Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley advise that it is never wise to suppress a woman, as it will eventually surface.

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley advise that it is never wise to suppress a woman, as it will eventually surface.


On September 23, 1921, a communication was received by Edith Swan, a laundry worker living in the coastal town of Littlehampton. The letter was addressed to “the promiscuous woman at 47 Western Rd.” It was one of the more tame letters that had been causing trouble in the Sussex community for three years and it stated, “You are a promiscuous, vulgar, country woman.” Swan believed her neighbor, Rose Gooding, was responsible. However, the post office employee and local police had their own suspicions, leading them to set up a periscope to observe mail deliveries to the town’s post box and using invisible ink to mark postage stamps.

The combination of malicious anonymous letters and independent investigation in a charming small town setting is a perfect opportunity for the talented duo of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. Directed by Thea Sharrock and written by Jonny Sweet, Wicked Little Letters features a stellar cast of character actors and challenges the typical cozy crime stories of Agatha Christie. It also reveals the less-than-perfect side of British social history, as Buckley points out that people are not always as kind and proper as they may seem. Despite some individuals claiming otherwise, everyone enjoys a good swear word now and then.

Colman and Buckley are both in a cheerful mood when we meet, having just finished filming for Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. During the filming, they had a discussion with a group of young boys about different forms of rudeness. Colman, known to the boys as the scheming innkeeper Mrs. Scrubbit from Wonka, enters the room first, showing off a “fart” app she downloaded specifically for the occasion. She exclaims how good it is and can’t stop using it, letting out a series of whoopees. Meanwhile, assistants hurry around, making sure that Colman and Buckley have everything they need. After miming along to a particularly loud one, Colman apologizes and promises to stop, only to let out another one as her co-star takes a seat next to her. This impromptu display of delight is similar to the one that made her 2019 Oscar acceptance speech for The Favourite one of the best ever.

Buckley and Colman in Wicked Little Letters.View image in fullscreen

Colman and Buckley became close friends after meeting at a Letters Live event during a festival in Oxfordshire. At the event, Colman entertained with a comical letter from a 17th-century naval officer and Buckley read a declaration of love from Maud Gonne to WB Yeats. The two bonded over late-night karaoke and Colman even recommended Buckley for a role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s award-winning movie adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter. Although their characters did not have any scenes together due to separate timelines, they continued to connect off-set by singing, playing guitar, swimming, and enjoying rosé. “I believe we are kindred spirits,” says Buckley. To which Colman replies, “Yes, we should make it a regular occurrence – both in and out of 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 caused a stir across the country, sparking discussions in parliament and sensationalized reports in newspapers. As filming commenced, the seemingly outrageous nature of the story was overshadowed by a more recent scandal: the Wagatha Christie case. This legal battle between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy exposed the behind-the-scenes animosities of the football world, captivating the public with its unbelievable tale of female deceit and amateur investigations. “We were all hooked on that,” Colman remarks.

In the movie and in real life, it becomes clear quickly that Rose is not responsible for the letters, which are read aloud with delight from the original copies used as evidence in court. The main question in both situations is not who did it, but rather why – and how it was possible for those in charge of enforcing the law to be so snobbishly biased that they refused to believe the evidence right in front of them. During Edith Swan’s trial, the judge instructed the jury to consider if it was even possible for her to have written the document, given her respectable and well-spoken demeanor while testifying.

After the truth was acknowledged, Rose had been incarcerated twice. According to Buckley, her only wrongdoing was her refusal to conform. She faced judgment for being a single mother, which is difficult enough without the condemnation of the entire world. She simply wanted to live her life fully and freely, but that choice came with consequences.

The use of strong language in letters during this time period may be surprising, but it reflects a significant change that social historians attribute to the pressures of World War I. Swearing became so widespread that by 1930, a collection of British songs and slang noted that among soldiers, the word “fucking” was often used as a mere warning that a noun was about to follow. However, women were not given the same freedom to swear and this is still the case in many circles today. The author, Buckley, who is 34 and from Ireland, remembers being punished for swearing as a child. Despite feeling somewhat ashamed, she also saw it as an act of rebellion against being banished to the back step.

Colman, who has recently reached the age of 50, had a unique upbringing in Norfolk: she cannot recall a time when she was not familiar with the use of the F-word. She explains, “My parents would swear regularly in everyday conversation, without any anger. My dad might say, ‘Where did I put the car keys, fucking hell’, or my mum might say, ‘Do you want a cup of tea? Oh, fuck it, let’s have one’.” Therefore, Colman has little patience for those who are fine with watching a murder on TV but are offended by a woman swearing in a historical context.

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley.View image in fullscreen

However, she does mention one exception: “If you encounter someone on the street who is extremely angry and using swear words towards another person, that can definitely be frightening and alarming.” Wicked Little Letters walks this fine line: the language may be humorous, but the underlying emotions are not. While it reflects the period in which it is set, it also incorporates some creative liberties, yet remains a powerful depiction of the fury experienced by women who are victims of coercive control.

Colman states, “Do not suppress a woman, as it will eventually surface.” Rose successfully flees, but Edith remains trapped in a situation where her father still has control over her, even in her late 40s. Writing letters was her only means of finding some form of relief. This highlights the severity of how women were treated during that time period. It also raises the question of how much progress we have made since then, which is open to debate.

Colman specifically notes that there is a comparison to be made with the current phenomenon of internet trolling. She suggests that Edith may see Rose and envy her for living a different life, leading to feelings of resentment and a desire to lash out. Initially, Edith may feel guilty, but the rush of power and satisfaction she gets from causing harm becomes addictive, similar to a drug. This behavior can be seen as a form of trolling, where one gains a sense of anonymous power and enjoyment from hurting others. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society.

According to Buckley, individuals are complex. They all desire to be acknowledged, as expressed by Frankenstein’s monster when he says, “I am wicked because I am unhappy.” When someone is confined, they will experience feelings of isolation and may act harmfully.

Due to concerns about negative online interactions, both actors choose not to engage on social media. Colman, who is a mother of three, expresses sympathy for young people who have to navigate the pressure and potential criticism on social media. She recalls her own teenage years when she was able to learn from her mistakes without public scrutiny and wishes the same for today’s youth.

The question remains, why would two accomplished actors be subject to trolling? They refuse to disclose the reason, but acknowledge that making mistakes is a common experience for performers, even if it goes unnoticed by others.

Buckley as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

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Buckley, who first gained recognition on the TV reality show I’d Do Anything, where she competed for the role of Nancy in the West End’s production of Oliver (she came in second and declined the offer to be an understudy), now divides her time between music, theatre, and film. Her performance in the 2018 movie Wild Rose, where she showcased her talents as a Glaswegian aspiring country singer, topped the UK country albums chart. In 2022, she won an Olivier award for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in the West End’s Cabaret. She has since been on a successful streak in film, with upcoming projects including a Frankenstein film called The Bride, directed by Gyllenhaal, and an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet. However, Buckley admits that it’s not always smooth sailing. She often has to work hard to convince people to hire her, and even then, she sometimes doubts her own abilities. But she remains resilient and keeps pushing forward.

Actress Colman, known for her roles in popular television shows like Broadchurch and The Crown, has developed severe stage fright that may prevent her from returning to theater. Her last appearance was in 2017 at the National Theatre, playing the daughter of a sick mother in Mosquitoes. She admits that she used to love performing in theater, but as her children grew older, she took a step back to focus on family. Now, she feels that she may have waited too long and the fear of performing on stage is overwhelming. She also worries about memory loss due to menopause and fears not being able to remember an entire play. While filming allows for mistakes and retakes, on stage, forgetting lines can be disastrous. Colman ponders the possibility of returning to theater in her 80s with the help of an earpiece.

Both performers are strongly defensive of characters like Edith Swans, who are considered difficult due to their challenging actions caused by their circumstances. “What is the significance of that?” Buckley asks. “Is someone considered difficult because they desire independence and want to be included in a society that involves them, instead of being sidelined and treated as mere housemaids who gossip and have tea? Because as a woman, I have never encountered that kind of experience.”

Colman as Elizabeth in The Crown.

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Buckley is determined to keep moving forward with determination, while Colman watches with admiration. “First of all,” she declares, “we should all have the ability to claim our own space, stand up for ourselves, educate our minds, and have control over our bodies. We should feel entitled to pleasure and desire that is truly ours, not dictated by a system. And if this idea is difficult for you, it shouldn’t be, because the alternative is harmful and has negative effects overall.”

The Littlehampton libels, despite the harm and chaos they caused, did have a somewhat positive outcome. Anjana Vasan portrays Gladys Moss, the determined police officer who investigated the case, in the film. Recently, a blue plaque was dedicated to her in Worthing, a town in Sussex, as a tribute to her pioneering role as the first female police officer in the county. Edith Swan was eventually rescued from her father, though it required a prison sentence. This leads the two friends to ponder on what kind of prisoner she would have been. According to Colman, she would have been a nurturing figure who taught the younger inmates how to read and write. Adding to the conversation, Buckley says she would have instructed them to write the word “F-word” a hundred times as punishment.

Source: theguardian.com