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Alison Steadman and other celebs sell The Big Issue

A host of theatre stars take part in the Stage Swap to raise awareness of the work of Big Issue vendors

Tube strikes and miserably wet weather did not stop a host of Soho starlets, including Alison Steadman aka Gavin and Stacey’s Pamela, from donning the red tabard to sell with Covent Garden Big Issue vendors yesterday. Theatre stalwarts Haydn Gwynne and Sally Dexter also swapped the stage for the streets, in a ‘Stage Swap’ event organised by the Big Issue Foundation and What’sOnStage.com Awards.

The intrepid thespians were briefed on Big Issue FAQs and given sales tips before being paired with Covent Garden’s top selling vendors and despatched to try out their best sales pitches on the public. Sally Dexter and former X-Factor star Melanie Masson installed themselves outside the National Portrait Gallery with Big Issue vendor Ron Heap, while Alison Steadman and Haydn Gwynne joined Andre Rostant on his Long Acre pitch.

Covent Garden vendor Andre enjoys a cuppa with Alison Steadman.

Unsurprisingly, given that they were on the fringes of traditional theatre stomping ground, the Long Acre trio’s first customer was Gwynne’s friend and former stage-manager. But as the morning and the drizzle continued, Gwynne and Steadman found that passers-by were terribly polite.

I didn’t realise that Big Issue vendors had to buy the magazines first to sell on

“I noticed that lots of people say ‘Oh go on then’ or ‘Not today, thank you’,” said Gwynne. “I thought how British that was!”

“It was helpful that people recognised me,” said Steadman. “If they’re British, they tend to know me from Gavin and Stacey. But a gentleman stopped to buy who knew me from Abigail’s Party! [Steadman starred in the ’70s play] I just feel lucky that in my career I’ve able to do what I wanted.”

They admitted that there were aspects of selling The Big Issue that surprised them.

“I didn’t realise that Big Issue vendors had to buy the magazines first to sell on,” said Steadman. “I don’t know what I thought they did exactly; that they were given them to sell perhaps.”

“The art of selling The Big Issue seems to be drawing a fine line between engaging with the public and scaring them off,” added Dexter, whose selling approach with Masson included breaking into song to entertain passers-by. “Personally, I think this is an experience that should be taught in schools.”

Steadman added: “There’s a man who sells the Big Issue near where I live outside the tube. He’s such a polite gentleman, and you can tell he has been well-educated. I’ve bought the magazine from him a few times but I’ve never had the courage to ask him how he has found himself in that position. I don’t know why.”

Did the experience entice her to consider an alternative career in sales?

“No!” she laughed. “I once had a job in a department store, selling gentleman’s scarves. It wasn’t for me. I was asked to move to ‘fumery’ and I didn’t know where that was. I sold a bottle of coloured water, not realising that the bottles on display didn’t contain perfume, to a lady for five guineas – which was a lot of money then. Luckily, she was really nice and came back to me saying, ‘I don’t want to get you in trouble, but this bottle says ‘dummy’.’”

Fortunately, none of Steadman’s customers today came back to request a refund.

This inaugural Stage Swap begins a new initiative by The Big Issue Foundation as part of its partnership with the WhatsOnStage.com website. The Foundation will be the official charity of the prestigious WhatsOnStage Awards for 2014 and 2015, and at this year’s ceremony, at the Prince of Wales Theatre on February 23, vendor Andre Rostant will be reporting as a citizen journalist from the glittering event, while the actresses who took part in the Stage Swap will speak about their experiences selling the magazine to encourage other celebs to try it.

Hailed a success by Big Issue Foundation chief executive Stephen Robertson, it is hoped that the Stage Swap will become a regular treat for unsuspecting theatregoers, and will raise awareness and funds for The Big Issue Foundation’s work supporting London Big Issue vendors on their journeys away from homelessness.

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