In the Critics this week

Jason Cowley on Cameron, Douglas Hurd on Churchill and Vernon Bogdanor on Powell. PLUS: the NS jazz special

In the leading article in this week’s New Statesman, we ask if David Cameron is capable of ever restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. However, the portents for the Tories are not good. “If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.” As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering: “Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict.” We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameronian world view, for “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

The contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader is startling. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with [his wife] Clementine and packed her off to bed.”

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right … But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” because of immigration “made Powell a hero,” Bogdanor observes, “particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgiveable.”

Also in the Critics, our jazz special:  poet Christopher Reid writes about his late-flowering love affair with jazz; from the archive, we publish a 1960 article by Eric Hobsbawm, who, under the pseudonym "Francis Newton", was the New Statesman's jazz critic from 1955-66. PLUS the New Statesman recommends this summer's unmissable jazz shows and recordings (including Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis and Ravi Coltrane).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America; Rachel Cooke on When I Get Older on BBC1; "Dig", a new poem by Julia Copus; Thomas Calvocoressi on Tate Modern's major Edvard Munch retrospective; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Meeting Myself Coming Back; and Will Self discovers to his horror that he's going bald.

Wynton Marsalis comes back to the Barbican this summer (Photograph: Getty Images
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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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