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How did Robbie Coltrane get to be such a big star? 

Former Comic Strip colleague Alexei Sayle finds out...


There are many ways in which you, as a performer, can measure how successful you are - newspaper reviews, TV viewing figures, how much you're paid - but it seems to me you only really know you've made it to the very top when you or a character you play is so popular that it's worth somebody's while having a factory in China churn out million of little plastic replicas. The other week while having dinner with old friends from the entertainment business, I asked them to think of how many people they knew who'd been made into toys. After some thought, we concluded that there were six including  Matt Lucas, David Walliams and David Tennant. Of those six, however, there's only one whose rubbery image has crossed the world and sold in every corner of the globe, from Shinfield to Shanghai - that person is Robbie Coltrane. When I was holidaying in Spain last year, at the end of the supermarkets electronics aisle there was a 7ft high cardboard Robbie in the guise of Hagrid, the character he plays in the Harry Potter films "Bueno dias, Robbie", I'd say to him every morning as I passed on my way to the squid counter.


Now i've never been made into a toy and my image has never been displayed in a supermarket (unless you include the notice board in the managers office where they pin up photos of customers who've been permanently barred for interfering with the cheese cabinet), yet somehow I still had the idea that me and Robbie were more or less equally famous. After all, he's the same sweet, hugely entertaining guy I used to hang around with at the Comic Strip offices, on the set of the The Supergrass and The Strike, and at the old Zanzibar club back in the 80's. It was only when I cam to do this interview that I finally realized he's now the most enormous star and i'm just some guy who used to be on the telly. When we meet in the foyer of the fiercely fashionable hotel in London's Soho, it's all over the place design style - Persplex tables, walls half covered in pebbles, 18th century fireplace - seems vaguely to enrage Robbie ("It's all inconsistent", he says "the bits don't go together"). With his arrival there is a palpable sense that somebody with a special aura is among us: the staff all come out grinning to say hello; other guests straighten their backs and look happier, rest assured that they've chosen a hotel that attracts such major talent. Later, while we're eating lunch together in the restaurant, Robbie innocently asks the maitre d' whether there might be a hint of lemon in his seafood pasta dish. The chef is immediately dragged out of the kitchen to give him a breakdown of every single ingredient in the meal (it was crushed lemongrass apparently). Surprisingly, given where he is now, Robbie's first steps towards acting were unconfident ones. Although he acted all the time and won the drama cup at school, there was no encouragement to study drama, so instead he took a place at Glasgow School of Art. From there he moved to Edinburgh and, as he says "started hanging around with actors. One day, Bill Paterson and Alex Norton came to me and said "Are you just going to carry on showing off in pubs, or are you going to take this seriously?" and they sent me to the Traverse Theatre".


This unconventional auditioning process seems typical of Robbie and it's still there in the older actor: in the way he dominates any room he's in, telling jokes, doing funny voices, giving long dissertations on diverse subjects such as engineering or politics, sometimes accompanied by slide shows and diagrams. There's nothing domineering or aggressive about this, and people are delighted to settle back and watch the free show, but you still get the impression that Robbie is auditioning only now it's just because wants to be liked "I threw up every night before going on stage" he says of his first play. His first real success was in John Byrne's play "The Slab Boys", then came appearances as a utility player in a series of early 80's TV sketch shows, working alongside a new generation of comedy talent: Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall, "It was Rik who told me about the Comic Strip" says Robbie, "I went down to London and Peter Richardson said 'We've got 2 parts in Five Go Mad In Dorset - a smelly gypsy and a strange woman who runs the shop'. 'Right' I said, 'I'll play both of them!'"

These were still ensemble parts, however, his first real starring role was alongside his friend Emma Thompson in the charming 1987 rock n roll love story, Tutti Frutti, again written by John Byrne. Then proper mass fame arrived, along with more than 15 million viewers, with Cracker. He says of the ground-breaking show about a criminal profiler "Jimmy McGovern's original description of Fitz was a 'wiry man who's spent time in the army'. Obviously that's not me. But over a long lunch we hammered out of a load of ideas and at the end of it he gave me the part". Cracker ran for three series, finishing with a one-off in 1996, and if anybody had thought Robbie could only play comedy, those doubts were dispelled by his performance of emotional honesty, revealing the desperate pain and rage at the heart of Fitz: "I got to play everything", says Robbie, "All the stuff that happened with his wife and falling in love with DS Penhaligon and all the interviews with the suspects. I was husband, father, interrogator, lover". Then he mentions another graduate of those 80's sketch shows, "I was thinking the other day there's a lot in House (played by Hugh Laurie) that's the same as Fitz - he's a loner, he's intuitive and he's an addict". 


If I'd been in anything half as popular as Cracker i'd carry my Baftas around with me to try and get discounts in carpet shops, but when I try to get Robbie to reflect on the way the show has affected his life, to maybe bask in smug satisfaction, his initial impulse is to describe Cracker as simply a way to get more work "It got my noticed in Hollywood", he says, "Only two million saw it, but they were the right two million". Now Fitz is back, Robbie says "I insisted I'd only ever do three series, shows like that run out of steam. But the door was always open for one-off's. Basically we wait around until Jimmy McGovern has got really angry about something, then he writes another Cracker. You know, "he continues, "I got a lot of stick when I accepted an OBE in March, but for me it was just a nice day out for the kids at the Palace and my mum cried. Also I don't think anybody's going to think that i've become part of the establishment when they see this new Cracker. It's all about the mess of the war in Iraq, and the trauma of serving in Northern Ireland". 


Later we got into the basement to have our photographs taken, and here Robbie says a significant thing. Someone mentions that later this month he's going to the USA to appear at a BBC conference in Pasadena, "Yeah, "says Robbie causally, "I'm basically going out there to beg for work". To my ears it's an odd remark, and it suddenly makes me thing that perhaps the only person in the world  who doesn't know quite what a huge star Robbie Coltrane is, is Robbie Coltrane. 


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006