This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Robbie Coltrane had already clocked up several TV credits, including Tutti Frutti, Blackadder and a string of films for Channel 4’s The Comic Strip Presents… when, in 1993, he landed the lead in Jimmy McGovern’s ITV drama Cracker.

The Comic Strip Presents… demanded a lot from him – marching in a suit along the seashore in one long take, as waves splashed over him in The Bulls***ters; on double duty as Charles Bronson playing Ken Livingstone in GLC – but his fearless performance as gruff criminal psychologist Dr Edward 'Fitz' Fitzgerald is what cemented him as a magnetic and uncompromising drama heavyweight.

Coltrane, who died earlier this month aged 72, won three successive Baftas for Cracker – in 1994, 1995 and 1996, one for each season – paving the way for returning roles in James Bond and the Harry Potter films. He was, Cracker writer Paul Abbott tells RT now, the perfect "neurotic nihilist" for the part. When Abbott flew to Scotland to "gain the actor’s approval" to join the show’s second season, he found that in the Stirlingshire village of Killearn where Coltrane lived, "everyone knew him. He was like the town governor".

At a little over 6ft tall, Coltrane knew he cut an imposing figure, and was not averse to wielding his position to assert his principles. "Guinness wanted to sponsor Cracker, but Robbie refused because they’d closed their Scottish distillery in the 80s," Abbott recalls. "He said he’d walk if they didn’t back down – ITV knew they couldn’t make the show without him."

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Pete Postlethwaite and Robbie Coltrane in a Cracker comic relief sketch
Pete Postlethwaite and Robbie Coltrane in a Cracker comic relief sketch. BBC/Comic Relief via Getty Images

Coltrane greeted Abbott in his repurposed Parisian taxi – "I’d never seen anybody with so many cars, unless they were nicked," laughs the Shameless creator. Later, Coltrane even sold Abbott a Triumph Vitesse. "The chassis was cracked from where he’d been sitting on the driver’s seat. It cost a fortune to fix!"

Coltrane was hard to resist, a wit and raconteur who loved an audience. Abbott was never happier than when shooting the breeze with him on set or watching Coltrane converse with his similarly erudite friend Stephen Fry.

"Robbie had an encyclopaedic knowledge of any subject," he says. "You’d get him in a good mood by letting him talk. If he lent me a book, he’d tell me its entire contents before I started reading it."

At work on Cracker, Coltrane also knew when to step back. "He wouldn’t adjust a single word. He didn’t want to compromise the material by chipping in – he wanted people to do what they do best." He would, though, wade in on a rare case if a script got too heavy. "Sometimes he’d say, 'There’s not a lot of laughs in this one,'" says Abbott. "Cracker was a dark drama with more laughs than the average sitcom. He was right – you missed them badly if they weren’t there."

Robbie Coltrane
Robbie Coltrane. Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Famously, Cracker featured intense interrogation scenes decades before Line of Duty, with Fitz breaking down suspects by chipping away at their weak spots. Guest actors could be in tears after 18 takes, but Coltrane’s energy never lagged. Abbott says he was helped by one unusual production intervention: "We were lucky he could smoke in the scene, so he didn’t have to budge!"

The production schedule generally bent to Coltrane’s dietary and physical needs; he’d want a drink by 5pm and, says Abbott, "You could tell if Jimmy McGovern was p***ed off with Robbie – he’d write 'Fitz runs for a taxi' into the script!" Coltrane would inevitably ignore the directive and walk.

Abbott was unsurprised at Coltrane’s popularity as Harry Potter’s Hagrid – he was always good with kids. Once, while the writer was in fraught negotiations with the owner of the house that doubled as Fitz’s home, Coltrane happily looked after Abbott’s two-year-old son for more than an hour, singing songs and using the set as their shared playground. "He was a generous man, strong and full of warmth," says Abbott. "I’ve never met anybody like him. His was a very American personality in a way – he loved the Hollywood side of the business."

Despite that, Coltrane was never seduced by the glitz and glamour of the industry. In 1997, he and Abbott were at the US Writers Guild Awards as news spread of Tony Blair’s election victory. Coltrane joined in the subsequent cheers and Mexican wave. "We were then invited to New Yorker editor Tina Brown’s party," says Abbott. "Somebody came up to Robbie and said, 'You’ve been here for ten minutes and you haven’t spoken to Tina.'

"Robbie’s reply? 'Well, nobody’s poured me a drink yet…'"


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