Posted: 07/13/2008


Robbie Coltrane: Incredible Britain


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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How do you pop a wheelie while driving a 20-ton fire truck? If you’ve ever stayed awake all night trying to figure out the answer, ponder no more. Popular British comedian Robbie Coltrane has the answer to this and other unusual feats of adventure, as he travels around the “B” roads of England, from London to Glasgow, meeting zany inhabitants along the way, all eager to display their respective skills.

The 20-ton fire truck’s owner, Steve Murty, has the vehicle adorned with British and American flags, and he even lets Coltrane try his hand at it. “I never knew how hard it can be to get a 20-ton truck onto two wheels,” Coltrane says, after he excitedly maneuvers the truck onto two wheels.

As impressive as Coltrane’s subjects is his car, a classic red Jaguar roadster, which he wondrously drives as he captures some of the best acts in a DVD from Acorn Media Group called Robbie Coltrane: Incredible Britain.

First, I’d like to share a bit of background on Coltrane. He was born Anthony Robert McMillan in Scotland and in 1973, changed his name to Coltrane, in honor of the late American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who died of liver cancer in 1967, at the young age of 40. He didn’t begin as a comedian, as he was rather smart in school and head of the debating society. By the early 1980s, he had ventured into theater and comedy.

The “truck stop” is just one of many during Coltrane’s trip, which also found him hanging out with teenage girls who are wing-walkers, actually doing acrobats atop the wings of small airplanes. The girls had practiced for months and were initiating a new recruit. The plane travelled at speeds up to 100mph and swayed from side to side, similar to military maneuvers.

Coltrane also visited Stratford upon Avon, with Shakespearean-themed names for businesses, such as Much to Do About Toys, The Food of Love, As You Like It Café & Sandwich Bar and Shakespeare County Raceway.

By travelling the “B” roads, or side roads throughout England, Coltrane said he hoped to “recapture the job of driving and find the heart and soul of Britain.”

One of his other stops was in Chiltern Hills to watch the annual weighing in of the mayor. This is a ceremonial tradition wherein the townspeople make sure that the head of the town wasn’t getting “fat off of their taxes.” The mayor, Darren Heyday, kindly obliged his constituents after being in office for one year; thankfully he hadn’t gained any weight. The mayor actually sat on a chair attached to a scale in the middle of town square, and an official yelled, “And no more,” meaning no weight gain.

In the Vale of Evesham, the traditional home of English asparagus, asparagus lovers would have a field day at the 700-year-old asparagus farm of the Byrd family. Asparagus in those parts is considered a treat, because the season is very short—just seven weeks. The Fleece Inn, ran by Nigel Smith, has had the same menu since the 13th century—asparagus soup, asparagus sandwiches, asparagus with cheese—well, you get the theme! While there, Coltrane learned an interesting tidbit about asparagus; that it causes the urine to smell pretty putrid.

In Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England, Coltrane visited the old Cock Hotel and the infamous Bull Inn, where folklore has it that the “cock and bull” story originated. A “cock and bull” story is one that is full or lies or grossly exaggerated. Legend has it that as stagecoaches would come in after travelling many miles, its owners would trade stories, while enjoying liquid refreshments; thus the name “cock and bull” story.

In Cambridge, Coltrane enjoyed a few rounds of tiddlywinks, as players lined up at the Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club.

There’s also a cleric who ministers to bikers, a massive rugby match played with a beer keg, a scarecrow convention and the world’s only dock pudding cooking contest, among other adventures.

Coltrane has also appeared in Ocean’s Twelve, two James Bond movies and also as Hagrid in the Harry Potter series.

To see “just how bonkers are the Brits, anyway?” get a copy of Robbie Coltrane: Incredible Britain, which is out on a single DVD, featuring three episodes, on July 15.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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