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Olivia Colman: Sitcom Star to Oscar Winner

A look at some of her underappreciated roles

Any little girl who’s practicing their speech on the telly, you never know! I used to work as a cleaner, I loved that job and I did spend quite a lot of time imagining this. Oh please wrap it up? Right, ok!! Pbbt.

The entire room laughed when Olivia Colman blew that raspberry after being told to wrap up her acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars ceremony, where she won the Best Actress award for The Favourite. Her speech was one of the most emotional, genuine, and inspiring speeches in the event’s long history. She hadn’t prepared any sort of speech as she wasn’t expecting to win. Instead, she tried to remember who to thank and told us, through tears, that she used to be a cleaner who dreamt of one day winning an Oscar. Her dream had come true and so had mine for her.

I remember when Olivia Colman first started acting and I would see her in small television roles in shows like Eyes Down, Swiss Toni, and the satirical show Gash. Despite these being smaller roles, you could tell that she was destined for great things. There was just something about her that made her stand out from her co-stars. She was (and still is) mesmerizing to watch.

Born Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman, she grew up in the U.K. town of Norwich and said that from a young age she only ever dreamt of being an actor halfheartedly. She describes it to Forbes as a “secret dream, like talking to animals.” She often appeared in school plays and shows but didn’t even consider that an acting career was something she could pursue. School life wasn’t something that was easy for her. She told Forbes that she “had to go back to school for an extra year as I did so badly in my final exams. No University would have me. So I went to Homerton in Cambridge to become a teacher but didn’t last very long because I wasn’t very good at studying.”

I guess that’s why she’s someone I can look up to and be inspired by as I had been in a similar situation myself. I wasn’t very good at studying because I didn’t have the patience, which resulted in teachers not having the patience to try and teach me. This led to colleges not wanting me and I really did have to fight for an education in the end. It’s not that I didn’t want a diploma and a degree; I just needed to be taught things a little differently from the others.

After leaving Homerton, Colman decided to stick around Cambridge and spent her time sneaking into lectures and taking part in various plays. It was then that she was well and truly bitten by the acting bug and realized that acting was what she wanted to do. During an audition there, she met Robert Webb and David Mitchell who would become a huge part of her success story.

David Mitchell and Robert Webb with Olivia Colman in their early days of working together

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when those three met. Mitchell and Webb are a pair of comedy geniuses and have written and starred in some true classics such as That Mitchell and Webb Look, Bruiser, and the truly amazing Peep Show. They often use her in their work and definitely know her strengths when it comes to comedy as she delivers outstanding performances in everything they do. She doesn’t just give her all to every character that she plays; she’s brilliant at physical comedy, too.

Olivia Colman began studying at the Bristol Old Vic Drama School and realized that getting work as an actor wasn’t going to be an easy task. It was during this time that she worked as a cleaner, the job she references in her Oscar acceptance speech. She had audition after audition but bizarrely just kept receiving knockbacks after them all. She was always determined though and, as she told Forbes, “I was never crushed by disappointment because I knew I couldn’t do anything else.”

This was when she started getting bit parts in shows such as Holby City. Bit parts are great—they pay the bills—but when it comes to actresses with a talent like Olivia’s, she deserves so much more. While appearing in these minor roles, the wheels were in motion to give her something much bigger. Old friends Mitchell and Webb had put her name forward to appear in Bruiser, a comedy sketch show that they’d written for the BBC. I remember Bruiser really well even though a lot of other people don’t. It once even made a list of “10 Great Forgotten Comedy Shows.” The series might not be remembered much but it was the launchpad for a lot of great comedians and actors.

Bruiser was seen by the right people at the time and Colman began appearing in a number of really great comedies such as Green Wing, Look Around You, and Hot Fuzz. She doesn’t just make you laugh out loud, though; she can make you cry, too. Eventually, she would start taking on more serious roles in several big dramas such as Broadchurch, The Night Manager, and Run.

Not limiting herself to one genre or acting style is absolutely what led Olivia Colman to win an Oscar. Chances are if you’re not from the U.K. you probably haven’t seen her in much at all, and you’ll have missed out on some truly incredible performances. It would be too easy for me to sit here telling you about her most popular roles in Peep Show, Broadchurch, Green Wing, and Fleabag. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about some of her underappreciated or lesser-known roles—ones that mean something to me personally. Who knows, you might even discover your new favorite TV show or movie from this.

Alex Smallbone in Rev

Olivia Colman as Alex Smallbone in the BBC sitcom Rev

Maybe I don’t want a Christening yet. I’ve already lost you to him, why would I want to lose her as well?

Rev is a one of a kind sitcom revolving around the Reverend Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) and his wife Alex, played by Olivia. It wasn’t your predictable clichéd story about a vicar. Instead, it chose to show the complexities of a multicultural, ethnically diverse inner-city parish and how those things impact on society. It was really cleverly done.

Adam is someone who can’t turn anyone away and goes out of his way to help everyone, regardless of what this may do to his own life. People in need range from his parishioners such as alcoholic Colin, devoted Adoha, and homeless Mick. He was also faced with people in the local community such as drug addicts, street gangs, the homeless, and then people wanting to use the church as a way to get their children into the best schools. By his side through it all is Alex.

Alex isn’t your typical vicar’s wife who would always be found at the church, baking for fundraisers or being involved with various other duties. She has her own career as a solicitor. She supports Adam’s career but at the same time doesn’t engage herself with his work. I think this is why her character works so well. It would have been too obvious to have her playing a traditional vicar’s wife as her career and lack of engagement in Adam’s career created a really interesting dynamic between the pair. They aren’t a perfect couple and their marriage hits many obstacles along the way.

This wasn’t just a sitcom that would have you laughing throughout every episode; it would also tug at your heartstrings. There are so many moments when I found myself in tears and that’s what makes it such a brilliant show. A true sitcom shouldn’t just be there to make you laugh; it should bring out all kinds of emotion in the viewer. Crying when something sad has happened in a sitcom just tells us how much of a great job the actors have done in providing us with real characters.

Joan Cauldwell in Bad Sugar

Olivia Colman as Joan Cauldwell in the one-off comedy special Bad Sugar

Yes it’s nice to relieve the tension with some jokes about how I…about how I killed Neil.

Back in 2012, a one-off comedy from the creators of Peep Show (Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) came to our screens. Bad Sugar was a telenovela-style melodrama and soap opera, like Dallas and Dynasty. It followed the story of the wealthy Cauldwell family, who are all scheming to get their hands on the fortune of the patriarch, Ralphfred.

The beauty of this one-off show was its large ensemble cast, including numerous huge comedy names like Peter Serafinowicz, Julia Davis, Sharon Horgan, Reece Shearsmith, and of course Olivia Colman. With a cast like that, how could it be anything but brilliant? Sharon Horgan and Julia Davis have created some of the greatest and darkest comedies of all time, so to finally see them on our screens together was truly magical.

The cast is so good that it really is hard to pick a standout amongst them but Olivia Colman’s portrayal of simpleton Joan really is out of this world. Her performance is absolutely hilarious as she plays a woman still somewhat stuck in her childhood years. She has a really naive view of the world after spending her life believing she poisoned her twin brother (although I rather suspect it wasn’t her). Her sister Daphne constantly manipulates her through jealousy and goes to extreme lengths to stop her from playing the piano. Joan is a piano-playing master but after having her fingers burnt and bandaged up by Daphne she continues to play anyway—although you can’t hear much of her playing with her screaming as each burnt finger hits a key. It really is one of those laugh till the tears are streaming down your face kind of moments.

The sad part about this show was that it got commissioned for a full series but didn’t actually get to come to fruition. The explanation given was that it was too hard to coordinate the main actors’ schedules. They’re all amazing actors with numerous projects on the go so I guess this is totally understandable. I just wish they would find the time for even one more special episode of this. It was a genius idea, an outstanding cast, and a ridiculously funny plot. There’s still so much story left to tell about the Cauldwell family, and maybe one day we’ll see them again.

Sally Owen in Twenty Twelve

Olivia Colman and Hugh Bonneville as Sally and Ian in the BBC comedy Twenty Twelve

Not a problem.

Twenty Twelve was another short-lived sitcom with a really stellar cast list, including Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, David Tennant, and Olivia Colman. It was a mockumentary-style show revolving around the organization of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Hugh Bonneville plays Ian Fletcher who is the Head of Deliverance for the Olympic committee, and Olivia plays his PA Sally. It’s always unspoken but she’s clearly head-over-heels in love with him. On first viewing, you would just believe that this was a sitcom about the Olympics, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that it’s really a love story about the blossoming relationship between Sally and Ian. She was constantly there for him, making him sandwiches and supporting him as his marriage crumbled.

The entire thing was frustrating but in a good way. We were all begging for them to just admit how they felt, and even the final episode of the show left us with a cliffhanger as to the couple’s fate. It was resolved (upsettingly) in the spin-off show W1A a number of years later, but Olivia only made a very brief appearance in it.

The beauty of Olivia’s performance in this was that she actually said very little but still managed to captivate an entire audience. All she has to do is give Ian a lingering look as he goes about his work or quietly place a sandwich on his desk and she wins our hearts. If you can steal every scene you’re in by doing very little, then you really are an amazing talent.

Sadly, with its Olympic theme, the show only lasted two series and has only ever been aired during that time. It’s one of those sitcoms that people forget about but will automatically remember how much they loved it once you remind them of its existence. If you love mockumentary-style comedies such as The Office, The Thick of It, or Getting On then you honestly need to check this out.

Hannah in Tyrannosaur

Olivia Colman as Hannah in the movie Tyrannosaur

I fell over.

Tyrannosaur is a movie that I’ve only ever watched once, yet I can still tell you how absolutely superb it is and cannot be missed. You’re probably wondering why, if it’s such a good film, have I only ever watched it once? Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s an incredibly difficult film to watch. It tells the story of a widower Joseph (Peter Mullan) who’s angry at the world and ends up forcing anyone who might care away from him. After taking refuge in a charity shop he meets Hannah. In a way, their story begins with him bullying his way into her life but ultimately a friendship grows and they begin to support each other in various ways. He’s hurting because of what life has thrown at him, he’s angry, and just needs someone who understands him. Hannah does, because of her own life situation.

At home, she’s secretly being horrendously abused at the hands of her husband James. It’s really strong abuse that goes way past simple beatings, and it’s obviously incredibly difficult to watch (hence why I’ve only ever watched it once).

The performances are truly outstanding in all parts. Olivia’s performance is really extraordinary but devastating at the same time. Despite her truly awful home life, Hannah still has faith in people. We know that Joseph isn’t a nice person—he’s done bad things because he lost his wife—but Hannah recognizes that there’s good in there somewhere. Maybe she wants to save him before he ends up being the same as her husband is? Despite Hannah being such a tragic character, Olivia still manages to bring a warmth and sense of hope to her that is really moving and inspiring to watch.

The movie had a pretty low-key release which is one of the reasons it isn’t huge. It really deserves to be, though. It’s a really tough movie to watch, but worth it just to witness these performances just once.

Debbie Doonan in Beautiful People

Olivia Colman in the BBC comedy Beautiful People

People with wooden legs can jump, Hayley. A girl I was at school with had a plastic ankle and she was Catholic Girls trampolining champion two years on the trot…she weren’t bad at trotting neither.

Beautiful People is probably the most underrated sitcom in the BBC’s history and one of my all-time favorite roles of Olivia’s. It’s loosely based on the memoirs of Barney’s creative consultant Simon Doonan, with each episode telling a various tale from his childhood in Reading. His sexuality is something that’s constantly hinted at but is never really relevant (in the first season anyway). It’s more about the dynamics of his zany family and his struggle to express his love for all things drama in a working-class community.

Olivia plays Simon’s mother Debbie who likes to bleach her hair and drink gin—not my words, Simon’s. But in her defense, she did win a year’s supply of gin in a poetry-writing competition for her moving poem: “Gin, gin, where do I begin? Having you inside me’s like an old friend popping in.” She’s hilarious and undoubtedly one of Olivia’s greatest comedy roles.

It’s another one of those sitcoms that is outrageously funny but can bring a lump to your throat in a matter of seconds. After a teenaged Simon is brought back after running away to London, Debbie sits with him and tells him that he must never give up on his dreams. She says she once had a friend (who knew all there was to know about Liza Minnelli) who would dream of jumping out of his bedroom window and dancing across the rooftops. He didn’t get to do it as he became sick and died. It’s a really beautiful scene that is funny but still manages to reduce you to tears. That’s how powerful Olivia’s performances can be. Even the funny ones can still break you.

Some of her best scenes in the show are with Tameka Empson who originally played hairdresser Tameka and then (after her sudden death) took on the role of her identical cousin Johoyo. Maybe one day we’ll get a spin-off of Tameka or Johoyo’s adventures—we all want it. Tameka and Olivia work so well together. It was like comedy magic and I’d love to see them appear in something together again.

But then I could probably say that about anyone that has appeared on screen with Olivia. She has such an ease with her co-stars in anything that she does. Every performance she’s given has been faultless and she must be a total pleasure to work with. Every actor has a lot of underappreciated content in their history and Olivia Colman is no exception. There’s plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be discovered and if you watch just one of these recommendations then my work here is done.

Olivia Colman accepting her first Oscar at the 2019 ceremony

Ooh, it’s genuinely quite stressful. Erm…this is hilarious. I’ve got an Oscar!

Without these roles, Olivia wouldn’t be where she is now: an Oscar-winning actress. I could have spoken a lot about The Favourite here (although that movie deserves an article all of its own) or I could have just as easily spoken about the roles she’s most known for. But what would we learn from that? Her lesser-known works would remain underappreciated and underrated when they deserve so much more than that.

When I heard that we would be doing a month-long celebration of women here at 25 Years Later, I instantly knew that I had to talk about Olivia. I’ve followed her career from being a sitcom star right through to now as an Oscar winner. In her acceptance speech, she said that it would never happen again and that she would never win another one. If she doesn’t, it would be criminal. It needs to happen just so she can give another inspiring, heartfelt acceptance speech. I know many people already have and will continue to be inspired by her. And why shouldn’t they be? Her dreams of winning an Oscar came true. Her shock, tears, and disbelief at winning simply remind us that any of our dreams can come true. She never gave up on hers, so we shouldn’t give up on ours.


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Written by Martin Hearn

Martin Hearn is a Social Media Manager for 25YL who also writes, has a penchant for interviews, watches too much TV, and plays too many video games. He joined the site through his love of Twin Peaks and also has a passion for shows such as The OA, The Crown, American Horror Story, Lost, and Desperate Housewives. His hobbies include insomnia, dancing in secret, and buying too much Twin Peaks merchandise from eBay. Martin lives in Middlesbrough, UK, which is the birthplace of the Parmo (you may want to google that amazingly beautiful delicacy that definitely won't cause a heart attack). He loves spending long weekends binge-watching TV shows with his partner Anthony.

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  1. I really only know her from watching That Mitchell and Webb Look here in the U.S., but that was enough for me to remember her name when she became more well known.

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