Three colours: Cameron (Mark Dexter), Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Brown (Ian Grieve)
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As this government comes to a close, Rachel Cooke is glued to Channel 4's Coalition

James Graham's mischievous account of the heady days following the last election is Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Coalition
Channel 4

As anyone who sat through the Danish series Borgen will know, the numbers game that is coalition-building is hardly the stuff of TV drama. There are meetings, and then more meetings. There are telephone calls, text messages and, if you’re really lucky, a little light political blackmail. Party elders loiter in corridors trying hard to impersonate owls. Civil servants glide smoothly about as if on ice. The rank and file piss and moan. And at the end of it, you get . . . what? A press conference. It’s not exactly Macbeth, is it?

Yet I was glued to Coalition (28 March, 9pm), James Graham’s mischievous account of those febrile days in May 2010 during which Frisky Nick and Cocky Dave got it together. It had two great advantages over Borgen. First, there was Graham’s writing, which nimbly reduced almost everyone to the paltry sum of their parts (in essence: ambition, ambition, ambition). Second, Coalition’s characters really exist. What fun we had trying to work out who was supposed to be whom. It was Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Personally, I think Chris Larkin brought far too much charisma to the role of Danny Alexander – which is saying something, given that every time he opened his mouth, out came the words “voting reform”. But elsewhere the competition was pretty hot, the cast having wisely decided to try to capture the politicians’ most essential qualities rather than simply to mimic them.

The trailer for Coalition.

I don’t believe Nick Clegg was quite the bag of nerves Bertie Carvel made him out to be, even allowing for how, in this version of events, Paddy Ashdown (Donald Sumpter) appeared to be stalking him. (If Paddy had jumped out of Miriam’s Zara-filled wardrobe in full combat gear while she was performing an intimate marital act on the leader of the Liberal Democrats, you would not, after a while, have been surprised.) But his reflexive pragmatism felt just right. Mark Dexter caught all of David Cameron’s turbocharged presumption and Ian Grieve something of Gordon Brown’s almost pitiable desperation. George Osborne is a man who seems always to be on the point of unsheathing his instinctive flashiness; in his presence, you want to take a step backwards, just in case. Sebastian Armesto, an actor who knows exactly how to deploy a sneer, replicated this effortlessly.

None of these performances could touch Mark Gatiss’s turn as Peter Mandelson. The voice, the walk, the bitchy impatience: he’d got them all. In one scene, a box of muffins was delivered to a meeting. Mandelson took one, peeled back its paper case and began delicately to pick at it. I couldn’t get over this. Several years ago, I interviewed Mandy – I’ve interrogated every politician I’ve mentioned so far, with the exception of Danny Alexander – on a train from Didcot Parkway to London, a journey during which he nibbled ostentatiously at a Pret a Manger tiffin bar, then a favourite treat of his. All I can tell you is that the two performances – Gatiss’s and Mandy’s – were so alike that it was unnerving. Gatiss had slipped beneath Mandelson’s skin, a feat at once astonishing and paradoxical when you consider the former business secretary’s unfaltering opacity.

“It’s like flirting,” Mandelson cautioned Brown, when the prime minister wondered if he shouldn’t call Clegg rather than wait for him to ring. “Desperate isn’t sexy when you’re flirting.” Naturally, Brown didn’t get this – or anything else. Every time he spoke, I wondered all over again about that unfathomable photograph of him and the future Sarah Brown having dinner in a Soho restaurant. Mandelson and Harriet Harman (Deborah Findlay) were reduced to holding up encouraging cue cards when he did finally reach Clegg on the phone and while I can’t believe that Harman would, in reality, have been much help in this situation – another ex-interviewee of mine, she is, alarmingly, only marginally less gauche than Brown – this scene got to me. A light came on. It is, after all, in such moments that governments are created. Or not. Manners, empathy, a certain kind of personal warmth: in a few weeks’ time, these are the qualities of which our hapless politicians will be in sorest need once the votes have been counted. Given what we know of them, it’s impossible not to tremble at the thought.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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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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