© Joe Cummings

When Olivia Colman, glammed-up in a forest-green Prada gown, blew a raspberry at this year’s Oscar’s ceremony, its audience paid attention. “It’s genuinely quite stressful,” Ms Colman said clutching her trophy, eyes misting with tears, as she accepted the best actress award. “This is hilarious. I’ve got an Oscar! . . . I used to work as a cleaner and I loved that job, but I did spend quite a lot of that time imagining this.” On a night that resembled the sycophants’ Olympics, her irreverence was a triumph of bumbling British likeability. 

This weekend she will show an altogether steelier Britishness to the world, as she takes to the throne as a middle-aged Elizabeth II in the third series of Netflix’s The Crown. While the 18th-century monarch Queen Anne — the role for which she won the Oscar in the film, The Favourite, beating Glenn Close and Lady Gaga — was piggy, tantrumming and hoof-footed, Queen Elizabeth is glacial and steady. 

The latest role cements Ms Colman’s status as acting royalty. That is some feat after years of being typecast as a comedy actor following her breakthrough role in 2003 as Sophie Chapman in the long-running, popular British sitcom Peep Show. Now she is known for both comedy — most recently as the deliciously pretentious stepmother in Fleabag — and serious acting, winning three Baftas and two Golden Globes, on top of her Oscar. 

This ability to not take herself too seriously has made her into a national treasure. One producer who has worked with Ms Colman notes that she stands out in an era of “male entitled actors”, typified by the likes of Old Etonians Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne. “Her private persona is like her public persona,” he says. “What you see is what you get. She’s very self-deprecating.”

This common touch became something of a discussion point this summer, when Charles Moore, biographer of Margaret Thatcher and former editor of the rightwing Daily Telegraph newspaper, declared misgivings about Ms Colman playing the Queen, worrying about her “distinctly leftwing face”. To which, Robert Webb, former Peep Show co-star, asked if this meant “Maggie Smith has a social-democrat duodenum”? To be fair, Mr Moore was not entirely wide of the mark. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Ms Colman said that she has now become “a lefty monarchist”. 

This new series of The Crown, written by Peter Morgan who also wrote the script for the film, The Queen, covers the years between 1964 and 1977. For British republicans, The Crown, with its sumptuous costumes, only serves to underline the monarchy’s excesses. In fact, the show is so lavish, with such painstaking attention to recreating the full pomp and splendour, that commentators have asked if the TV show’s budget is bigger than the monarchy’s.

Yet for others, in the Brexit era of political polarisation and mendacity, the drama is a balm, portraying the Queen as a talismanic amulet, steering prime ministers through hard choices. “We have all made sacrifices,” says Ms Colman’s queen in the show. “It is not a choice. It is a duty.” The actor herself has said: “The Queen is an incredible human being . . . It will be a terrible shock when she’s not our even keel any more.”

Arianne Chernock, a historian at Boston University, says the show’s appeal in the US is explained by Americans’ enduring curiosity about the British monarchy. “America likes to pretend it’s classless. Looking at the royals allows people to talk about class in a way that’s more acceptable than looking at our own culture.”

Ms Colman, “Collie” to her friends, was born in Norwich in 1974 to a chartered surveyor father and nurse mother. Her desire to act was sparked when she landed the lead in a school production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. “I think I was really shit at everything else at school,” she once said. “[It] was a lovely feeling to know what I wanted to do.” Though she was not brave enough to apply to drama school straightaway. Instead, she went to Homerton College, Cambridge, to train as a primary school teacher, where she joined Footlights, the Cambridge university student acting group. One contemporary remembers her as “standout brilliant from the off”.

After graduating from Bristol Old Vic theatre school in 1999, she had small parts in comedy shows, including Ricky Gervais’s The Office and the medical sitcom, Green Wing. It was the role in Peep Show, alongside her friends from Footlights Mr Webb and David Mitchell, that brought her to national attention. However, the role of a domestic abuse survivor in the low-budget film, Tyrannosaur, showed her serious acting skills. It led to parts as a detective in the television thriller Broadchurch, and as a pregnant intelligence officer in the TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager

The success of The Favourite was partly due to timing. It came in the wake of #MeToo, when audiences were desperate for strong female characters. In Ms Colman’s Queen Anne, they found both a grotesque and sympathetic monarch who was not widely known to contemporary audiences. 

For Ms Colman, visibility has been a mixed blessing. She has said she enjoys the opportunities fame offers, but hates being photographed while having a coffee. “I’ve become very much a hermit,” she told David Tennant, her Broadchurch co-star, on his podcast. “Things have changed. I can’t enjoy a night at the pub without feeling self-conscious and I used to love that.” 

The writer is an FT work and careers writer

Get alerts on Olivia Colman when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article