Only Olivia Colman could get away with the acceptance speech she made as she collected her best-actress award. It was quintessential Colman on two counts — not only the F- word but also the expression ‘cor blimey’. Lawks lumme, missus!
Former public schoolgirl swears? No longer such a big thing, perhaps. But well-reared British star of stage and screen starts speaking Cockney to an American audience? That’s our Olivia.
This most versatile of actresses manages somehow to combine the quirky with the mainstream, the prune-chinned with the glamorous, the homespun with the shrewdly successful.
‘Only Olivia Colman could get away with the acceptance speech she made as she collected her best-actress award. It was quintessential Colman on two counts — not only the F- word but also the expression ‘cor blimey’. Lawks lumme, missus!’
Her Golden Globe for playing Queen Anne in The Favourite (she’s pictured at the ceremony), which critics of a certain kidney describe as a ‘lesbian romp’, certainly takes her to a new level of stardom, and the engagingly happy speech she gave at the awards ceremony will ensure her buckets of publicity.
It has been hard to avoid Colman in recent weeks. Over Christmas, she was in BBC1’s animated version of Watership Down, voicing a rabbit called Strawberry. She is also starring in the Beeb’s six-part serialisation of Les Miserables on Sunday evenings in which she plays a crotchety innkeeper’s wife, Madame Thenardier.
Then there’s The Favourite, for which she nobly put on two and a half stone to play chunky Queen Anne.
Ticket sales are likely to be boosted by Colman’s jokey comments about the steamy scenes she performed with her co-stars Emma Stone and fellow British actress, Rachel Weisz. Kissing Weisz was ‘like you’ve won the Lottery’, she said.
On Sunday, after saying that she’d ‘a f***ing blast’ making the film, not least because she got to ride in a private jet and eat as much as she wanted, she referred to Stone and Weisz as ‘ma bitches’.
From anyone else that might have been a dicey thing to say, but Colman radiates such jollity and informality, the audience loved it.
Another Colman picture, Them That Follow, an American yarn set among snake-handling preacher-men in the wilds of Appalachia, will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
To all this can be added her role as the Queen — taking over from Claire Foy who played the younger Elizabeth II — in series 3 of Netflix’s The Crown later this year, plus another voice-over gig for the animated Thomas The Tank Engine series, toot-toot, and it amounts to a sustained, exhausting, typically varied Colman blitz.
In The Favourite, a frail Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman (pictured) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah
Is there at present a more prolific or engaging actress?
How on earth — and why — does she do it? Olivia Colman is one of those so-called ‘overnight’ sensations who has been perfecting her art for many years. As she pointed out after receiving her Golden Globe, she was out of work for many years. She claimed the experience was the making of her, though it cannot have been much fun at the time. The 44-year-old may only have become a bill-topper in the last couple of years, but she is a copper-bottomed pro who went to drama school in Bristol, worked in various office jobs while struggling for roles in the early days, and is as good on a stage as on screen.
Pictured, Olivia Colman in The Crown. She is taking over from Claire Foy who played the younger Elizabeth II
Success has come her way not from family connections — her mum was a nurse and her dad a chartered surveyor — or because she looks like a Vogue model. She got where she is on the strength of well-honed talents.
She has proper stage chops. That cannot altogether be said of other leading ladies. Keira Knightley is laughably stiff on the stage.
Ditto Kristin Scott Thomas, two cheekbones in search of a convincing expression.
But Colman has the vitality and discipline that comes with theatre and minor TV parts, and with it a lack of pretentiousness. Colleagues repeatedly attest that she is without vanity and a thoroughly good egg. Colman is probably best known to the wider audience from ITV’s Broadchurch, winning a 2014 best-actress Bafta for her role as police detective Ellie Miller in the thriller about how the murder of a young boy tears apart a small coastal town.
The series’ main star was David Tennant but she acted him off the beach, making the proud, impulsive Ellie a figure of believable vulnerability.
Another award-winning performance was while visibly pregnant, playing a spy chief in the BBC-TV adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager.
Or you may know her from the gentle TV comedy Rev, in which she played the wife of a vicar. She was long-suffering Sophie in Peep Show, and Hugh Bonneville’s doting secretary Sally in London Olympics spoof Twenty Twelve. Before that, there had been Green Wing, the hospital-based sketch-comedy-drama, and the inevitable staging post on any jobbing actor’s CV, an episode of Holby City.
A critic on The Guardian once said that ‘all TV shows immediately become 50 per cent better just by her showing up’. She achieves that by combining the oil and vinegar of fun and sorrow. Mirth is never far from the Colman voice, yet there is also something fragile in its quivering merriment.
You can learn such things up to a point. The rest comes from within. Her north Norfolk childhood, which she has described as blissful and semi-feral (her parents let her roam the fields as she wished), made her very much her own person.
In publicity interviews, she is an eloquent presence, full of feathery, fey wit, and quite pukka (she is prone to that most Jilly Cooperish of words, ‘heavenly’).
School was Norwich High School and Gresham’s, both independent and pukka enough to make that Beverly Hills ‘cor blimey’ on Sunday undeniably arch. It was at the former that she had her first taste of acting when cast as Miss Jean Brodie. She has said that on that school stage she felt ‘suddenly really at ease and at home’.
As a teenager, a computerised careers test suggested that she should become a lorry driver.
Apparently it was something to do with her spatial awareness, but it may also have been to do with her love of freedom. She is not one to follow convention. There have also, she says, been spells when she has succumbed to ‘black clouds’. An actor can benefit from such difficult experiences, for they broaden their understanding of life.
She is as good at harrowing scenes as she is at zany comedy. Some think she is like Joyce Grenfell. The comparison only works up to a certain point. Colman is far more visceral. Her performances can sweep you into a vortex of emotion in a way that was beyond Grenfell.
As her array of appearances in recent weeks will show, she is an adaptable talent.
I remember her deliciously eccentric society vamp Myra in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever in 2012, yet a few years later she was intensely moving as the mother of a dead child in Mosquitoes at the Royal National Theatre.
Directors love her. She has that elusive ability of the best actors to be someone else while still bringing her own brand to a role.
She has one of those faces, with a hint of over-bite, eggy eyes, a broad and mobile brow, that can alter in a flash from sombre repose to flashing gaiety. She is a chin crumpler who can turn on a ha’penny by pinging her teeth at the lights with laughter.
In that, she is not dissimilar from the woman she has been cast to play in The Crown. Our hard-working Monarch can occasionally look as glum as a Prussian — can we ever forget her on Millennium Eve at New Labour’s Dome? — but she also possesses a dazzling smile which can turn winter to instant midsummer.
Olivia Colman and Ed Sinclair at the Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition preview party
On a less exacting scale, Colman knows something about the conflicts of duty, work and family. She and husband Ed Sinclair have two young sons and a daughter and she hates it when film commitments mean she has to miss reading them their bedtime stories.
Colman fell in love with ‘gorgeous’ Ed at first sight when they met at Cambridge. He was a law undergraduate interested in theatre and she was training to be a primary-school teacher, but had fallen in with the Footlights set and become friendly with comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
She pursued Ed with the determination of a Sidewinder missile and they have been married for 17 years.
Colman is dismissive about her appearance — she claims to be happiest in sloppy clothes and slippers. A slightly self-teasing twinkle is never entirely absent from her eyes (which perhaps explains the trainers she wore at the Palm Springs Film Festival last week).
Ed never did become a lawyer. He is now a writer and attentive father to their children, while Olivia is the family’s main earner, trying never to work too long or too far from home, because she ‘aches’ when she is away from her family.
With her role as the Queen — incidentally, she’s the only actress to have played both HM and the Queen Mother — she may be about to rocket into the showbusiness stratosphere, and there may be more American film offers, and more time out of Britain.
International super-stardom now seems to be heading her way after the Golden Globes and it is fully deserved. She will no doubt cope with it in her own distinctive way, with an F-word and an ironic ‘cor blimey’ in the mix.