Crackers about life in the fast lane

Robbie Coltrane looms large as a tough-talking, no-nonsense TV character. But, as he tells Brendan Wallace, the thought of driving a Bentley around Brooklyn proved irresistible.

Robbie Coltrane strides into the Ideal World offices and lights up a cigar about the size of a baby's arm, releasing a cloud of acrid cigar fumes into the previously pristine atmosphere, whilst assuring everybody that they're actually much better for you than cigarettes. "These things are just like smoking leaves," he says, waving the cigar wildly in the air. "Did you know that in Cuba, where everybody smokes cigars, they've got lower lung cancer rates than Britain? It's all the chemicals they put in that kill you."

Voluble, outspoken, a man who raely deletes his expletives, Robbie Coltrane is in Glasgow to plug his new project, the book of the Coltrane's Planes and Automobiles series.

It may have seemed a strange move at this point in his career. He began as yet another comic actor with an amusing Scots accent, but, after playing parts such as the chain-smoking, gambling Fitz in Jimmy McGovern's Cracker, not to mention his award-winning performance in John Byrne's Tutti Frutti, he's now started to move into the TV "serious performer" superleague. So why choose to do a documentary about such arcane subjects as the history of the two-stroke engine?

"You're right," he replies, "I didn't want to do a documentary now; I wanted to concentrate on my acting. In acting you get to ham it up, and be a bit wild, but in a documentary you just do your wee bit, and then stand around for two hours while the cameramen get a close-up of a spanner. But Ideal World [the company behind the C4 series] seduced me. They said things like, `We'll let you drive a Bentley around Brooklyn' and things like that, and I was hooked."

"But the origins of it go way back," he continues, "to about 20 years ago, when I wanted to write a guide to cars for my sisters, because nobody had ever bothered to explain to them how they worked. The irony is that that might seem a bit redundant now, because there's so many cars you can't do anything with. Did you know that the Japanese are planning a car where you can't open the bonnet? Sealed for life. A light will go on on the dashboard and tell you to take it to the mechanic. I think that's a terrible thing! You don't want to have to rely on a mechanic to tell you if something's wrong with your car. You don't want a cobbler to tell you if you need new shoes."

He goes on to rail about the dull way engineering is taught in schools, where kids are bored rigid by talk of Boyle's law, when they should be being told how to build a radio, or take apart a toaster. He's got a point; especially in Britain, where being interested in mechanical things is seen as the sign of a spotty nerd, who'll undoubtedly go on to bore you senseless with trainspotting stories and anecdotes about carburettors.

It all used to be so very different. In the 19th century, engineers were heroes who were going to subdue nature and help Britain conquer the world. Now it's computer programmers with ponytails who are the sexy face of technology, not sweaty guys wrestling with a gasket. As Coltrane points out, however, until we can travel to work via the Net, we're going to be stuck with engines for a bit yet. And it's the idea of bringing back the romance of big engineering projects that is really animating him just now - the chance to show that (as he puts it in the book) a diesel engine is as much a work of art as a Michelangelo.

If that's the case, then the creators of these masterpieces should be given as much artistic leeway as we normally give to great composers and the like. Talking of Whittle (inventor of the jet engine), Coltrane remarks, "He had a reputation for being difficult; but then, no wonder, after being told to sod off for most of his life. It's only the British who expect creative people to be brilliant and intelligent, but at the same time nice people, which is just, like, why? [adopting a self-important, middle- class voice] `Oh, apparently Beethoven was very rude in the newsagents.' Does it fucking matter? Have you heard his Fifth Symphony?"

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that this defence of "bad behaviour" and the hard-living, hard-talking exterior that Coltrane exhibits is a reaction against his family background. Contrary to popular belief, he actually had a conventional middle-class upbringing - dad a doctor, mother a pianist - and was sent to private school. You could say the story that developed was a conventional one; kid rebels against dad's right-wing political beliefs, and throws in the doctor's career that was waiting for him to become an actor. Maybe. But Coltrane points out that, contrary to appearances, they actually had a lot in common. "My dad went to North Africa and spent the war scraping wee boys off tanks, because it was the medic's job to get rid of the stiffs, so that the new troops wouldn't see them. The experience made him a complete humanist, I think.

"He was totally cynical about all politicians and all political systems. He was an anarchist in the true sense of the word; and I don't mean he went round in a parka spraying A on walls while no one was looking. I mean a real anarchist. But he was a Conservative with a massive C. I don't know why really. I think a lot of people came back from the war and sort of drew in all their tendrils, and just thought, `No more'."

In one respect, he isn't following in Dad's footsteps: he rails against Harriet Harman's policy on single mothers, and suspicious of the whole New Labour project. But still, with stories of jet-setting all over the world, his "very left-wing" political views might seem a bit incongruous. The projects he's working on don't seem to be encroaching on Ken Loach territory either: a new production of Vanity Fair, more film work, and a shot at directing a "very scary" horror movie.

Later on in the evening, at a book-signing in Glasgow, he chats with the public, tells jokes, does Judith Chalmer impersonations, and generally has people eating out of the palm of his hand. It's obviously good to be back on home territory (after the "snotty" reception he got in Edinburgh), and the audience laps it up. In the final analysis, it's easy to be cynical about talented guys who have had some breaks (in Scotland it's de rigueur). But the sneerers should be aware of his seriousness. As we were chatting about devolution just before I left, he concluded, "I think it's a good thing, but then I only want what's best for Scotland. That has to be the most important thing." So there.

`Coltrane's Planes and Automobiles' is on Channel 4 at 7.30 on Sundays. `Coltrane's Planes and Automobiles' by Robbie Coltrane and John Binias is published by Channel 4 Books at pounds 17.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: MS Dynamics AX Developer (SSRS/ SSAS) - global business

£425 per day: Ashdown Group: A small business with an established global offer...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Growing Law firm

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable law firm based in central London ...

Ashdown Group: Part time Network Support Analyst / Windows Systems Administrat

£30 per hour: Ashdown Group: An industry leading and well established business...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas