Moving tributes have been published by everyone from Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson who Coltrane starred alongside in the Harry Potter film adaptations to Steven Fry and Hugh Laurie who, in the 1980s, both shared the screen with Coltrane in two television series: Alfresco and Blackadder. Even the first minister Nicola Sturgeon added to the outpourings of adoration for the effervescent Scottish star.
Robbie Coltrane was born Anthony Robert McMillan in 1950, in Rutherglen, South Lanarkshire. His mother was a teacher and pianist and his father was a GP. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art and Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University before pursuing work as a stand-up comic. He then transitioned to becoming an actor and even landed comedic roles in television in the 1980s. One of Coltrane’s most popular early roles was in Tutti Frutti, a favourite of my Mum and Gran, which was a BAFTA-winning series about a washed-up Scottish rock and roll band.
I’ll never forget watching Coltrane stride onto the stage of a lecture theatre and start throwing books at a crowd of students. He threw one book, then another, slowly and deliberately, and hollered the name of the author of each book as he did so. Having the crowd in the palm of his hands, Coltrane then declares that you have to lock yourself away in a room and think about your own experiences, and your own feelings, before even contemplating the opinions of others. Sadly, I was not one of the students in that lecture theatre. And this scene didn’t happen in real life, which is a real shame, as I would have happily risked being hit in the face by the writings of Descartes and Freud to be in the same room as Robbie Coltrane. This scene actually happened at the start of the first episode of the ITV series Cracker where Coltrane played the cantankerous criminal psychologist Dr Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald.
Coltrane cuts an imposing figure as Hagrid in the aforementioned blockbuster saga but he is a gentle giant in those films. Whilst playing Fitz, Coltrane uses his mountainous frame to cut an entirely different kind of imposing figure, one that you wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of. Quaffing back drink after drink, dragging on a cigarette like it’s giving him oxygen and wasting his life savings on bet after bet. The main reason that Fitz is so compelling as a character is that he knows his vices are destroying his life but he can’t stop. His vices rule him. In Cracker, Coltrane’s Fitz is one of the most memorable characters in TV and film. There is a scene during that first episode where Fitz interrogates a man who is suspected of multiple murders and Fitz narrates what the suspect may have been feeling before he killed a young woman on a train. The acting from Coltrane in this scene is astonishing. He stands up and circles the suspect’s chair like an irritable lion eyeing up its prey. When Fitz sits down and faces the suspect again, he bares his teeth, eyes dark from a hangover, and looks at the suspect with a stare that appears to be burning into the other man’s very soul. Coltrane is unforgettable. After watching this scene, you may see those gnashers in your nightmares. Coltrane shares the Guinness Book of Records award for winning the most consecutive Best Actor BAFTAs for his wins in 1994, 1995 and 1996 for playing Fitz.
Coltrane’s later years were spent living in the West Stirlingshire village of Killearn. The Daily Record reported some of the fond memories of locals in Killearn and surrounding villages. There was an account from one local who said that he was standing in line with Coltrane in the local Co-op and was asked by the man behind the till if he had a Co-op members card. He replied that he only had a payment card, to which Coltrane theatrically quipped “Then you must die!” The villagers all spoke fondly of Coltrane’s generous nature. Stardom had not turned him into a diva. It’s very humbling to think that the star of two of the world’s most successful blockbuster franchises (not forgetting his part as Valentin Zukovsky in two of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films as well as Harry Potter) could still be found waiting in line at the local Co-op.
Over the last few years, icons of stage and screen have fallen asleep forever with alarming regularity. We have lost Sean Connery. We have been watching Billy Connolly slowly become more and more debilitated by the effects of Parkinson’s. Robbie Coltrane is a Scottish icon, whose television and film performances showcased to the world what Scottish actors and performers are capable of. I strongly argue that Robbie Coltrane is equal in stature to Connery and Connolly, and his legacy, like theirs, laid the groundwork for having more Scottish actors and Scottish accents in film and television today. Robbie Coltrane is a huge loss. His death feels like part of Scotland’s identity had died. The tumultuous and rebellious fabric of the tapestry that is Scotland’s story has lost one of its most memorable threads.