Fans of Doctor Who will recognise Ingrid Oliver as Petronella Osgood, though if you’re a fan of British comedy you may have caught Oliver in a number of other productions over the last decade. Oliver however looks strikingly different from Osgood minus her thick rimmed glasses and lab coat when we catch up with her during Oz Comic Con Melbourne.
We discuss her comedy career, the shift into dramatic acting, and what it was like working on one of the biggest productions in the world – Doctor Who.
Oliver began her career in sketch comedy with former schoolmate Lorna Watson in 2005. It’s an interesting choice of career path, to go headlong into sketch comedy. It often takes a certain level of fearlessness due to the fast paced nature of it. Not to mention that everybody’s taste when it comes to comedy can vary.
“It’s the initial leap, the first show my comedy partner and I did we did a double act sketch, we’d never done comedy before. We hired a theatre, we put the first show on and invited our friends and family and as we were about to walk on stage, realised we have no idea if we’d be funny. This could be the longest hour of everybody’s lives if we’re not. Luckily it all went brilliantly, but it was terrifying and when it went alright on that first night, after that we never looked back.”
One of the first shows Watson & Oliver did featured a person whom Oliver has oddly worked with on a couple of occasions – John Barrowman. As we’re attempting to conduct our interview, Barrowman himself is just a couple of metres away from us playing with a bizarre Elsa from Frozen doll that flies/hovers, all whilst singing ‘Let It Go’.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life you can’t compete with Barrowman on any level, did you know he was in our first comedy show? When we got commissioned for the BBC for our first sketch show, we wrote a song for him, and he performed with us, and we both had to kiss him. And he’s been the bane of my life ever since.”
Once their double act – Watson & Oliver – had garnered success after sell out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Oliver then moved into television work. Starring in such series as Plus One and Material Girl and then landing her role on Doctor Who.
Moving from sketch comedy and comedic roles into more dramatic roles, we quiz her over whether there’s a notable difference for her as an actor.
“There shouldn’t be a difference but it’s the weight of expectation when you’re doing drama. With the 50th Anniversary episode (of Doctor Who) there were a couple of times where I was supposed to cry and I haven’t done anything like that onscreen before. And there is this sense of ‘ooh, this is proper dramatic acting’. A lot of actors say comedy or drama is the same thing you shouldn’t make a differentiation, but actually in my own head maybe I make that distinction.”
“It doesn’t necessarily affect the way I play things. Because Osgood is nice there are some comedy moments in there which I’m able to find because that’s my background. But it’s nice to be able to do a bit of dramatic stuff as well, and working with Peter (Capaldi) I just learn from him, watch how he does it, I mean it will take me decades before I’m anywhere like him.”
After having worked on smaller series, for Oliver it was like stepping into a whole new universe when she came to Doctor Who. As most people would know, it is one of the largest television productions (besides Game Of Thrones) currently being filmed and has a historic legacy of now 50+ years being onscreen.
“It was the best time of my life. How lucky to not only get a part on Doctor Who but to get a part on the 50th Anniversary, and all that came with it, like the amazing locations, we were in Tower Of London, we were in Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square I walk through every day on my way from my house in to London. So to be there with a crane, with the TARDIS, and a rain machine, and UNIT soldiers, and crowds behind barriers, it was absolutely insane. I’m one of those people that I’m aware of being lucky in the moment, so I was very aware of how lucky I was and it was a nice feeling.”
Oliver ought to count herself lucky, because not only did she have the honour of starring in the 50th Anniversary episode, but she is also one of a few supporting characters who was resurrected. It’s not often that the fans demand a minor character be brought back, but Petronella Osgood was one who got a second chance at coming back to have fun with The Doctor.
“I think she’s very relatable, in the sense that she’s not flashy or showy. Her character is quite modest, in terms of coming to these conventions you see a lot of girls dressed, and men actually, I had a 70 yr old man dressed as Osgood which is one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen, a lot of people dress up like her, it’s not like sexy hot pants, and I think that’s nice. I don’t want to wear sexy hot pants thank you, I’d rather wear a lab coat and a buttoned up shirt. So I think in terms of that visually she’s quite relatable.”
Considering her background in comedy and the fact that Osgood does have a few shining moments we felt it was necessary to find out if any of those moments were her own creation.
“I would never improvise Steven Moffat’s lines, I would be far too scared. Having said that, on the 50th, Matt (Smith) and I had a lovely bit, it was a scripted bit, when he asks me “Are you sciencey?” and I said “Yes” and he says “Good I always wanted to meet someone who is sciencey” and I’m sort of hyperventilating, I definitely added that. I went comedy with it rather than serious, so I was hyperventilating blushing and he did a little wink in response to that. So we had quite a nice moment. But I tell you, Michelle Gomez is amazing at improvising, she would just try out things and is great, she’s so good.”
For an actor like Oliver who is still fairly new to the realm of television and dramatic acting, it was almost a given that being around the presence of luminaries like Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez would enable her to learn more about the acting craft.
“Yes, watching her, and Peter, they both do something completely different with each take. They just try something different. It’s so fascinating to watch. A lot of actors will stick rigidly to how they’ve rehearsed and won’t try something else. And they’re just so exciting, this sounds really naff but Michelle is quite dangerous in a good way, you don’t know what she’s going to do next. So the reactions to her are completely genuine, she’s terrifying as that character because you just don’t know what she’s going to do next.”
“Obviously Osgood, you can’t do the same kind of things with that character, nor should you try, but as Ingrid I’m watching Michelle going “ohhh interesting, next time I do something else I’m going to try that”.
For Ingrid Oliver, there’s plenty to potentially move on to now that she has conquered Doctor Who. Although funnily enough the next project we may see her in onscreen is a comedy film called Fish Without Bicycles starring one of her Whovian castmates David Tennant and also Who alum Peter Davison. After that we will just have to wait and see what the future holds in store for Oliver.