David Tennant and Olivia Colman: the best actors on TV? Ask The Guardian

The Guardian TV & Radio blog say there is no danger of over exposure for David Tennant or his Broadchurch co star Olivia Colman and tip David for a double BAFTA nomination for...

This week, David Tennant faces one of the toughest tests of his career. Most actors dream of securing a stream of jobs, because of the insecurity of what they do. But for screen performers, this can lead to the potential nightmare of being seen in very close succession in two roles. Though the CV and bank balance are helped in the short-term, they can be harmed later on by the exposure of limited tricks and tics.
Tonight at 9pm on BBC2, Tennant, 71 hours after he stopped being DI Alec Hardy in Broadchurch on ITV, reappears as Aiden Hoynes MP in The Politician's Husband, a three-part drama written by Paula Milne. Hoynes is a politician with party-leadership ambitions who resigns on a point of principle and finds his wife taking over his job and ambitions.
There's a tradition in cinema of "action heroes" – shooting-and-shouting actors such as Bruce Willis – but the very best TV performers tend to be heroes of inaction. The true proof of a screen actor's skills comes when the dialogue and the camera stop and we have to be shown what the character is thinking. A story is told about Alec Guinness, when filming his performance as the spymaster George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, crossing out a long chunk of dialogue and saying: "I can do that with a look."
The finest television actors – Guinness, John Thaw, Ronnie Barker, and more recently Benedict Cumberbatch (in Sherlock and Parade's End) – have all had this ability to transmit inner life through expression: to speak a page through a variation of their face. And I think we can now add to that list Tennant and his Broadchurch co-star, Olivia Colman.
Tennant can't have known when he filmed the shows that their transmissions would so closely overlap, but he survives the double exposure because the two parts impressively showcase his range. He has the luck that decisions made in the rehearsal and makeup rooms put useful physical and verbal distance between the parts: Hardy unshaven, dark and Scottish; Hoynes clean-shaven, blonder and RP. But each role is also mainly located in a different zone of his vocal and emotional range, in the way that top singers learn to favour aspects of their register according to the role.
The copper in Broadchurch explores the brooding, tragic notes that made Tennant a great stage Hamlet in a performance also thankfully preserved on film, while the thwarted minister in The Politician's Husband is positioned somewhere lighter – skittish, darkly comic, closer to the tone of his Doctor Who. What connects the characters is that they have public and private selves – Hardy and Hoynes both have to give press conferences or interviews while dying inside – and these are often the best parts to play on screen because of the tension in the character between what is being said and what is being felt. Such inner conflict also leads naturally to devastating moments of repose when the protagonists are later alone and we see in burning, churning closeup what they are thinking. In that sense, the silent closeup is the TV equivalent of the Shakesperean soliloquy.
But if Tennant is notable for the ability to move between tragedy and comedy, then his Broadchurch co-star matches him in such adaptability. Although what's remarkable about Colman was never marked, out of drama school in her early performances, to be the powerful screen tragedian she has become. While Tennant, almost from the beginning, moved easily between Shakesperean monarchs and tea-time timelords, Colman seemed initially to be an actor most suited to sketches (Mitchell & Webb, Gash) and then situation comedy (Peep Show, Rev, Twenty Twelve). In retrospect, though, her comedy parts were often people feeling pain beneath the brave smiles: her main sitcom parts were all people who were either unhappily married or unmarried.
Happily, directors and casting directors glimpsed a potential depth of feeling and bleakness that was unleashed in Paddy Considine's film Tyrannosaur, in which she played a Christian woman driven to redeem violent men, and in an episode of Jimmy McGovern's The Accused, as a mother challenging gang culture. While stillness and silent transmission of thought are the most important parts of small-screen acting, a performer also needs to be able to shatter the mask for startling contrast. And Colman achieved astonishing explosions of suppressed rage in Tyrannosaur and also in Broadchurch. The scene in which (this is expressed carefully for time-shift viewers) DS Miller loses control with a suspect is one of the most brutal but psychologically truthful moments in TV drama. It is little surprise to discover that the other actor in the scene has revealed that he accidentally suffered genuine bruising when his protective padding slipped.
In a tribute to her versatility, Colman has very unusually been nominated in this year's Bafta's in both the drama (The Accused) and comedy (Twenty Twelve) categories and will surely be shortlisted next year for Broadchurch alongside Tennant, who also has a strong chance of doing what is known in the trade as a "Julie Walters" and being nominated against himself for The Politician's Husband as well. Such honours are the proper due of the finest TV actors we are likely to have.