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18 October 2022

The many layers of Robbie Coltrane

The actor, who has died this week aged 72, had an on-screen earthiness that was both whimsical and confrontational.

By Ryan Gilbey

“There are layers of you, aren’t there?” says a woman to her husband near the end of National Treasure, the 2016 Channel 4 drama written by Jack Thorne in the shadow of Operation Yewtree. The wife is played by Julie Walters, her husband – a TV entertainer facing historic rape charges – by Robbie Coltrane. The actor died last week aged 72; National Treasure gave him his last significant role, one that both fitted and stretched him in the way that rewarding parts often do. He captured the tension between blustering defiance and paralysing fear, his fridge-sized bulk seeming to dwindle along with his character’s prospects. It was no surprise that the actor pulled off such a complex feat. When it came to layers, he was positively geological.

To one generation, he will forever be the raggedy, avuncular Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. In a recently published volume of diaries, the late Alan Rickman suggests that he, Coltrane, Maggie Smith and the rest could form “a new agency called Glorified Extras”. The role felt more like a carriage clock or a lifetime achievement award. But Coltrane enjoyed playing Hagrid because this was, at last, a purely decent soul after a career of oddballs and screw-ups.

Anyone watching British films and television from the 1980s and 1990s would have a richer understanding of the range and contradictions of “the public school boy who became a working-class hero”, as Michael Parkinson once put it. Like Joe Strummer or John Peel, Coltrane comprehensively reinvented himself. He came to his on-screen earthiness via independent education (Glenalmond College) and art school (Glasgow School of Art, where he buried his hoity-toity accent). Born Anthony McMillan, he changed his name once he began acting; the surname was a nod to the jazz supremo John Coltrane.

Going to the cinema or watching the UK’s four terrestrial channels back then meant becoming accustomed to – and tickled by – his quizzical, reassuring presence. His stage career began in the late 1970s but most viewers first encountered him in the groundbreaking narrative comedy series The Comic Strip Presents…, along with Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Keith Allen, Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle. Their tomfoolery included the Famous Five spoofs “Five Go Mad in Dorset” (broadcast on Channel 4’s launch night, 2 November 1982) and “Five Go Mad on Mescalin”, as well as spin-off films such as The Supergrass (1985) and The Pope Must Die (1991). Leery of scandal, the North American market added a “t” to the end of the latter title, which appeared to make it a joke concerning Coltrane’s size – about which he was said to be sensitive.

Shortly after the start of Comic Strip, Coltrane was in Alfresco (1983), a sketch show with Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Ben Elton. Among his countless characters was a flamboyant TV publican who refuses to pretend he is working in a real boozer. In one skit, he cheerfully punches a hole in the bar to demonstrate that it’s only a set. Very Robbie Coltrane, that – somehow both whimsical and confrontational.

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His horizons broadened. He had small parts in two films that became the costliest British flops of the decade – the musical Absolute Beginners (1986) and Revolution (1985), an epic about the American War of Independence shot partly in Norfolk. In the outstanding Mona Lisa (1986), a kind of Kings Cross Taxi Driver, he was an affable mechanic with a side-line flogging tat (ornamental spaghetti, Virgin Mary lamps). In another thriller, The Fruit Machine (1988), he looked perfectly at home in lipstick, floppy bow and lemon gingham dress as Annabelle, who runs a gay nightclub. He was a cardinal in Derek Jarman’s masterpiece Caravaggio (1986), and Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989).

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There was more variety to come, including a comedy Russian gangster in two Bond movies, GoldenEye (1995) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). Even before National Treasure, though, it was on television that he most excelled. In 1987, he was a tender joy in John Byrne’s salty, six-part BBC comedy-drama Tutti Frutti, in which he played an amateur rock’n’roller joining his late brother’s band on their anniversary tour; the chemistry with his friend Thompson lent real bite to their on-screen romance.

The role with which he became synonymous was Fitz, the fearless and intensely flawed forensic psychologist in Jimmy McGovern’s riveting ITV series Cracker. Fitz’s manner is in-your-face. In one episode, he storms into the interview room, lights a cigarette and tells the suspect: “You did it. I won’t bore you with the details…” His tactics, on the other hand, are in-your-head: he ventriloquises what the suspect must have been thinking as he killed or raped or maimed: “You’ll show her exactly what’s what! You’ll put her in her place, won’t you?”

The psychopathic psyche isn’t so far from Fitz’s own; he shares the fury, the misogyny, the poor impulse control. Nostalgia may have blinded us to the ugliness of this boozy wrecking ball of a man, who razes the walls and everyone around him if it means closing a case. The miracle of Coltrane was that he could leave audiences no choice but to love the belligerent Fitz even against our better judgement. His performance won him three consecutive Baftas. More than that, it seemed to reveal a primal aspect of his personality in requiring him to play both circus ringmaster and glowering brute. It’s like the woman said: layers. So many that we never got to the bottom of him.

[See also: The cutting wit of Alan Rickman]

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