How a Lancashire school helped Victoria actress Jenna Coleman on the road to stardom
PUBLISHED: 11:25 03 October 2016 | UPDATED: 11:25 03 October 2016
The acting talents of Queen Victoria star Jenna Coleman were nurtured in Lancashire. Roger Borrell spoke to one of her mentors.
As Queen Victoria shimmers across our TV screens in a blur of exquisite blue silk it’s hard to imagine her pulling pints in a London pub. Even harder to think of her as an Emmerdale wild child battering a chap to death with the leg of a chair.
But the young star Jenna Coleman is a woman of many parts – including a stint as Dr Who’s sidekick. One of the earliest was as head girl at school in her Lancashire home town.
Jenna was born and raised in Blackpool and the foundations for her acting career were laid while she was a pupil at Arnold School, now merged into AKS at Lytham.
She is still remembered with considerable affection by the staff who spoke of her early passion for the stage. Head of sixth form at AKS, Phil Hayden, taught her English literature. ‘She was an absolute delight – intelligent and hard working,’ he said. ‘As head girl she was quite a role model.’
One man credited by Jenna for firing a passion for the stage is Arnold’s former head of drama, Colin Snell. ‘He treated us like adults in a semi-professional theatre company,’ she said.
When Lancashire Life caught up with Colin, who lives near Preston, he was more modest about his involvement. ‘People ask me if I could spot her star quality,’ he said. ‘I always reply that she didn’t have any because it’s an invention of the media, especially at that age. What I did see was talent but then, quite a few of her peers also had talent.’
Frantic attempts by the tabloid media to find some skeletons in her closet have failed although there was a brief frisson of excitement when Prince Harry was pictured with his hand on her knee. ‘We’re just friends,’ Jenna snapped.
This is a game celebrities can’t win because one or two former classmates have now damned her with faint praise by saying she was ‘too good to be true.’ But Colin is quick to stress: ‘When you have four As in your exams and you are head girl, things like that will happen. But there really was no scandal involving Jenna – and she was never a bitchy girl.’
While she had obvious talent, she also needed a dose of good fortune. ‘Jenna said that if it hadn’t been for the fact she had some chemistry with Matt Smith she wouldn’t have got the part in Dr Who. You do need luck.
‘One thing that certainly stood out was the fact that Jenna was very grounded. There were no airs and graces and certainly no histrionics. She was never a luvvie. There are some who don’t know when to stop acting. Jenna wasn’t one of them.
‘In fact, I don’t think she really believed in herself. That’s common with people who have a talent because it comes naturally to them. She was very self-critical.’
Colin, well known for his work as a theatre director and now running drama workshops, didn’t operate the sort of school department that put on one play a year. ‘We were more like a rep company,’ he said.
And they certainly weren’t confined to the school hall. Under his direction, the group at Arnold gained a national reputation for the quality and range of their performances which took in venues such as the Edinburgh Fringe. Jenna won an award there for her portrayal of a blind woman in a play called Crystal Clear. ‘All the cast members were brilliant. They made audiences cry,’ said Colin, who taught for 37 years.
‘She was in Spoonface Steinberg at Buxton and we had a note from a member of the audience who thought it was a wonderful production. He was Timothy West. All three actors said “Who’s Timothy West?”’
Even when she broke into television she continued to take her work with Colin seriously. ‘It says something about her determination that when she was filming Emmerdale in Yorkshire she was also appearing in a play we had in Suffolk at the Felixstowe Festival. Her father drove her from the set and she arrived with just ten minutes to spare. She’d never been on that stage but she just arrived and got on with it.’
Colin said Jenna ‘benefitted fantastically’ from having supportive parents. ‘She was academically bright and there was talk of Oxbridge,’ he said. ‘However, she wanted a career on the stage. A lot of parents would have knocked that on the head but they were 100 per cent behind her.’
Jenna’s role as Queen Victoria in the ITV drama series has drawn critical acclaim. ‘What I have seen of her in Victoria is absolutely fascinating. The Queen is always made out to be this little woman in black who went around telling people she wasn’t amused. But she did have a sense of humour and Jenna is bringing that out. She will have done quite a lot of research for this role.’
Becoming a star never featured in Jenna’s plans. ‘She will be the first to acknowledge that it’s not always talent that gets you through,’ said Colin. ‘It’s also luck and hard work. When she was between roles she was working as a barmaid so she’s not afraid of hard work.
‘She is very modest and unassuming but she is very determined. All the talented people I’ve worked with never talked about fame and fortune. They talked about work.’
The chances are fame and fortune will follow Jenna whether she likes it or not.
High road to success
Jenna Coleman is very proud of her local roots. ‘Everyone dismisses Blackpool as stag-and-hen central, but IT has a charm you don’t appreciate until you leave,’ she said. ‘Something to do with faded 50s glamour and nostalgia.’
Her first job, at just 19, was as Jasmine Thomas in Emmerdale. What was meant to be a small role grew into a series for five years. She followed this with acclaimed BBC series Waterloo Road, original dramas by Julian Fellowes and Stephen Poliakoff, and then her world was turned upside down when she was cast as companion to two Doctor Whos – Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi. She quit for the part as Queen Victoria and at 5ft 2ins is still taller than the real Queen.
There doesn’t appear to be any history of acting in the family. Her dad ran an interiors installation company although one of her grandfathers worked on the seafront all his life ‘getting on his bike and working the hoopla.’