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Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley: ‘Never repress a woman – because it will come out’

<span>Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. </span><span>Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian</span>
Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

On 23 September 1921, a letter arrived at the home of Edith Swan, a laundress in the seaside town of Littlehampton, addressed to “the foxy ass whore 47, Western Rd”. One of the milder letters that had been plaguing the Sussex community for three years, it continued: “You foxy ass piss country whore you are a character.” Swan blamed a neighbour, Rose Gooding. But the post-office clerk and the local police had other suspicions, which drove them to rig up a periscope to spy on deliveries to the town’s post box and marking postage stamps with invisible ink.

The combination of filthy poison pen letters and DIY sleuthing in a quaint small-town setting is a gift for the star pairing of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. Directed by Thea Sharrock with a screenplay by Jonny Sweet, and stuffed with classy character actors, Wicked Little Letters blows a raspberry at the Agatha Christie tradition of cosy crime stories. It also undercuts the Downton Abbey image of British social history which, says Buckley, “gives everybody the idea that people are kind of lovely when actually there’s a little bit of dirt under everybody’s pretty teacup. Everyone loves a good swear, even the ones that say they don’t.”

Colman and Buckley are in high spirits when we meet, having just spent half an hour filming Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, in which they discussed the different forms of rudeness with a group of five-year-old boys. Colman, familiar to them as the conniving innkeeper Mrs Scrubbit in Wonka, bounces in first with a “fart” app, which she has installed specially for the occasion. “It’s so good, I can’t stop,” she says, letting off a peal of whoopees, as assistants scurry around ensuring she and Buckley have everything they need. “Oh sorry, that’s too much,” she apologises, after miming along to a particularly sonorous one. “OK, I promise I’ll stop,” she says, giving vent to another as her co-star settles into the seat next to her. It’s an impromptu improvisation of delighted gaucherie reminiscent of the one that propelled her 2019 Oscar acceptance speech for The Favourite into the best-ever league.

Colman and Buckley became best friends after meeting through a Letters Live event at a festival in Oxfordshire, at which Colman’s contributions included a humorous letter from a 17th-century naval officer to a creditor, and Buckley read a declaration of love from Maud Gonne to WB Yeats. “We stayed up late doing karaoke,” says Buckley. “Yes, we just sort of fell in love with each other,” adds Colman, who went on to recommend her new friend to play her younger self in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s award-winning adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel The Lost Daughter. Though the separate timelines meant they didn’t have any scenes together, they continued their after-hours bonding, “singing, playing guitar, swimming in the sea and drinking rosé,” says Colman. “I’m sure we are kindred,” adds Buckley. “Yes,” replies Colman. “It should happen more often – outside and inside work.”

When Wicked Little Letters came up, on which Colman and her husband, Ed Sinclair, are producers, she suggested Buckley again, though this time for a character who is the exact opposite of her own. While middle-aged Edith tends to the town’s laundry and dutifully keeps house for a tyrannical father, Rose is a free spirit who roisters with the sailors in the pub when she is not waging domestic war on her sister and her seaman husband, who is known not to be the father of her young daughter.

The Littlehampton libels became a national sensation, debated in parliament and filling the newspapers with prurient outrage. As filming began, the apparent outlandishness of the drama was put into perspective by a more recent scandal: the Wagatha Christie case – which pitted Coleen Rooney against Rebekah Vardy, highlighting the offstage enmities of the footballing world – erupted into the courts and the press with its own barely credible story of female betrayal and amateur sleuthing. “Ooh, we were all gripped by that,” says Colman.

In the film, as in life, it doesn’t take long to work out that Rose is not to blame for the letters, which are gleefully recited at length from the originals that were produced as evidence in the resulting court hearings. The mystery in both cases is not whodunnit, but why – and how it could be possible for those charged with upholding the law to be so snobbishly prejudiced that they refused to believe the evidence in front of their eyes. When Edith Swan was put on trial, the judge ordered a jury to “consider whether it was conceivable that she could have written this document” given that her “demeanour in the witness box was that of a respectable, clean-mouthed woman”.

By the time the truth was accepted, Rose had spent two spells in jail. Her only fault, says Buckley, was her refusal to conform. “She was basically judged for being a single mother, which is hard enough without having the whole rest of the world condemn you for it. She wanted to be as uncompromisingly free and full and joyful as she possibly could be, and that does come with consequences.”

Though the language of the letters might appear startlingly extreme, it reflects a real shift that social historians have attributed to the stresses of the first world war. Swearing accelerated at a such a pace that, by 1930, the editors of a collection of British songs and slang noted that, among soldiers particularly, the word “fucking” was so common that it was merely a warning “that a noun is coming”. The same licence was never given to women, and in many quarters still isn’t. Buckley, who is 34 and grew up in Ireland, has an early memory of being banished to the back step for swearing. “I remember feeling half ashamed and half like it’s just a word and I probably meant it. I was going for gold: this was my revenge, my revolt against the back step.”

Colman, who has just turned 50, had a different experience growing up in Norfolk: she can’t remember a time when she didn’t know the F-word. “My mum or dad always swore and it was never in anger, just in normal conversation. Dad would say: ‘Where’ve I put the fucking car keys’, or mum would say: ‘Shall we have a cup of tea? Yes, fuck it, let’s have a cup of tea.’ So I’ve got no time for people who would happily watch a murder on telly but whose sphincters tighten at the idea of some woman swearing in the 1920s.”

She does, though, add a caveat: “If you hear someone in the street who’s really angry, swearing at another person, of course that’s scary and shocking.” Wicked Little Letters treads this line: the language might be funny, but the emotions powering it are not. Though in some ways it tells a story of its time, which is handled with “a dollop of artistic licence”, in other ways it is a startlingly resonant portrayal of the rage unleashed in women who are subjected to coercive control.

“Never repress a woman – because it will come out,” says Colman. “Rose manages to escape. But Edith is stuck in this place where she’s still under the thumb of her father in her late 40s. And it was only through writing these letters that she got some sort of a release. So it is serious. It’s the way women were treated in that period. And how far we have come, I suppose, is open for discussion.”

In particular, Colman points out, there is a parallel with the internet trolling of today. “I think Edith sees Rose and thinks: ‘Oh my God, life could be different.’ And, you know: ‘Fuck you for being what I want to be.’ She probably feels bad initially, but then it’s like a drug and she can’t stop. It’s so gratifying. It’s trolling. She has anonymous power and a thrill from hurting someone, which is awful. And it’s happening now on a much greater scale.”

People are complicated, agrees Buckley. “I guess ultimately everyone wants to be seen. As Frankenstein’s creature says: ‘I’m malicious because I’m miserable.’ If you lock somebody up, they’re going to become lonely, and they’re going to cause damage.”

Partly because of a fear of trolling, neither actor uses social media. “I don’t want to see all that. I don’t want someone I’ve never met to be unkind. I don’t understand it, and I wouldn’t be able to cope with it. And I really feel for our youth,” says Colman, who has three children. “As a teenager I was able to make my mistakes in private, you know, but now, you’ve got to be so careful. I feel sorry for them. And I want to tell them to just walk away from it.”

Which begs the question, what exactly do two such successful actors think they might find themselves trolled for? “We’re not going to tell you that,” they chorus, while agreeing that doing work that makes them cringe is part of any performer’s lot because mistakes happen all the time, even if nobody else notices.

Buckley, whose first break was as one of the hopefuls in the TV reality show I’d Do Anything, auditioning to play Nancy in the West End musical Oliver (she came second and turned down the consolation prize of an understudy role), now alternates between music, theatre and film. The soundtrack of the 2018 film Wild Rose – which drew all her strengths together in the portrayal of a Glaswegian wannabe country-and-western singer – reached the top of the UK country albums chart. She won an Olivier award in 2022 as Sally Bowles in the West End production of Cabaret, but is now on a film roll that will shortly include a Frankenstein film, The Bride, directed by Gyllenhaal, and a screen adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet. But it’s not all plain sailing, she says. “You spend most of your time trying to convince people to give you a job. And then you’re like: ‘Oh my God, I was terrible.’ Or: ‘This is awful’, but you just keep going.”

Colman, who became a national treasure with TV roles including DS Ellie Miller in the crime series Broadchurch, and Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, has developed such bad stage fright that she thinks she may never act in the theatre again. Her last appearance was at the National Theatre in 2017, as the stuck-at-home daughter of an ailing mother in Lucy Kirkwood’s drama of science and sibling rivalry Mosquitoes. “I started in theatre and loved it so much,” she says. But when her children got to the “pyjama-time-cuddle-on-the-sofa-before-bed age”, she stepped back. “And I think I’ve left it too long – the fear is too great. Oh, God. I feel it’s so far to fall now. And then there’s my menopause brain, and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to remember an entire play. When you’re filming, you can look and learn on the day, get it wrong, and get to go again. But if you’re on stage, and you’ve forgotten your soliloquy … everyone knows that fear, but I don’t know if I can face it again. Maybe when I’m in my 80s with an earpiece …”

Both actors are fiercely protective of the Edith Swans of this world – difficult women whose circumstances have driven them to challenging behaviour. “What does that even mean?” demands Buckley. “Are you challenging or difficult because you actually want some autonomy and want to be part of a world that engages you instead of putting you in the corner and pretending that we’re all parlourmaids who witter away to each other and drink tea? Because that’s never been my experience as a woman.”

Buckley has the wind in her sails and is not going to stop there, as Colman looks admiringly on. “First of all,” she pronounces, “we should all be able to take space and stand up and educate our minds and have autonomy of our bodies and feel like we are entitled to pleasure and desire that is ours and not bound by a system that decides those things for us. And so if that is challenging to you, it shouldn’t be, because the other option is crippling and actually causes more damage across the board.”

For all the pain and havoc caused by the Littlehampton libels, they did have a positive outcome of sorts. Gladys Moss, the dogged PC who investigated the case and is played in the film by Anjana Vasan, recently had a blue plaque dedicated to her in the Sussex town of Worthing, in recognition of her pioneering work as the county’s first woman police officer. Edith Swan was finally freed from her father, even though it took a jail sentence to do it. This thought sends the two friends off on a reverie about what sort of prisoner she would have been. She would have been a mother hen who taught the younger prisoners how to read and write, says Colman. “Yeah,” picks up Buckley, “she’d be like: ‘You know that F-word? I want you to write it out a hundred times.’”

• Wicked Little Letters is released in the UK on 23 February