Many will remember her as Martha Fraser, one of the many love interests of Ken Barlow (Bill Roache) in Coronation Street. She was a prisoner in Bad Girls and in Tenko, though perhaps Stephanie Beacham’s most fabled role was as Sable Colby in the 1980s series Dynasty and its spin-off The Colbys in which she sparred with Joan Collins and helped establish the era of the super-rich power-woman.
Beacham, now 76, still cuts a stylish figure, striding on to the stage at Prestonfield House in gloss-red stilettos and a long cream dress to share an audience with Christopher Biggins who directed her through a series of stories about her life and career in the US and UK.
Born in Hertfordshire, and deaf in one ear, she spoke of parents who believed the world was very safe and allowed her to roam through “benign neglect”. At 13 she joined a gang of friends hitch hiking in Europe.
She had dreamed of becoming a ballerina but failed an audition for the Royal Ballet School because she was never really cut out for dancing.
“It was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me,” she said.
She later recalled her participation on Strictly Come Dancing – “one of the most horrible experiences of my life” – and how Arlene Phillips, one of the judges, voted her off after hearing how she wanted to get out of it.
In the late sixties she found herself in Hollywood and film roles that would see her work with many A-listers such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner. She said she had remained friends with Brando who confided in her, while Gardner had taught her a lot about lighting and film and the Hollywood system despite lacking confidence in herself. She told a story of how despite Gardner and Frank Sinatra divorcing, she played only his music on a car journey through Britain and they remained devoted to each other.
Heston, known to all as Chuck, was “wonderful to work with” though he did not consider himself to be an exciting actor. As she spoke of him being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she began to well up, recalling how he had told her: “Before I forget, I want you to know I love you.”
While Biggins gleefully joined in her tales of all the nice people she had worked alongside, he shared the audience’s surprise at her more withering comments about Rolling Stone Mick Jagger who fathered a child with the actress Marsha Hunt. Her comments could not have been better uttered by her alter-ego Sable Colby.
Winning that part had surprised her as she thought that by interviewing “fresh English bitches” the studio would frighten the US actresses into taking less money.
However, her past caught up with her when an advertising campaign during The Colbys run was pulled when they discovered she had done a photoshoot with Playboy magazine. “I lost a million dollar contract because of that,” she said.
The journey through her career gave Biggins plenty of material to work with, though at times he seemed too eager to name-drop and tell us about his own acting experiences. He should have stuck to the role of interviewer and given himself more time to get more juicy tales from someone who clearly has a lot of stories to tell.
Her latest role as an Alzheimer’s victim in Grey Matter is as far from the glamour of Dynasty, cover girl shoots and the love interest of Brando as could be imagined, but she looked for inspiration from the seemingly immortal Bill Roache who has been a fixture on Corrie since it began in 1960.
“He is the most modest man,” she said. “He’s 91 but he doesn’t ask anyone to do anything for him.”
An Audience with Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Biggins featured as part of a Fringe series at Prestonfield House, Edinburgh