Classic Interview: Olivia Colman

Olivia Colman

There is no doubt that Olivia Colman is on a winning streak at the moment. Last year she made waves in the seaside murder mystery Broadchurch alongside David Tennant. Last night she was the betrayed wife in the BBC drama The 7:39. She seems to be everywhere. She was even in my local artisan bakery the other week (she lives nearby in south London). For comedy buffs of course, Colman will always be Sophie in Peep Show and a regular on Mitchell & Webb's TV and radio shows. My interview with Colman here dates from 2008 when she was just starting to move politely away from Mitchell & Webb's comedy world and make her own distinctive mark in the quirky BBC drama Beautiful People. It was not a big hit, but looking back it was very much a hint of things to come.


It is not your average household. Mum and dad sit on the sofa drinking hooch like it is an Olympic event. Their two teenage children bicker for England. Then there is blind Aunty Hayley in the corner, all Chaka Khan hair and sludgy brown cardigan. Oh, and there are cameras all over the lounge.

No, this is not a new reality TV show, this is Shepperton Studios where the bizarre song, dance and fantasy “comic memoir” Beautiful People is being filmed. The story is based on the best-selling autobiography of Simon Doonan, who grew up in boring Reading (sorry, Reading) dreaming of glamorous city life. There are echoes of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia in the yearning for escape, a flicker of The Naked Civil Servant in terms of sexuality, while the sight of happy, hoofing schoolkids hints at Billy Elliot.

For Doonan the dream came true. Another book, Confessions of a Window Dresser, has been optioned by Madonna, and he has not given up the day job he yearned for in his grey bedroom. Doonan is creative director of New York department store, Barneys, and each episode of Beautiful People – scripted by Jonathan Gimme Gimme Gimme Harvey – kicks off in modern Manhattan before flashing back to Simon’s semidetached childhood.

While Meera Syal does her share of upstaging as Aunty Hayley and Luke Ward-Wilkinson impresses as young Simon, the series is most notable for Olivia Colman’s breakthrough role as loud, proud mum Debbie. Comedy buffs who know Colman as Sophie from the C4 sitcom Peep Show should brace themselves. While Sophie was bland, brown-haired and passive, Debbie is an in-your-face blonde in 24/7 tight skirt and high heels.

“Can you make sure everyone knows that my hair extensions are supposed to be bad,” Colman explains over a catering-bus lunch. The original book was set in the late Fifties/early Sixties. Here the action is set in the late Nineties but Debbie retains a retro look. “She married young, decided what her look was and is sticking with it. Simon’s mum had a pinned-up Hollywood hairstyle throughout her life. We’ve been loyal to her memory but gone for something more Parisian Left Bank.” Well, Left Bank-meets-Berkshire-High-Street anyway.

For the down-to-earth 34-year-old, taking the role was an easy choice. Colman adores Peep Show stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb, but there was a niggle that she was becoming too closely associated with them, teaming up with them on various projects and generally becoming their go-to name whenever they wanted a funny woman.

This year she took stock and she will not be in their next BBC series: “My agent suggested I should be open to more different things. There were tears when that decision was taken.” Peep Show-philes can relax. She will return after the last run ended on a cliff-hanger, with Sophie pregnant. “I’ll always find time for Peep Show,” she smiles, as writer Jonathan Harvey says scurrilous things about Liza Minnelli behind us.

Her relationship with Mitchell and Webb dates back to Cambridge, though she wants to put the record straight. People have assumed she was a Bright Young Thing; the truth is cloudier. Her family comes from Norfolk where “granddad was a postman called Pat” and her parents “did up houses”. She went to teacher training college in Cambridge and joined Footlights, but after one term dropped out and never handed her Footlights membership card back. “I was actually working as a cleaning lady when I met David and Robert.”

Eventually she went to study drama at Bristol Old Vic before reuniting with the duo. There was never any offstage romance. “I was slightly in love with both of them, but nothing ever happened”, probably because she had met her future husband, the aspiring writer Ed, by then. They currently live in South London with their two small sons and have a very non-celeb lifestyle.

Her career is certainly taking off. Last year Colman worked with Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine on the cult film short, Le Donk, in which Considine played a hapless roadie and she was his long-suffering wife. She is now due to star in a serious spin-off written/directed by Considine. “I’m beaten and raped by my husband and finally I retaliate. It’s really exciting.” On the lighter side is an ITV comedy, Mr Eleven, due to go out in 2009, in which Colman plays Bionic Woman Michelle Ryan’s geeky sister.

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