ROCK AND ROLES
Robbie Coltrane talks to Stephanie Billen about his role in John Byrne’s new tv series Ttti Frutti.
‘Follow the noise.‘ bellows the larger than life Robbie Coltrane, leading me into a room which surprises by its lack of party-goers. The blasting rock ‘n‘ roll it seems is just music by which to tidy his cassette collection.
It‘s an intricate task which involves
him in much ﬂitting about the kitchen. Making the tea is relatively unproblematic— a ﬂick ofthe wrist to dispense three Hermesetas into his own cup. and. I assure him. no need to find the sugar for me. ‘No, I’m not looking for that. it‘s just this Charlie Parker tape which I know is somewhere it shouldn‘t be.‘ he says, wondering out loud at the infinite possibilities offered by the fitted kitchen units which came with his newish Hackney home. He pulls out a naked record from a drawer. and puts it back. moving swiftly on to another cupboard: ‘Aha! A miner! Come on out now. strike‘sover. . .‘
I try to start the interview.
Coltrane finally sitting at the table. is now looking at his scattered tapes as if he might be about to play dominoes with them. ‘Do you like Roxy Music?‘ he asks. ‘Have it.‘ And he leans across to deliver me one of two cassettes he‘s just matched up as the same. ‘Ooh. you‘ve got notes — a professional!‘
I‘m wondering about tearing them up when Coltrane calls my bluff by answering a question. It‘s about the rock ‘n‘ roll in his new TV series Tutti Frutti. ‘No. I‘m not a great fan of Fifties music. I‘m more of a fan than Iwas. I‘ll say that for it. Hang on. I suddenly remembered where that tape is.‘ And he and his loud checked shirt. bursting at the elbows. disappear out of the door.
With Robbie back. clutching Charlie Parker. we retrack. ‘So you‘re more of a fan than you were?’ ‘Not really. no. But I must say I‘ve
got tremendous admiration for piano players like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. WOW! — can you write and look at some one at the same time? WEIRD! — must call the doctor.‘
Ican see my listening technique means little to a man who interrupts himself as often as Coltrane does. It‘s not just the wisecracking; he‘s got more voices than most comedians. ranging from guttural Glaswegian to Goon Show squeaks. I presume it‘s the Glaswegian that will be used for his two roles in Tutti Fruiti, a comedy-drama by John Byrne. who had a huge theatrical success ten years ago with the similarly bitter-sweet Slab Boys Trilogy. about people in a Scottish paint firm. Coltrane had a leading part then. Now he‘s playing Big Jazza. the lead singer of a has-been rock ’n‘ roll band called The Majestics. ‘Scotland‘s King of Rock‘. Big Jazza kills himselfoff early on when he drives into a bus shelter while eating a kebab. and Coltrane then comes on again as identical brother Danny McGlone, who takes his place as the band embarks on a poignant Silver Jubilee Tour.
McGlone sounds like the more difficult role. especially as the actors were all required to really play their instruments. In between finding out more about my note~taking. my pen. and some white ﬂakes fallen from his own heavily-slicked black hair — ‘Is it dandruff?‘ — Coltrane tries to say what he means about learning to play the guitar. Was it difficult? ‘Yes. well not really. well yes. who am I kidding?’ It wasn‘t so much the basics — Coltrane claims to be an adequate player of ‘boogie woogie stuff’ on the piano — as the feeling of having to get it all absolutely right. ‘I
was playing rhythm guitar so it‘s just chords. “vamping” they call it, but it had to be perfect. not just “quite good". Apparently one bit isn‘t spot on but that‘s going to be cut. so I‘m all right.‘
The rest of the filming was. he says, the most enjoyable thing he‘s ever done. apart from some ofthe Comic Strip programmes. ‘It was very nostalgic.‘ he says. Danny McGlone is supposed to have gone to Glasgow Art School where he met the
‘Is it dandruff?’
unobtainable Suzi Kettles played by Emma Thompson. ‘1 actually found my initials carved in the wall in a scene where she was supposed to find hers. Quite cxtraordinary.‘
Art School wasn‘t just a pose for Robbie Coltrane. A public schoolboy. he went there to paint and was only disappointed that he wasn‘t ‘good enough to get the ideas I wanted out — you would have had to have been a really brilliant painter. Besides I’ve got other talents. and you musn‘t waste them.‘ He puts on his Calvinist preacher voice: Use Your Talentand Work Hard.
At the same time. he admits he is still painting. for a book in fact. ‘An illustrated novel I suppose you‘d call it. It's about a steam-driven man — a Swiftian tale about these people who set up an ideal society in a huge steel structure. They‘re obliged to because they all get reduced in size. So they try to build a full-sized steel man. and they start arguing about who goes into the head and who runs the engine room. . .‘
I‘m just getting lost listening to how the wee folk break down the class system. when he wheedles mischievously. ‘It's a slightly ambitious task.‘ Then breaks in to a
roar, ‘Ever so slightly fucking pretentious! And you know, I don’t care,’ he adds. asking me not to give away the whole plot, and setting off round the kitchen again as if in the middle of preparing some complex invisible meal. In fact, the sparse wooden room with its well displayed curiosities — like the top of an Esso petrol pump or an ancient but working telephone — could easily be transformed into a young people’s pizza parlour with Coltrane as its eccentric chef.
Meanwhile book writing is proving difficult. He’s been writing the Swiftian story in his head for twenty years and used to have a huge folio of drawings which were destroyed in a fire. It is only recently that he‘s started drawing again for it. Now he has a publisher interested, but he’s worried that the expense of putting out an illustrated work will make it ‘some elitist bloody coffee table book, sitting on the Habitat table beside the grape dishes from Ethiopia.’ There‘s also the problem of time. He’s waiting for a few clear months to write a children‘s book about a magic paddle steamer as well.
Robbie Coltrane doesn’t get much time off. He has a face that is becoming increasingly well-known, turning up p on late night comedy sketches and in Comic Strip films like The Supergrass. He had a bit part in Revolution and played the mechanic friend in Mona Lisa. He’s not lost track of his theatre roots either. playing in the Red Wedge Comedy Tour in Edinburgh and Glasgow last
Much of all this he puts down to the early encouragement he received from his Liberal Studies Tutor at Glasgow School of Art". poet Stephen Mulrine. ‘You really do need someone to grab you and say “You’re as good as those buggers out there, now get out and do it." He
joined the St Quentin Theatre Workshop— “the wild boys“.‘l kept
saying I’d hit a policeman so they didn‘t think I was wet.’ And from there he moved into fringe theatre. ‘Everyone thinks I‘m a comedian but I did a lot of straight acting. But then ifyou do something in front ofa hundred and fifty people it’s one thing, ifyou do it in front of five million, suddenly that’s what you are. And because in real life I like to be funny, that confirms it for them. I mean I can‘t sit down on a chat show and say “I think it‘s a very difficult role”. I have to monkey about.‘ That‘s something we’ll be able to witness when he appears on Wogan. electricians permitting. this month.
But is he typecast as the funny man because he‘s fat? I venture. ‘Well. that’s it. I‘m not sleeping with you. I was going to ask you upstairs but you’ve blown it now. Get out ofmy house.‘ I don‘t leave and Coltrane continues. ‘No. I wasn‘t always fat. buthas always funny. . . [think there is an inbuilt pressure on anyone who‘s good at anything to do
it all the time, maybe from yourself. . . [don’t even know your name.‘ he adds. still smarting.
Back on the subject of him. he has a go at the people who expect him to
4 The List 20 Feb — 5 March