When Stephanie Beacham steps onto the stage of Edinburgh’s King’s
Theatre tonight, she will be following in the footsteps of one of the
most iconic divas ever. As Maria Callas, Beacham may not sing, nor even
get to recreate the celebrated soprano’s famous 1957 turn in Bellini’s
La Sonnambula at the King’s, but as the centre of American writer
Terence McNally’s play, Beacham will get to utter more words than she
would in any work by Shakespeare. If you add them all up – and Beacham
has - that’s ten thousand, four hundred and eighty-six, to be precise,
giving her a truly up close and personal insight into an iconic
“I feel I know her inside and out,” Beacham says of Callas. “There’s
something about her artistic passion. Playing the unbearable diva is no
problem at all for me, but there is also a soft underbelly underneath.
The harder the exterior, the softer the centre, I find. All the women
I’ve played have been terrible bitches, but I’ve always seen the
frailty beyond that. You’ve got to like the people you play, and to
expose what they are and who they are without excusing them either.”
Callas has been on Beacham’s list of parts to play ever since she was
introduced to film director Franco Zefferelli, who, staring, declared
Beacham to be Callas. This despite the fact that Beacham is now older
than the singer at the time of her death by almost a decade. Zeferelli
had a point, however, and the facial resemblance between the two women
is remarkable. The fact that Beacham was born completely deaf in one
ear, with only seventy-five per cent hearing in the other adds an extra
nuance to such a mighty performance.
“This conquered a lot of my demons,” Beacham admits. “I’ve never been
confident of many things, and here we are playing what’s essentially
quite an intimate piece in these huge rooms, and although I don’t sing
in the play, each line has to be said in time with the music. But what
is so wonderful about the play is how it looks at Maria Callas’s
frustration and depression about what she sacrificed for her art.
Because she was a great artist who was so dedicated to what she did
that she lost everything, including her voice, which is when we meet
her in the play. And ass well as losing her voice, she’s also lost her
The fact that the man in question was millionaire tycoon Aristotle
Onassis, who left Callas following their affair to marry president’s
widow Jacqueline Kennedy, lends the diva’s story even more incident and
colour that could have been the stuff of soap operas rather than the
classically inclined ones she made her own. Beacham may not have quite
reached such dizzy heights, but her life too has seen her travel far
from her roots.
If things had worked out differently, Beacham would have taught deaf
children to dance. As a child she’d watched the ballet at Golder’s
Green Hippodrome, where she became entranced by the characters who
flew. Much later she visited a friend in Liverpool where she ended up
auditioning for the grassroots-based Everyman Theatre with a speech
from Romeo and Juliet. With the company newly set up, Beacham ended up
spending a year there, touring schools inbetween hanging out at the
Hope Hall, the original name for the Everyman’s bistro, or else being
escorted to the Cavern club by a bouncer called Charlie. It was all
“quite a heady thrill for a seventeen year old,” as Beacham puts it.
After paying her early dues onstage in Liverpool, Beacham’s first small
screen appearance was playing Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1967 drama,
The Queen’s Traitor, after which the twenty-something Beacham seemed to
make guest appearances in pretty much every glossy action series going,
including The Saint, Jason King, The Adventurer and The Protectors.
By 1971, Beacham was acting opposite Marlon Brando in The Nightcomers,
a Michael Winner directed prequel to Henry James’ The Turn of the
Screw. The big-screen dream wasn’t to last, however.
“I got a reputation for being uncompromising with doing publicity. Sam
Pekinpah wanted me for Straw Dogs, but he wasn’t allowed. I was young
and arrogant, but it was more about the fact that I didn’t know how it
worked. I used to be terrified of anyone in a suit. Now, the producers
in suits are more powerful than actors.”
One of Beacham’s earliest UK TV jobs beyond the ITC canon was in Marked
Personal, an office-based soap that was one of the first daytime dramas
to be home-produced. Beacham played independent girl Georgina Layton in
sixty-two episodes of the Verity Lambert created series that provided
security and a steady income.
“That was a darling job,” Beacham remembers. “I threw away my film
career to do it. Then I left it when I was five months pregnant.”
Beacham went on to appear in several low-rent horror flicks, one of
which she describes as “one of the worst films ever made. I was in some
really bad films, but I had a great time doing them. That’s what I do.
Then came Tenko, and Connie, two British series that put Beacham back
in the game as a serious performer as well as on a personal level.
“Tenko put me back in there as a human being,” she says of the Japanese
prison camp drama that roughly coincided with her divorce to actor
Peter McEnery. “I really needed that company of women then, but it was
Connie took me back to Hollywood.”
Playing the title role of a self-made business-woman working her way
back into the rag trade exposed a more mature, more liberated and
infinitely more powerful Beacham that was perfect for the role of Sable
Colby in glossy 1980s soap Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys. Later
Beacham appeared in the airbrushed teen froth of Beverly Hills 90210
before returning to Britain for a stint in women’s prison drama Bad
Girls, and, more recently, six months on Coronation Street.
Beyond her colourful acting career, Beacham is also notable for being
that rarest of birds, a Celebrity Big Brother contestant who left the
house with integrity and credibility not just intact, but positively
“One of the reasons I wanted to do Masterclass is to tip my cap and say
sorry for having such a good time on Celebrity Big Brother,” she says.
“It was a blast, but I nearly didn’t do it. Half an hour before I was
due to go into the house I decided it was car crash television, but
then I thought about it, and decided it was a totally different
experience from everything else I’d done, and that I’d go and do it.
And it paid off. I really had a good time being me. I forgot all about
the cameras and my vanity, and just remember all the laughs Ivana Trump
and I had. I giggled so much that month, but it wasn’t like I had to
show off or be reticent. I just found it really easy to be there, and,
you know, it’s tough to sleep in a dorm with twelve strangers and a
total lack of privacy. If you want to have any modesty at all you have
to be pretty resourceful.”
Compared to CBB, Masterclass is, by Beacham’s own admission “the other
side of the universe. You could divide my career in that way. I’ve got
my classical CV with the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company,
then there’s the other CV with all these awful films. I’ve done it all,
Masterclass, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight-February 12th.
the Herald, February 8th 2011