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What I love about Fearless is its messiness

Its heroine's frantic and complicated life, and her relish for every single one of its constituent parts, feel so wonderfully replete.

First, the good news. ITV’s pair of new dramas are led by a trio of female actors, all of whom just happen to be over 40. Naturally, I approve of this. The bad news is that one of these series is beneath its stars’ considerable talents. Sample dialogue: “You’ve a cold-blooded predator in your town.” Oh, my eyes. Not even the peerless Siobhan Finneran can make this sound convincing.

But first. In Fearless (Mondays, 9pm), Helen McCrory plays Emma Banville, an old-fashioned lefty solicitor – Gareth Pierce with the voice of a Mitford – who shares her London terrace with her sexy but possibly feckless ex-tabloid snapper boyfriend, Steve (the comedian John Bishop, turning in a rather good straight performance), as well as a lodger called Miriam (Karima McAdams), the wife of a recently absconded Syrian doctor. (It’s thanks to Miriam that MI5 seems to be keeping tabs on Emma’s movements.)

Work is the thing that motivates our heroine: specifically, hopeless legal cases. The battered Volvo she drives attests to this, as does the way that when Steve comes in late from the pub and rubs his beard meaningfully on the top of her head, she’d rather continue listening to police interview tapes on an old Walkman than scoot upstairs.

But perhaps this is about to change. She and Steve are trying to adopt. “I need something else,” she tells a colleague, in a voice that is more mystified than full of longing. Maternal desire has taken her by surprise, and she would like to keep it in its place. Don’t expect her to give up smoking her liquorice roll-ups any time soon.

Her latest cause involves a man who has spent the past 14 years in prison for the murder of a teenage girl – and here we must pause for a moment to note that the plot-eating American shows (Homeland, 24) on which Patrick Harbinson, the writer of this series, has previously worked do not do patience, let alone bureaucracy. How else to explain why, when Emma applies to have Kevin Russell’s case investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, she has to wait, not many months, but a couple of days, tops, for the response? Ta-dah! The next thing we knew in the first episode (12 June), Russell (Sam Swainsbury) was standing in front of a judge as his conviction was quashed. Poor Steve, however, is ­going to have to rub his beard elsewhere for a while; there is to be a retrial.

What I love about Fearless is its messiness: Emma’s frantic and complicated life, and her relish for every single one of its constituent parts, feel so wonderfully replete. Even better, her character is exhilaratingly free from the wing-clipping flaws that writers of both sexes usually give to “strong” but hard-pressed screen women.

Capable and clever, she is also warm and (mostly) content. No wonder that, beside her, DCI Lauren Quigley, the police detective played by Siobhan Finneran in The Loch (Sundays, 9pm), comes off like a robot. “Beauty of nature,” she announced, taking in the mountains around Loch Ness (she’s on secondment from the big city). “Bores the living shit out of me.”

On paper, the writer Stephen Brady probably thought this sounded a bit daring: here is a woman with whom no one is likely to mess. But on screen, the fresh-painted hills looking so pristine that you half expect to see a dinosaur lumbering into view, it just sounded stupid. No one could be bored by countryside like this – and Quigley, in any case, has a murder investigation to spice things up.

What to say about The Loch? Think of it as Wee Broadchurch. In the first episode, a gay teacher, who’d just had a row with a religious neighbour – “THIS IS A CHRISTIAN HOUSE!” – was found dead out on the hills. His brain had been removed via his nose. Meanwhile, a human heart (not his) was found elsewhere. Who will catch the monster (likely a serial killer rather than a plesiosaur) responsible for this butchery? Will it be Quigley? Or will it be the inexperienced but desperately eager local copper Annie Redford (Laura Fraser)? All I can say is that, with so many weirdos in the vicinity – each villager comes with a metaphorical neon sign above his head that says: “I’ve got a secret, me!” – they’re certainly going to be spoiled for suspects. 

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 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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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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