- Alistair Braidwood
Robbie Coltrane (1950 - 2022) : An Appreciation...
Updated: Oct 16, 2022
In 1986 I was at a cousin's wedding at the Grosvenor Hotel in Glasgow's West End. Far too old to slide across the floor in my socks, but too young to get served at the bar, and too teenage to dance with my aunties, I sat in the foyer with a pack of Top Trumps trying to learn which Marvel character would defeat all others (it was the Silver Surfer). Then a vision in a powder blue drape suit appeared through the revolving doors with a supper of some persuasion held in his huge paw. "Want a chip, wee man?". I eagerly accepted from this charismatic giant.
Not long afterwards I saw him again on the telly, picking up Emma Thompson in another west end institution, Chimmy Chungas on Great Western Road (now Coopers), and then playing keyboard, in that same suit, with a band whose members included the PE teacher from Gregory’s Girl (Jake D'Arcy), a presenter from Play School (Stuart McGugan), and someone who briefly appears in one of my Dad's favourite films, The Eagle Has Landed (Maurice Roëves).
This was John Byrne's Tutti Frutti, which was the subject of the first post on Scots Whay Hae! (which you can still read by clicking here) and it remains one of my favourite things. But Robbie Coltrane was already a cultural figure in our lives before joining 'The Majestics' on tour. He was central to three iconic TV sketch shows, Alfresco (with the aforementioned Emma Thompson, Siobhan Redmond, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Ben Elton), A Kick Up The Eighties (with, among others, Rik Mayall, Miriam Margolyes, Tracey Ullman, and Ron Bain), and Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (with John Sessions, Louise Gold, and which introduced Elaine C. Smith to TV audiences).
Some memorable Coltrane characters from the latter include 'Mason Boyne' (who would greet you with "A shake of the hand, and a kick in the groin") the inappropriate light entertainer 'Ted Todgers', as well as a Glaswegian street philosopher, possibly inspiring the more famous 'Rab C Nesbitt' who would appear in Naked Video a couple of years later. From Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee here is a paean to Rutherglen born Robbie's home town.
If you can judge someone by the company they keep then it's clear that Coltrane was considered a central figure in British TV and comedy from the beginning. As well as the programmes mentioned above, and cameos in other celebrated TV shows such as The Young Ones, Blackadder, and Saturday Live, he was also a big part of The Comic Strip Presents... team, whose core members were Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer, and Peter Richardson. Among his 'Comic Strip' performances was 'Detective Sergeant Troy' in The Supergrass, which featured one of Coltrane's most iconic moments, and confirms what an imposing screen presence he could be.
Another key role for me was in the little seen TV adaptation of John Wagner and Alan Grant's graphic novel The Bogie Man, where Coltrane plays 'Francis Forbes Clunie', a patient in a psychiatric institution in Glasgow who has the delusion that he is Humphrey Bogart, and acts accordingly. The series wasn't critically well received, and has only ever been shown on TV once, but I feel his performance in it showed that he could do dramatic as well as comedic, and pointed towards perhaps his greatest creation yet.
Because then came Cracker, which proved to anyone who had pigeonholed him as simply a comic actor that they were mistaken. Not just a great role but one the THE great TV characters. In his role as criminal psychologist Dr Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald Coltrane gave it everything, showing his imposing strength but also a vulnerability which was palpable. A charismatic self-destructive genius, who was at turns funny, furious, self-satisfied and infuriating, it's such a believable performance that you cannot help but consider just how much of Coltrane was in 'Fitz'. But I guess that's what great acting is. As far as complex characters go this was the gold standard, and although many tried to match it, and still do, few have even got close. (James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano is the only one who springs to mind as I write this).
Robbie Coltrane would go on to be the perfect Hagrid in the 'Harry Potter' films, appear in James Bond movies, have leading roles in features such as Nuns on the Run, with many cameos in others, and would continue to give memorable performances until near the end, such as in the Channel 4 drama National Treasure and his final feature Effie Grey, but for me he will always be Danny 'Boy' McGlone.
I'm off to watch Tutti Frutti once again, but this time with a heavy heart and more than hint of sadness. Robbie Coltrane had it all, and it's difficult to think of anyone else who could pull off being Mason Boyne, Danny (& Jazza) McGlone , Dr. Samuel Johnson (who he played a number of times), Cracker's 'Fitz' and National Treasure's 'Paul Finchley'. With every role there was honesty, integrity, and heart, and a care and consideration which was rare. You got the feeling that he never took his work, or the audience, for granted, and he was all the more admired and loved for it. Rest well, big man - you were one of the very best.