Even though she can make no claim to the Colman’s Mustard empire, Olivia Colman’s basically at the top of the tree. There are bigger roles in British film and TV than playing the Queen, but most of them involve fictional wizarding schools. Then, as if literally wearing one crown wasn’t enough, last weekend she won the Best Lead Actress Oscar for her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite. So, with many global audiences being exposed to her for the very first time, you may find that this list of her greatest hits from her pre-superstardom days comes in handy.
Those Mitchell and Webb Collaborations
Had I wanted to, I could have split this entry into three or four, and they’d all have more than earned their place. David Mitchell and Robert Webb may be Britain’s finest modern comedy duo, but as they go, Olivia Colman is very much the third Beatle – she’s been alongside them through Bruiser, That Mitchell And Webb Look, and what might just be their crowning glory, Peep Show.
Colman deserves at least some of the credit for the success of Peep Show – her character, Sophie, was originally just a fairly bland love interest for Mitchell. It was at her instigation that Sophie became as actively narcissistic as the two leads – and it perhaps says something about British self-deprecation that both Colman and Mitchell consider their character to be the truly toxic one in the relationship. It is also a testament to Colman’s range that she has played both the Queen and Sophie’s sheer depths of depravity – her delivery of ‘I’m his wife’ from the floor of a public lavatory belongs in some kind of aural hall of fame.
Other outfits, perhaps less eager to fawn over Peep Show, have described Colman as the ‘sidekick’ in this triumvirate. While this scants her dreadfully, a good amount of the comedy comes from Mitchell’s character being helplessly obsessed with Sophie while she is, at best, ambivalent. The creators had originally intended to give Sophie her own inner monologue as well – an ambition which was finally fulfilled in the special features of the season 5 DVD, which confirmed that she was just as foully self-serving as our two protagonists in absolutely glorious fashion.
A dishonourable mention here for Flowers, which is hilarious and heartbreaking and has some real tour de force performances from Julian Barratt and creator-writer Will Sharpe. The issue is, Olivia Colman as the fucked-up mother of a fucked-up family should be gold dust, but instead it’s Flowers’ one stumble. Not bad per se, but distinctly nothingy compared to everything else that’s going on – especially since she barely interacts with the rest of the family.
Fleabag, on the other hand, has its own creator-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (also responsible for the excellent Killing Eve) introduce Colman’s character as her ‘wicked stepmother’ and mean it. She dominates every scene she’s in with a Stepford-smiling, icily polite nastiness – it is not my way to invoke the c-word, particularly towards women, but you’ll have to forgive me here since I get the distinct impression that’s exactly what Colman was going for.
Much like Sophie in Peep Show – and indeed Kaitlin Olson’s Dee in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, very much the Stateside answer to Peep Show – Fleabag is, as a whole, a paean to female characters being allowed to be as awful as their bepenised counterparts, rather than being relegated into the role of nagging voice of reason or eye candy. The name gives a bit of a flavour, really.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s intimately dystopian Lobster was the first time the director worked with Colman – the second, of course, being The Favourite. It takes us to a world not so unlike our own, in which a kind of reverse Malthusianism has taken hold, and all single people are given a strict time period in which to get together with someone, on pain of being turned into an animal (you get to choose which, hence the name).
It’s very much a film of two halves – the first set in a guest house during the worst singles’ weekend ever, and the second dealing with the fallout of those who have gone rogue from this weird breeding programme. The second half, sad to say, is inescapably weaker. While far from awful, it can’t help but feel a little vague and aimless by contrast with the ultra-regimented life at the hotel.
The main pillar of this nice-looking death camp is Colman’s downright evil hotel manager, presiding over all like a Nurse Ratched who’s actually allowed to hit her charges. Having seen how she punishes disobedience, you’ll never eat toast wholly comfortably again.
There’s a world of medical dramas out there, from the humorous (Scrubs) to the serious (Call The Midwife) to the so heavy it becomes humorous again (Kingdom Hospital, which was basically Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace done straight-faced). Green Wing, though, was possibly unique in using no actual medical plotlines – and was a damn sight more artful about this than Mitchell and Webb’s lazy writers sketch, where they desperately tried to avoid becoming ‘bogged down in so-called research’. The core of Green Wing was the love triangle between Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan, and Julian Rhind-Tutt, which became about as messy as I am assured doctors’ love affairs tend to get, while avoiding the childish bickering weaker shows mistake for a plotline.
While this central power trio were incredibly strong actors, the rest of the cast were equally robust – most notable perhaps being Mark Heap and Pippa Haywood’s own incredibly dysfunctional relationship. Colman’s character, Harriet, evidently had one of her own, and while her partner was kept offscreen, the fruits of it were there for all to see. Raising one child is supposedly a full-time job, so raising four around your actual full-time job would wear on anyone – and as such anyone could see the funny side of Harriet’s overstressed, burnt-out life.
After the success of zom-rom-com Shaun Of The Dead, the second installment of Edgar Wright’s very, very loosely linked ‘Cornetto trilogy’ found itself with a whole lot of hype and a blank cheque to do whatever they wanted – so he set it in a sleepy little town in Gloucestershire. Admittedly it’s also a balls-to-the-wall gun-gun action flick in the truest tradition of Bad Boys and Point Break, so not quite as low-key as I’ve made it sound.
It’s possible that Colman was originally meant to be Simon Pegg’s romantic interest (being the only woman with a speaking part who doesn’t end up dead) – but Wright, sensibly, dropped that whole plotline when it became apparent the true emotional core of the film was between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as indeed it was in Shaun Of The Dead, and also Spaced, the TV series which basically gave rise to Shaun.
Anyway, in a film full of veiled threat, where Pegg is thrust into an alien environment and not sure who he can trust, Colman provides the welcome relief of turning everything within arm’s reach into a mucky double-entendre. Mock not – the Carry On series turned out some thirty films based entirely on doing exactly that, and they weren’t even that good.
I am contractually obliged not to make literally every entry on this list a comedy, so here’s Broadchurch: Britain’s answer to the trend of incredibly bleak Scandinavian detective dramas known collectively as ‘Scandi-noir’. This was Colman’s first toe into the waters of ‘serious’ acting after Peep Show, starring opposite David Tennant, still high on the horse from five glorious years of being the best Doctor Who (Broadchurch’s links to the space-box show run deep – it was created and written by Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, and also featured current Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker).
Unlike a lot of British detective dramas, where the requirement for a fresh body every episode puts the murder rate of the English countryside at approximately the same as that of the OK Corral, Broadchurch somehow managed with only the one – and, what’s more, acted as though a murder had actually happened and the community is responding to this, rather than the more usual telly formulation of everyone else going ‘heigh-ho, another one popped it, oh well mustn’t grumble’.
Set around Chiball’s home turf on Dorset’s breathtaking Jurassic Coast, Broadchurch drew rave reviews through its three seasons, and scooped up any number of awards, including Best Crime Drama in the face of the mighty Sherlock. Indeed, Broadchurch was such a success that it received British television’s highest honour – an American remake which bombed terribly.
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