Robbie Coltrane – A Not So Still Life

I only ever met Robbie Coltrane once. That was in 2005, when I interviewed him for the Herald newspaper a week or so before he opened in Peter McDougall’s short play, The Brother’s Suit. We met in the now long closed BBC Club, a stone’s throw from BBC Scotland’s then HQ on Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow. Oran Mor, the former church turned pub on the corner of Byres Road and Great Western Road, was also close. The production of The Brother’s Suit would form part of David MacLennan’s trailblazing lunchtime theatre initiative, A Play, A Pie and A Pint, which made the venue a new home for West End bohemian types.

At one time, it seemed like the by now globally recognised regular of what was then four Harry Potter films, and a James Bond villain twice over in GoldenEye (1995) and The World is Not Enough (1999) might have been a regular on that sort of scene. As it turned out, this was Coltrane’s first visit to the BBC Club since he took over from Richard Stilgoe in the second series of comedy sketch show, A Kick Up the Eighties (1984), joining a team that included Tracey Ullman, Miriam Margolyes and Rik Mayall.

As Coltrane tucked himself into a corner of the room two decades later, he gently mocked the 1970s décor, and the way the wallpaper had so carefully been cut around the mantelpiece. Later, he would scrutinise the rogue’s gallery of BBC Scotland alumni, noting wryly that one face – his own – seemed to be missing.

It should have been there. Not long before A Kick Up the Eighties, Coltrane had done something similar in Alfresco (1983-1984), appearing alongside Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Siobhan Redmond and Emma Thompson. He did it again with John Sessions, Louise Gold, Ron Bain and Elaine C. Smith in Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (1984).

Coltrane could have coasted with such comedic ubiquity forever after. Truth was, as hilarious as he remained, his talents went much deeper. As a fixture of the alternative comedy set he appeared in episodes of The Young Ones (1982), and in nineteen The Comic Strip Presents… films. These included The Supergrass (1985), while G.L.C.: The Carnage Continues had Coltrane playing Charles Bronson as an action hero version of the just abolished Greater London Council’s outgoing leader Ken Livingstone. The association with the comic new wavers saw Coltrane acquire a cache of cool. A cartoon in a Glasgow music zine of the time depicted Coltrane hunched over the bar in The Rock Garden, then Glasgow’s epicentre of aspirational hipdom frequented by would-be pop stars, scenesters and others on the up in the designer lager era.

I first saw Coltrane on stage at Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh during the 1986 Commonwealth Arts Festival. If memory serves me right, he was a big suited presence compering scaled up cabaret show featuring the likes of local street theatre troupe, The Merry Mac Fun Co. It was awful, he told me in the BBC Club almost two decades on. Or rather, he was awful. At that time, he said, he foolishly believed he could do stand-up, even though he recognised now how he really couldn’t, and never found a public persona for doing it,

Of stand-up in general, Coltrane spoke about how the big illusion about comedians is that they’re being themselves, when in fact they’re being what Coltrane called very like themselves. He admitted he never got that, and thought he could just go on like he was in the pub. He described the experience as being a big fright. But then, as Coltrane told me of returning to the stage for the first time in fifteen years for his solo turn in The Brother’s Suit, it’s good to scare yourself now and again.

The last time Coltrane had been on stage was in Mistero Buffo (1990), an adaptation of radical Italian farceur Dario Fo’s establishment-baiting piece of satirical buffoonery. Adapted for Borderline Theatre’s hit touring production by Joseph Farrell and director Morag Fullerton, the production left Coltrane on stage alone for three hours in what he told me was a beast of a thing to do.

By this time, Coltrane had cut a larger-than-life dash as reluctant rock and roll singer Danny McGlone in John Byrne’s brilliant comedy drama, Tutti Frutti (1987). He would go on to even greater glories as dysfunctional but brilliant criminal psychologist Eddy ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald in Jimmy McGovern’s drama, Cracker (1993-1996, 2006). All this long before his depiction of avuncular half-giant Rubeus Hagrid in all eight Harry Potter films gave him a global profile alongside a fantastical form of elder statesmanship.

Born in Rutherglen, and schooled at Glenalmond College in Perthshire, Coltrane began acting while studying painting at Glasgow School of Art between 1968 and 1972. Poet and playwright Stephen Mulrine, then head of what was known as Liberal Studies, directed Coltrane in a production of Harold Pinter’s play, The Dumb Waiter.

Continuing his studies in Edinburgh at Moray House College of Education, as Robbie McMillan, he appeared at the Traverse Theatre in The Bug (1974), with San Quentin Drama Workshop, an American company formed by ex-prisoners. It was in John Byrne’s play, The Slab Boys (1978), however, where he came into his own. As would be proven later, Byrne’s fast talking pop savvy patois could have been written for Coltrane.

Coltrane’s first TV appearance was in Waterloo Sunset (1979), a Play for Today by Barrie Keeffe, about a seventy-year-old woman who leaves her care home to discover what appears to be a very different London. Coltrane played Jimmy, a gruff barman in a Lambeth boozer running the gauntlet of his multi-racial clientele as Scotland lose in the football being shown on the pub TV.

Coltrane made his film debut in Death Watch (1980), Bertrand Tavernier’s stately prediction of reality TV, which brought an international cast that included Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton to a bleak, unreconstructed Glasgow. Coltrane played a limousine driver who loses sight of Schneider’s Katherine, the woman being secretly filmed by a TV station after being told she is dying. As Coltrane races around an ad hoc market in search of Katherine, the area around the old Queen’s Dock pumphouse where the scene was filmed, close to where the SECC, Clyde Auditorium and SEC Hydro now stand, resembles a Hogarthian shantytown that makes the Barras look like Harrods.

Coltrane became a familiar face on TV and film in supporting roles. He was a picket in Lindsay Anderson’s hospital set state of the nation epic, Britannia Hospital (1982); a wealthy cardinal in Derek Jarman’s film, Caravaggio (1986); and ex con Bob Hoskins’ garage owning mate in Mona Lisa (1986), directed by Neil Jordan.

It was Tutti Frutti, however, that helped define Coltrane’s persona. Coltrane plays Danny, who makes a prodigal’s return to Glasgow from New York after his brother and erstwhile singer with fading fifties throwbacks The Majestics, Big Jazza McGlone, is killed in a car crash.

Coltrane doubles up as Big Jazza, shown playing with The Majestics in faux archive black and white footage. Voiced by the late real life blues growler Tam White, Coltrane here looks every inch the first generation rock and roll legend. As Danny, however, Coltrane is a wise-cracking shambles, his self-protective deadpan glower giving way to equally deadpan one-liners delivered with fruity politesse as he spars, flirts, and ultimately wins over his former art school classmate Suzy Kettles, played by a winningly gallus Emma Thompson.

While Byrne’s script is loaded with laugh-out-loud machine-gun patter tempered by an underlying pathos, there is a mix of puppy-dog charm and deep-set vulnerability to Danny that Coltrane seems to inhabit with ease.

Complexities of a different kind came in The Fruit Machine (1988), writer Frank Clarke and director Philip Saville’s allegory for AIDS, in which Coltrane dragged up as Annabelle, owner of the club that gave the film its title. Coltrane was a natural fit as Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989). He returned to more straightforward comic fare in Nuns on the Run (1990), and rejoined the Comic Strip fold for The Pope Must Die (1991).

In Cracker, beyond the high-stakes interview room crescendos and addiction-led neuroses, Coltrane’s character forms a screwball double act similar to the one between Danny and Suzi in Tutti Frutti. Here, Fitz becomes the reluctant partner of Geraldine Somerville’s put-upon copper, Penhaligon, aka ‘Panhandle’, as Fitz nicknames her. As with Danny in Tutti Frutti, this defence mechanism humour reveals Fitz’s own vulnerability, accompanied here with self-destructive hangdog gloom.

The last time Coltrane’s work registered with me was with National Treasure (2016). Jack Thorne’s four-part mini series saw Coltrane play Paul Finchley, one half of a beloved comedy double act, who is accused of historic sexual abuse.
As with his early comedy work, it would have been easy for Coltrane to coast along in his later years in middlebrow comfort fluff. As the curtain is pulled back on Paul’s lifetime of self-deception, however, Coltrane gives one of his greatest and most complex of performances. Like the man said all those years ago back in the BBC Club, where his picture wasn’t on the 1970s decorated wall, it’s good to scare yourself now and again.

It is telling as well that the former Anthony Robert McMillan renamed himself after jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Like his inspiration, Robbie Coltrane was free-spirited, and blew hard, with some beautiful solos left in his wake.

Robbie Coltrane interviewed in the Herald, 2005 

Comments (11)

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  1. Iain Patterson says:

    Robbie was in my wife’s year at Moray House doing teachers training.
    (I’d been there the previous year).
    There was a famous inaugural speech made by the Head of Art Education – (and Robbie had heard it before).
    It began – “You’re in the real world now and you can put aside any pretensions of an artistic career……”
    Robbie doubled up laughing – “I’ve heard this before and it’s even better than I expected”.
    He interacted brilliantly with the school kids when he did teaching practice but from that moment on day one he was a marked man.
    He didn’t make it past Christmas.
    Thank Goodness!!!

  2. Iain Patterson says:

    My wife was in the same year (1972) at Moray House Teachers Training as Robbie.
    I had been to Moray House the previous year.
    On the first day there was a famous speech delivered to the new students by the Head of Art Education.
    It began -” You’re in the real world now and you can forget any pretensions of artistic careers……”
    The speech was interrupted by a belly laughing Robbie – “I’d heard this before but it was even better than I’d expected”
    As you can imagine, Robbie was brilliant with the kids in teaching practice but he was a marked man from day one and didn’t make it past Christmas.
    Thank Goodness!!!

  3. John says:

    Dint forget his stint as The Bogey Man.

  4. 221015 says:

    A mate of mine, who’d worked at the Traverse, and I got a wee bit fou with him once in the Mary Rose in Hanover Street (or was it the Beau Brummel across the road – it might have been both), sometime back in the early ’80s. He’d just appeared with Pascale Ogier in Ken McMullen’s film, Ghost Dance, which I raved about to anyone who’d listen, so my awe of him was carried much less ironically than he wore his ‘celebrity’. He was acerbically witty, smoked like a lum, and drank us both under the table. His wit reeked of existential boredom and disgust, however; though that might just have been with me rather thn with life in general… The whole encounter felt like a scene from a Sartrean novel.

  5. Justin Kenrick says:

    Great man RC.

    Great piece Neil.

    Great comments Iain P and 221015 (though I’d love to know what happened on the 22 Oct 2015, to who and why)

  6. Squigglypen says:

    Another great Scot lost.

    For Scotland!

  7. Niemand says:

    Interesting that he played the arch Englishman, Samuel Johnson on a number of occasions and in different scenarios. And did it brilliantly. Fantastic actor, terrible loss.

  8. Edward Harkins says:

    Just repeating what I posted elsewhere: I felt with Robbie Coltrane passing a genuine sadness. More than the latter Holywood success, he was a Ruglonian born & bred. Such a range of top quality acting ability. Robbie did: flimsy; sardonic; comical; satire & deep psychology. All famously. Also at all levels: local Rep, (Rutherglen Rep?) Theatre, TV; & Brit & Holywood film.

    1. 221017 says:

      Robbie Coltrane was ‘bred’ at a prep school in Newton Mearns and thereafter at Glenalmond Academy, which I’ve seen described as ‘Scotland’s Eton’, where he excelled at rugby, debating, and art.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Made a good Hagrid. Odd thing to say: “Coltrane was a natural fit as Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989).” Falstaff doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Branagh made some changes, so more of a contrived fit.
    I remember Coltrane’s Unionist parodies from some sketch show or another.

    1. 221017 says:

      Laurence Olivier’s 1944 production also contains an original scene, in which Falstaff appears as a dying, heartbroken old man, reliving in his mind his rejection by Henry. This was immediately followed by a scene, taken straight from the received text, in which Mistress Quickly describes Falstaff’s death to his grieving followers.

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