA and London. “When my assistant brought them over for the first time they said, ‘You're only allowed one service dog' and she said, ‘But they only work eight-hour shifts ...'.
“I think the deafness affects me more than I realise, I think it makes me more tired. I loathe parties. I attend, smile and leave.” In fact, she's now reluctantly heading off to a party being thrown for Sky talent. She invites me along, but I have to be somewhere else — a pity because it would fun to catch Stephy's acerbic asides while Stephanie Beacham dutifully attends and smiles.
I leave her as I found her, standing stock still, a petite statue amid the madding crowd, her hair immaculately in place.
Trollied is on Sky1 HD, 9pm, Fridays