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Coleman, Charlotte (1968-2001)


Main image of Coleman, Charlotte (1968-2001)

Charlotte Coleman's small stature and elfin looks meant that she was cast as waifs and troubled teens well into her twenties, but there was nothing childish about her talent, and by the time of her unexpected and untimely death at the age of 33 she had successfully made the leap into more adult roles without sacrificing her distinctive edgy charm.

Born Charlotte Ninon Coleman, she was the eldest of two daughters to actress Ann Beach and television producer Francis Coleman. She later claimed that she only attended Anna Scher's evening acting classes because she was "too cool for Brownies", but was quickly talent-spotted. Following her role in Two People (ITV, 1979) she spent three years as Sue, level-headed sidekick to Jon Pertwee's eponymous scarecrow in Worzel Gummidge (ITV, 1979-81). By her early teens she was beginning to show signs of the rebellious nature that would characterise most of her roles over the next decade, notably the 'schoolgirl from hell' Marmalade Atkins. Originally created by Andrew Davies for a one-off children's comedy, Marmalade Atkins in Space (ITV, tx 2/11/1981), the teen terror was a surprise hit, and two series followed: Educating Marmalade (ITV, 1982-83) and Danger: Marmalade at Work (ITV, 1984).

Having frittered her Marmalade earnings on an abortive secondary education at Dartington School ("you didn't have to go to any lessons, so I didn't"), she impressed as a psychopathic adolescent in another Davies script, 'Inappropriate Behaviour' (Screen Two, BBC, tx 8/3/1987). However, her promising career suffered a major setback with the death of her boyfriend in a cycling accident, leaving her struggling with severe depression. A low-key film debut in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale (d. Anne and Eduardo Guedes, 1989), was followed by her breakthrough role, as teenager Jess, whose sexual awakening brings her into conflict with her strict religious mother in the acclaimed adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (BBC, 1990). Her astonishingly performance won her a Royal Television Society Best Actress Award.

After starring opposite Anne Bancroft in short-lived sitcom Freddie & Max (ITV, 1990) she made an impressive stage debut at the Bush Theatre in Roy MacGregor's 'Our Own Kind', prompting one critic to beg: "Will someone please rescue her from television?" But her next standout role was in a feature film, playing Hugh Grant's memorably offbeat flatmate Scarlett in one of Britain's biggest hits of the 1990s, Four Weddings and a Funeral (d. Mike Newell, 1994). Despite a BAFTA nomination, she did not make the transition to Hollywood in the manner of her co-star; about which she remained characteristically phlegmatic: "I didn't know you could."

A sharp performance as lesbian huntswoman Barb Gale in the political satire Giving Tongue (d. Stefan Schwartz, 1996) showed that she was more than capable of playing grown-ups, but it was not until Simon Nye's sitcom How Do You Want Me? (BBC, 1998-99) that she finally had the chance to play someone "of my own age who is sensible, ordinary and heterosexual": her role, as country-born wife to Dylan Moran's fish-out-of-water citydweller, for once downplayed the eccentricity and showcased her engaging, unforced acting. It looked as if her career was entering a new, more mature phase, making her death in 2001 following an asthma attack all the more tragic.

Richard Hewett

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)

BBC dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical novel

Thumbnail image of Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Children's series with Jon Pertwee as the living scarecrow

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