Anthony Clavane: Why Olivia Colman is taking Judi Dench’s crown as our Greatest Living Englishwoman

Olivia Colman is one of the nation's most successful actors.
Olivia Colman is one of the nation's most successful actors.
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As this is a column well known for getting down with the yoof, I feel it is important to point out that the normally flawless Rachel Weisz misinformed Emma Stone during a recent interview to promote their excellent new film The Favourite.

Weisz told Stone that the slang word “dench” – as in “amazing” or “cool” – was a reference to the universal love our young Brits have for Dame Judi Dench, the world-famous actress and, up until recently, our Greatest Living Englishwoman.

Although I am older than both Weisz and Stone I am something of a hipster and, reluctantly, must reveal that almost a decade ago the rapper Lethal Bizzle coined the word while playing a video game. It is now defined in one dictionary as “used for saying that someone or something is extremely attractive, fashionable, impressive etc”.

I’m glad we cleared that up.

Still, it is a nice story. Dame Judi is clearly a fantastic human being and acted her socks off in movies such as Iris, Philomena and Victoria and Abdul. Born in York, she is both a Yorkshire legend and a national institution. The quintessence of Englishness. However, I must – again reluctantly – inform Weisz and Stone that someone even more attractive, fashionable and impressive has emerged to usurp the 84-year-old veteran of stage and screen’s crown.

Someone very close to them. So close, in fact, that, on Sunday night, she used another informal word culled from the urban dictionary to acknowledge their friendship during her Golden Globe acceptance speech.

The word has, historically, been used to describe female dogs. Being a family newspaper I cannot repeat it, but it is fair to say it has been reappropriated by the sisterhood and is now an affectionate term applied to women who have been granted a righteous position in a group of friends.

Step forward Olivia Colman, who is now officially our Greatest Living Englishwoman. Last week she won a gong for her lead role as Queen Anne in The Favourite. This week she has been nominated for a BAFTA. Next month she will probably win an Oscar. The way things are going, if Theresa May’s bill is defeated on Tuesday she will be voted in by parliament as our new Prime Minister.

In these troubled times, who better to lead our country than this quintessentially English actress who began her Golden Globe address with the words “Cor blimey, thank you so much” before adding a “thank you for the sandwiches”?

Colman is a national treasure because, as her short speech illustrated, she is self-deprecating, honest, open and funny. We love her because she is just as happy in a supporting role as a starring one. I first saw her as Sophie in Peep Show and, with all due respect to David Mitchell and Robert Webb, she out-acted her co-stars, finding both the tragedy and comedy in a purportedly minor part as “Mark’s love interest”.

We love her because, as police detective Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, she was impulsive, vulnerable and steeped in integrity. We love her because, after being nominated for a Golden Globe for playing a grounded, Yorkshire-accented intelligence officer in The Night Manager, she didn’t turn up because “I had no chance” of winning. We love her because she is unrecognisable in a shabby dress and apron with a headful of thick curls as the villainous innkeeper’s wife, Madame Thenardier, in Les Miserables.

We love her because she is a talented, down to earth lass from rural Norfolk and has no time for overblown, grandiose, pretentious, showbizzy gestures. She is, indeed, the anti-luvvie. “I would like to tell you how much this film meant to me,” she declared at Sunday’s glitzy ceremony, “but I can’t think of it because I’m too excited.” She has no interest in becoming a global mega-celebrity but Hollywood beckons and she will soon, inevitably, become one. As in the Kipling poem, however, she treats those “two impostors”, triumph and disaster, “just the same”. So how about a campaign to have the word “colman” added to English dictionaries? To be colman would mean to be real, to be yourself, to not care how others see you.

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