Glass interviews Marianne Oldham the star of BBC WW1 drama The Crimson Field


Life does indeed resemble art when I interview Marianne Oldham in late December 2013. Having just wrapped from two months filming six one-hour episodes of the Sarah Phelps-penned drama The Crimson Field, she is telling me about what it was like to spend two months on the set, a front line army hospital, which was really just a flapping tarpaulin in a very muddy Wiltshire field. “It rained all the time. The action takes place in a medical camp right behind the front line during the First World War,” she tells me.
“You were in the field hospital for all of it?” I ask.
“Apart from a small bit of filming off a boat and a very bumpy Landrover journey taken through France, the filming was really controlled by the weather. It became very haphazard working in a field all the time. We really were at the mercy of the howling wind and rain. To have been there all the time must have been extraordinary,” Oldham replies.

Marianne OldhamMarianne Oldham. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

And I understand a small part of what she is saying, as I happen to be speaking to her from an old stone farmhouse in the heart of rural Midlands, and as we are talking, a violent storm rages outside, the noisy rain lashing against the windows threatens to curtail our chat. But we struggle on and a lovely, relaxed, informative chat it turns out to be.

Marianne plays Rosalie Berwick, a VAD, which stands for Voluntary Aid Department, part of a group of people, nurses, doctors and women volunteers, who are tasked with healing the bodies and souls of those wounded on the front line. It is her first major role on television having earned her stripes in theatre where she has won universal critical acclaim, both for her luminous performances and beauty, The Guardian pronouncing her “a real star in the making”.

It’s an interesting period of history and up until now not much has been dramatised about women’s role in the war. Did you find yourself steeped in the historical aspect of what being there must have really been like?
t was wonderful as Sarah Phelps  was there all the time. She really got to know us all. She was so excited about these real life stories of people on the side-lines helping, that we really haven’t heard much about yet. The stories are fascinating. What came up a lot was the balance between what was then deportment and good manners, and the necessity of survival – what you are forced to face in that sort of environment.

Marianne OldhamMarianne Oldham. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Tell me about Rosalie.
My character was really repressed. Sarah had some ideas of her being the child that got overlooked and being slightly bullied by the rest of the family hence she becomes the one that looks after her household. In France, she finds herself becoming noticed. She gets put into situations where she is literally forced out of her shell. She finds it shocking and alarming. She has never even touched a man before let alone wash a soldier.’

She sounds like a great character to play? The journey of her inner life seems enormous?
It really is. There is a much wider spectrum to play with someone who is repressed in some way.

All the characters you have played seem in some way women trapped by circumstance but forced to do something different. I’m thinking of your portrayal of Deborah Burns in WPC 56, which tells the story of the first female officer in a West Midlands force in the 1950s, you play a detective inspectors wife who suffers a mental breakdown.
That was my very first intro to telly. I was really just picking out my surroundings and looking at what was going on. It was lovely to play some one on the edge – these odd eruptions and then for her to go the whole way and lose her mind.

Marianne Oldham. Photograph: Justin van VlietMarianne Oldham. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

It sounds like an actors dream to show the full spectrum.
It’s not always that you get to do that. As a woman, I’ve been very lucky with the parts I have played. They have been very full in showing each woman completely. Quite often a women is written as either the mother, the sexy one or the fool and I think I have escaped that. I have played the woman who is complicated, full of layers that you need to reveal one by one.’

Much of your career has been spent in theatre thus far. You won a National stage award in South Africa for your part in The Girl In The Yellow Dress?
Yes, written by Craig Higginson who is also doing things over here in the UK. They were looking for an English girl and casting at the National Theatre. It was extremely exciting working over there. For three days I was terrified then suddenly a wall fell down. Johannesburg is the most wonderful place. The people come at theatre from a completely different angle. Unlike English people they work with their bodies.

I would stand their dithering in rehearsal and the other actors would tell me to just “say what you mean” and then we’d  move on. And the way the audience would watch the show was completely electric. They watch vocally, to have a connection. People are reacting to every word, forward in their seats, wanting to join in, wanting to be there.

Marianne Oldham in The Crimson Field, Photographer: Nick BriggsMarianne Oldham in The Crimson Field, Photographer: Nick Briggs

It’s a great time to be working in television here of course …
I really like it. There’s a great team of people all doing their own thing to create a moment. Instead of it mainly being down to you, which you could say about the theatre. It takes the pressure off, but also makes a wonderful spirit of camaraderie on the set. You’re all on the very same tight schedule. Learning the techniques, how to play cameras, how to get yourself in the right place. Making sure you are treating the read through, the first run, the wide shot, the close up in a different way.

And The Crimson Field has a great female cast. Did they help you?
The other actors who I was learning from, (Hermione Norris, Kerry Fox, Oona Chaplin and Suranne Jones) were wonderful people to work with and great examples.

Marianne Oldham in The Crimson Field, Photographer: Nick BriggsMarianne Oldham in The Crimson Field, Photographer: Nick Briggs

So it wasn’t all “do the work at home” and bring it to the set?
It helped being one of the main characters because you are given more time, but the work certainly gets quicker as you run out of time!

And although the December storm still rages at the windows, it’s time for our chat to come to an end. If Marianne brings such considered thoughtfulness to the part of Rosalie Berwick as she does in life, she will be a sure fire hit. I shall watch The Crimson Field. with interest

by Gabriella Crewe-Read

Portraits of Marianne Oldham by Justin van Vliet

The BBC1 series The Crimson Field is broadcast on Sundays at 9 pm