When Olivia Colman agreed to take part in the BBC1 genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, she had pretty low expectations. “I’m the least adventurous person I know,” she admits at the start of the programme. “I don’t really go out. I like to be at home in my pyjamas, with my family. Maybe that will change.”
This is not, it seems, an exaggeration. When she won two Baftas in 2013, for Twenty Twelve and Accused, and a third the following year for Broadchurch, Colman didn’t party till dawn. Instead, she snuck home with her husband and was on the sofa, drinking tea, by 10pm.
As with all Who Do You Think You Are? subjects, Colman only had a vague idea about her ancestry. Her mother had mentioned a French relative, but otherwise Colman assumed her family were British/Irish. She certainly had no idea that the series would take her on a journey to a remote part of India, where she would learn her great-great-great-grandmother Harriot’s turbulent story.
Told that Harriot was born in the city of Kishanganj in north-eastern India, a thrilled Colman whoops with joy. “My great-great-great-grandmother is Indian! This is so exciting! I’m much more interesting than I thought I was.”
Mary Cranitch, a Who Do You Think You Are? director whose previous subjects include Boris Johnson and Brendan O’Carroll, was initially nervous. “Olivia told us that she hadn’t travelled much and doesn’t particularly like flying. She’s a very good driver, but a slightly nervous passenger. We were thinking, ‘Oh no, not only is she going to fly to India, but she’s going to be driven on to a part not visited by tourists, on very busy roads with very few rules! How is she going to respond?’” As it happens, extremely well. “She was nervous, but also amazed and delighted. And she loves Indian food!”
As an actor, Colman has a remarkable ability to express emotional nakedness. She once said that she has no armour. And in the documentary she is touchingly open: she laughs, she cries, she’s furious (about an unfaithful male relative), she’s sad. “Olivia was wary about showing her emotion at first,” says Cranitch, “but once she’d engaged with Harriot’s story, she responded very genuinely. Harriot had a tough time as a kid and Olivia, who has young children as well as great emotional intelligence, felt empathy for her plight.”
The highlight of the episode is, without doubt, a letter written by Harriot’s future husband Charles in 1838, shortly after Queen Victoria’s coronation, to his brother Richard about their courtship. “I love that he’s telling his brother everything,” says Colman, her face flushed with excitement. Her voice shakes as she reads passages from the letter: “I took her hand again… and I did fancy that once or twice there was a little motion which might have said, ‘I am not indifferent to you.’”
It’s an extraordinarily sensitive letter for a man to have written at the dawn of the Victorian era. “We tend to deal with official records,” explains Cranitch, who specialises in history, “so as a director, the letter scene was one of the most exciting I’ve seen. If you looked at the rather formal photograph of Charles, you wouldn’t credit him with being able to write a letter like that. Olivia was so delighted that he loved Harriot so much and that she would therefore be cherished – as you can see when she reads the letter on screen. The moment was just fizzing.”
Even when she returns to her London home, it’s clear that Colman has left part of her heart in India. Cranitch is sure that the journey had a profound effect on her, as Colman is ready to take a few more risks in her life. “I’ve got the confidence to be a little braver now,” she says, grinning. “So that I don’t let my ancestors down.”
Who Do You Think You Are? starring Olivia Colman airs Monday 10th July at 9.00pm on BBC1
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