Scots comedian and actor John Sessions – on the spot

John Sessions is a comedian and actor who has worked extensively in the UK and Holywood.

Born John Gibb Marshall in 1953, he is known for comedy improvisation in television shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and as a panellist on QI.

He tells Scottish Field of his inspirations, not fitting in, and working with the great and the good of cinema.

I grew up in Largs. It’s just a magical little town, so magical, in fact, that now all my relatives who lived there are dead and I can’t go back – it’s just too difficult. My sister, who lives in Canada, came over recently with my niece and they took a trip to Largs. They wanted me to go with them, but I just couldn’t do it; there are too many ghosts there.

My favourite childhood memory is of sailing around Ailsa Craig on the Duchess of Montrose, one of my favourite paddle-steamers. Actually, it wasn’t a paddle-steamer, it was a turbine-steamer, which they wickedly broke up in 1964. You know how small boys like dogs? Well, paddle-steamers and Clyde passenger-steamers were my dogs, and when they sent them to the breaker’s it broke my heart.

At school I was a bit of a misfit. I didn’t belong, didn’t fit. I was a squre peg going into a round hole. Nowadays I see mysels as a crazy mixedf-up guy who is fighting to be 21, even though he has just turned 63!

When I left RADA in the early 1980s, my plan was to do two careers at once – to be a comedian and to be an actor. But if I hadn’t managed that, God only knows what I’d have become. A very third-rate academic or a very inadequate teacher, I think.

I think my greatest achievement is probably a one-man show I did a very long time ago called Napoleon, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh. We are talking the late 1980s. Actually, I have done a few good pieces of work since then, but I think that was probably my best thing.

I was recently asked what my favourite role was, but that’s very hard to say – there have been a lot. Working with Al Pacino on The Merchant of Venice a few years ago was very exciting; so was working with Robert DeNiro in The Good Shepherd.

I often like to relax by listening to classical music. When I met the great John Bird during the summer he was talking about a Beethoven quartet that he chose for Desert Island Discs. John did the show twice. I did it with Sue Lawley 25 years ago, and I chose a Beethoven quartet too – A minor Op. 132. I would still pick that.

A number of things make me angry, but what angers me most is myself, my inadequacy as a human being. But what I like best about myself is that I try to be kind in a cruel world.

There are many people who do so much more than me, people I admire. I mean, young Owen Jones [the author and Guardian columnist]. He’s got fire in his belly. He’s a terrific writer, he’s the future. I hope such mistakes as he does make, as we all make in life, will be small ones. But he mustn’t go into politics; he must stay as a writer.

Reading is one of my passions. If you were to ask me what my favourite novel was I could come up with all sorts of obvious titles, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce or Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. But if I am being honest, the first book I really fell in love with, which I read about 20 times as a kid, was King Solomon’s Mines. It was the first plot that really seized me, a real page-turner, a wonderful adventure story, unapologetically of its time, of the Empire. Actually, that having been said, it treats black people with far more respect than an awful lot of Victorian books do. Sir H. Rider Haggard wrote it as a bet. He had read Kidnapped and said, ‘This is okay, but I can do better.’ And his pal said, ‘Well, go on then.’ So he said, ‘Right, you’re on,’ and he wrote it in the same year, 1885.

(This interview was originally published in 2015)