Broadchurch actress Olivia Coleman admits she was extremely aware of the sensitivities around London Road musical
08:00 14 June 2015
Broadchurch star Olivia Colman is appearing in London Road, a musical about the aftermath of the Ipswich murders in late 2006.
Arts Editor Andrew Clarke finds out about the challenges of dramatising a subject of such sensitivity and how much it meant to her and the cast to get it right...
Olivia Colman is one of those actresses with a knack of appearing to be just like us - but in Olivia’s case, and ours, this is actually true because she is an East Anglian. And now that she has returned to the area to make a film about some local residents, the circle is complete.
Her latest role is in London Road, an experimental verbatim drama-musical set against the backdrop of the Ipswich murders in 2006.
Rather than focus on the killings and the resulting police investigation, the film adopts a more uplifting approach and examines how the residents of the eponymous London Road came together to resurrect their community spirit in the face of a barrage of bad publicity.
For Olivia, who was born in Norwich and knows East Anglia very well, this demanding film was more than a little scary. She was very aware of not wanting to offend victims’ families but also found the process of recording a verbatim musical a big stretch professionally.
The film is the latest in a series of high profile roles from Broadchurch to Rev, to the big budget period drama Hyde Park on the Hudson.
After London Road, Olivia was then cast in a John Le Carré thriller The Night Manager, despite being many months pregnant.
This will be her third child and Olivia is due in early August. She has two sons, aged seven and nine, and both their birthdays are also in August which led Olivia, 41, to joke that her husband, Ed Sinclair found her especially attractive in November.
Olivia said her pregnancy didn’t affect shooting for London Road but it was a bit touch and go with the Le Carré film.
But, thanks to the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, she was able to persuade director, Susanne Bier, that a pregnant agent was a viable option.
“My character was a man and they’ve changed it to a woman. On my first meeting with Susanne, I said, ‘I’m pregnant! Is that alright?’ She looked a bit puzzled so I said, ‘Fargo – Frances McDormand. I think it added to it!’
“Hugh Laurie is the horrible, evil baddie and Tom Hiddleston is the Bond type. I’m the spy at home that sends Tom Hiddleston out there.” But, this is still awaiting transmission - along with a third series of Broadchurch and a possible last series, the ninth, for Peep Show, the comedy that made her name in the early 2000s in which she appears with Robert Webb and David Mitchell.
For the moment, her attention is focussed on her unborn baby and making sure London Road gets the support it needs. She realises that a verbatim musical may take a few people by surprise but she is anxious to reassure audiences that it is worth the effort,
What attracted her to the film was that it brought the authentic voices of Ipswich people into the public domain – even if it made learning the lines much more difficult.
“Half-a-page of dialogue might take an hour [to learn] but this would take a day. You’d have to keep stopping and counting the pauses. It’s got to be exactly as they said it. Now, I can put any pause in I like for a piece of dialogue where I don’t have to learn someone else’s speech patterns. But also, Alecky Blythe, the writer, knows it so well and knows it back to front – and she’d say, ‘Actually, she doesn’t quite pronounce the ‘A’ in the middle of that word. Listen to that again.’ It’s verbatim and somebody else’s voice patterns. That’s really hard.”
She said that getting the delivery exactly right was the whole point of doing the film.
“That’s the art. People who write verbatim pieces – there’s no point unless you absolutely adhere. And that’s when you get the beauty. If you have two characters suddenly overlapping, it suddenly becomes absolutely real – more real than you get in [other pieces].”
If learning the dialogue was a challenge, then the prospect of singing on film for the first time truly terrified her.
“It was definitely the music I was terrified of. In the end, actually the music was much easier to learn than the dialogue because it was used in a different way. I think everyone would be surprised if you left the cinema humming a tune.
“Musicals are not really my bag, to be honest, but you know why the songs are in it. I really think it’s there to enhance the mood of what’s being said at the time, to heighten it and make it theatrical. It doesn’t seem like it’s ever trying to shoe-horn it in. I do find songs in the middle of a film peculiar a lot of the time.”
Did she take singing lessons? “No – not for this. I think I’d stick out like a sore thumb if I did. I wasn’t employed for that. The songs in London Road are much more about the rhythms and pitches of human speech.”
She said the verbatim style of the film and the songs made singing quite a challenge. “David Shrubsole, the musical director, was there whenever there was a singing piece. He had a little ear-piece and he had clicks, to keep you to time. I was always like, ‘Please be there where I can see you!’ – because I was so nervous. Amongst the whole team, who were brilliant singers and could all read music, I just had to follow the black dots.”
So we’re not to expect an appearance on the West End in a full-blown musical anytime soon? “To sing on stage? Nooo, I think that’s a whole other skill. Singing on stage is a very different thing. It would be wrong to assume everyone could do it.”
In the film Olivia plays Julie, a community leader and member of the Neighbourhood Watch and is joined on screen by co-stars Anita Dobson and Tom Hardy and the entire original cast from the National Theatre’s critically acclaimed stage production.
During the filming of town centre scenes and the street party, the professional cast were joined by some of the real residents of London Road who were employed as extras. “Some of the original residents came along, so that was quite nice. It was their life and it gave them some added involvement.”
Unusually, Olivia felt that she didn’t want to meet her real-life counterpart until the shooting was complete. She said that she felt that meeting the real-life Julie too soon may affect how she was playing the character.
“The woman I’m playing, I hadn’t seen her face moving. I thought, ‘If I meet her now, near the end of the job, she might have a twitch which I never heard on the recording’ – and I’d think I’d done it all wrong. So I said, ‘Can I meet her at the end?’
Then, it was nice to meet her, because I am saying her words. The residents were all so excited about the film, so it was nice. Luckily, I’d done most of the work by then, because there’s no point going back over it – you’re not allowed to re-film it!”
Anita Dobson has talked in interviews about her vivid memories of the Ipswich murders because she was in the town at the time playing The Wicked Queen in Snow White at The Regent, but Olivia says even for those who weren’t there, the Ipswich murders made a lot of people very uncomfortable.
“I do remember it - like it was yesterday. I remember all the names…I’m from Norfolk, so not that far. I remember everyone on tenterhooks – I remember thinking how many more [murders] could there possibly be? Awful and tragic for the families. What would that feel like? Just awful.
“The nice thing about this film is that it doesn’t depict any of the girls, doesn’t depict any of the murders, doesn’t show Steve Wright. It’s the community, with the cameras in their faces, and showing how they healed. There’s a charity – the Iceni Trust – suddenly everyone remembered these girls – sadly too late. And the Iceni Trust was there to help these girls, give them some hope, get them off the street and give them another way of doing things.”
Olivia said one of the reasons she agreed to do the film was that it treated the real people of London Road with respect.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to do something that was insensitive to the people who suffered so much. The worst thing in your imagination is to lose a child – and these families all lost their daughters. I wouldn’t be interested in doing something that makes money out of that. That’s not what this is doing. And there will be people that go, ‘I’m not watching that.’ They don’t bother to find out. And that happens about everything you do.
“I hope they’ll start to listen to other people or watch it themselves and realise what it’s trying to say.”
London Road is now on general release. See our review here