John Sessions on playing Scots legend Harry Lauder

John Sessions as Toal in Filth. Picture: Contributed
John Sessions as Toal in Filth. Picture: Contributed
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JOHN Sessions has mimicked – and acted with – Hollywood’s finest. But only after a long battle with stage fright could he tread the boards as Scottish legend Harry Lauder

Sitting on the sofa in his London home with a pile of novels he’s about to record for audio books, John Sessions is in a sombre mood. Not only is the actor and comedian starring in a Harry Lauder one-man show for the St Magnus International Festival in Orkney, which covers the Scottish singer’s heartbreak over the death of his son in the First World War, he’s also recently lost friends: Richard Briers, Richard Griffiths and Bob Hoskins.

“I feel ancient. Time is running out. You have to do things. I need to do things. I need to travel more,” he says.

We’d started off talking about his Scottish roots, on the Clyde coast. Born John Gibb Marshall – he became Sessions because there was another John Marshall in Equity – in Largs in 1953, he left the town with his family when he was three and they moved to Bedfordshire and then St Albans in Hertfordshire.

“My sister, who lives in Canada, came back recently and took my niece up to Largs, but I didn’t go. Too many ghosts. I’ve not been back since Uncle Bill died in 1989. I used to go back a lot and see him in the 1980s, and was very close to him. I used to get the steamer down the Clyde, go to Nardini’s…

“No, don’t go back. You can’t go back,” says the 61-year-old. “I went back to my parents’ house where I used to live years ago in St Albans for a newspaper interview. I shouldn’t have. It’s all about the people. It’s the people you miss. My grandmother for instance. I had the most wonderful grandmother, from Paisley, who was fascinating. She was 87 when she died, a good age – she could touch her toes when she was 85.

“She used to tell me stories when I was a kid. She saw Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley in Glasgow, saw Gladstone open a bridge over the Clyde, and when Greenock got bombed she took soup and blankets. She was a great lady. She very nearly became rich. Her uncles went out to the Klondyke in 1899 and sent gold back on a ship, but it sank. Then her father died and the family was talked into selling their garden for a song so they could build the railway. I wish I could talk to her now, I would just get out a jotter and write everything down.”

Sessions is a great lover of stories and a storyteller, but his career has spanned TV, stage and film. Last year he played a brilliantly exasperated bigot of a boss – who’s also a frustrated writer – to James McAvoy’s increasingly out-of-control cop in Filth.

“Yes, Filth was a very good film. It was a really exciting job to do. And now I have the Harry Lauder play and three massive novels to record; Jimmy Naughtie’s wife Eleanor Updale’s books. She’s very good, slightly fantasy Victorian London. You have to read the books first or you can’t do the story properly,” he says.

Why does he think he’s so in demand for audio books? Is it the accent, a soft everyday generic Scottish, the type of thing banks go for in their marketing, that he can switch, Meryl Streep-fashion, to whatever he chooses? He can also mimic everyone from Anthony Burgess to Robert De Niro and did the voices of the Norman Tebbit, Peter O’Toole, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jonathan Miller and Pete Townshend puppets when he worked on Spitting Image from 1986 to 1989, alongside Steve Coogan and Harry Enfield. He was also a target of the show, when his puppet began appearing as one of Kenneth Branagh’s Brit Pack. His impersonations also peopled Stella Street, the surreal soap comedy about a suburban street inhabited by Michael Caine and Al Pacino which he created and performed in with fellow impressionist Phil Cornwell.

“I don’t know why they ask me to do the books. Sometimes I read them in RP [received pronunciation], sometimes in a Scottish accent – the Stevenson novels I did in a Scottish accent. I do a lot of books, it’s another part of my job, so I have a bit of a tum these days because of all the reading. I’m trying to do a lot of walking to get rid of it.”

Sessions is also a big history buff, hence the Harry Lauder outing, which along with his talent for mimicry and improvisation makes him such a fixture on panels shows like Have I Got News For You and QI, in between film and TV roles.

“I love history. I have a bit of a nerdy Asperger thing,” says the affable brainbox, who has in the past described himself as a “bit punchable”. “I’m able to think quickly with facts. Most of the things I know I learnt at school. I was very bookish, used to love Keats and Shelley. My brain is rotting now like most people my age.”

Sessions’ twin sister Maggie, with whom he’s still close and chats on the phone every week, was also an avid reader and the pair were in the same class at the local school in St Albans.

“We were at first, then we were separated. She was quite a tomboy and fought all my battles for me. The teachers thought I was turning into a wee jessie, so they split us up. I just accepted it – you have no power as a kid.”

After school, Sessions went to Bangor University to study English and started performing one-man comedy shows, Look Back In Bangor and Marshall Arts, then travelled to Ontario in Canada to do a PhD on the English novelist and poet John Cowper Powys.

“I was there for four years, but didn’t stay and didn’t complete it. I was doing plays and one-man shows at the same time.” He later described his dissertation as “200 pages of rubbish”.

Does it bother him that he didn’t finish it?

“It does a bit. I have still got it here, so I might think about that some time.”

Returning from Canada, Sessions attended RADA in the late 1970s, where he studied alongside Kenneth Branagh, forming a lifelong friendship and working relationship that saw him appear in Branagh’s film versions of Henry V and In The Bleak Midwinter. Sessions also worked the comedy circuit in the 1980s with his improvised monologues, often sharing a bill with French and Saunders. Film parts followed in The Sender in 1982, The Bounty in 1984 and Castaway in 1986.

Then came Whose Line Is It Anyway, hosted by Clive Anderson with Sessions and Stephen Fry as regulars in the late 1980s, on radio and then TV. Next Sessions starred in his own one-man TV show, John Sessions, where he performed surreal improvisations before a live audience at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Ever versatile, his TV work has ranged from Judge John Deed and Gormenghast, to Outnumbered, teen drama Skins, and he played James Boswell to Robbie Coltrane’s Samuel Johnson in Boswell And Johnson’s Tour Of The Western Islands. His film roles range from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant Of Venice with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, to playing two British Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson in Made In Dagenham and Edward Heath in The Iron Lady.

It’s Sessions’ love of history that makes him such a good fit for the Harry Lauder show, a dramatic performance inspired by Lauder’s powerful and touching memoir A Minstrel In France. Born in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1870, Lauder was a music hall singer, raconteur and entertainer, the first British star to sell a million records. When his son John went to fight in France in 1914, he began to entertain the troops with gusto. John was due home for his wedding in the New Year, 1916, but never returned, killed in action at the Somme. Heartbroken, Lauder shunned the stage, but when his legions of fans implored him to return, he became one of the first entertainers to go to the battlefront. With a custom-built piano tied to his jeep, he toured the French battlefields, performing for troops in trenches under enemy fire, on the roadside and in field hospitals, and was inspired to write perhaps his most famous song, Keep Right On To The End Of The Road in memory of John. Later he shared his experiences of the men he met in his memoir, published in 1918, and he was knighted by George V in 1919. When war broke out again in 1939, Lauder once again entertained the troops and Winston Churchill called him “Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador”.

“He’s a great, legendary Scottish figure and I’d do anything for James and Caroline Knox, who run the Boswell Book Festival at Auchinleck House – I’ve just been up to Ayrshire to premier the show at that, then it’s Orkney – and Marilyn Imrie, who adapted and is directing it.”

He admits to finding the performance somewhat punishing, but his hectic schedule doesn’t have to fit round family life. Sessions is circumspect about his private life and bats away intrusive questions.

Does he have a partner?

“No partner.”

Children?

“No children.”

Married?

“Never. Oh goodness…”

And it’s back to the play.

“We did Harry Lauder three times yesterday. And it’s mainly me, most of the blether is me. I was beat and in bed at 9.30pm. The play is about his son being killed in the First World War. It’s a very emotional piece. He worshipped his son, and when the boy died he was bereft and had a breakdown. He had to get his act back together.

“He felt very strongly about the war, thought it evil and that the kaiser had to be defeated. Most people thought that, and when it eventually ended and over a million British and Empire troops had died, they counted the cost. A Land Fit for Heroes didn’t really happen. People are treated better today, paraplegics coming back from Afghanistan.”

Sessions is enjoying this stage outing, and has another to look forward to in the West End next year. Called The Old Folks, it’s about pensioners who rebel and kidnap the health minister. “I like being on stage. I really enjoy it.”

Well, you’d expect an actor to say that, but for Sessions it’s a little different. After a bout of stage fright while performing in My Night With Reg at the Royal Court in 1995, he didn’t perform on stage until last year, when his old friend, novelist William Boyd, persuaded him back with Longing, a play based on two Chekhov short stories. “I just got frightened. Then I got frightened of being frightened. I was thinking, ‘What if I’m on stage and suddenly panic and can’t remember my lines’. To let that go on was stupid. I should have gone back straight away. I kept tormenting myself with the fear of the words not coming out, or forgetting lines. That had never happened, but it was the fear of it. I had done a lot of big one-man shows that involved a lot of learning lines. I could have sorted it out with a therapist. Then I was offered a play, and once I’d said yes, I was all right. I learnt the lines very assiduously, knew the whole play by the start of rehearsals. It’s insecurity. I know some very distinguished actors who are off the stage for years. But you have got to do it and not let it get you.”

Sessions is also pragmatic. Suffering stage fright was getting in the way of his career and his broad-minded approach to the work he will do.

“When a job comes along I say yes. I’m not a multi-millionaire and this is my living. It’s also my job. I have done some nice things. And I have worked with people like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Bob Hoskins. Bob… I’d known him for years and did many jobs with him. He was a wonderful guy and I sent a wee message to Bill Paterson the other day – they were very close. It’s tragic.”

At the mention of De Niro, it’s impossible not to ask Sessions what he was like to work with.

“Not very good at making up his mind. Very nice, very shy, not a chatty person, but it was a great experience. I worked with him on The Good Shepherd [which De Niro produced and directed] and Matt Damon, John Turturro, Billy Crudup. It was very intense. His voice drops into De Niro’s New York rumble: “Yeah… yeah… very intense, very intense…”

Did Sessions treat De Niro to his impression of him?

“No! I used to do Al Pacino on TV, then I did a film with him [The Merchant Of Venice in 2004], but I didn’t do him when I met him, no, no. Al used to like me doing Laurence Olivier a lot, but I wasn’t going to do him. He has a selective sense of humour.

“It’s very thrilling working with someone famous but also very scary. You also learn lots. I learnt most from Al Pacino, from the way he absolutely involved himself in the part. In The Merchant Of Venice he has huge speeches. One day he was in the middle of one and the second assistant director’s mobile went off. The director went crazy but Al just carried on, totally involved in it.”

Sessions loves anyone who loves Shakespeare and has appeared in several films and stage versions of his plays, but would like to do more.

“He writes so well and brilliantly, and to have the honour of saying those lines… I’d like to do some Shakespeare on stage before I’m done.

King Lear?

“Too much.”

Macbeth? Henry V? What about the Tempest, Prospero would be a good part for him.

“Yes, I did that for A Level, that’s a favourite. Yes, perhaps.”

But with the mention of Shakespeare, his thoughts return to absent friends.

“Richard Briers did King Lear. Wonderful. Richard was just so funny and grumpy in the most lovable way. He was a wonderful man.

“I suppose they sort of live on in their work…” he trails off.

Then murmurs quietly, “…you cannae speak.”

For once the mimic, improviser and actor is at a total loss for words.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• John Sessions will appear alongside accordionist, actor and singer Brian James in Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, 7.30pm, Saturday, 2.30pm, 22 June, Orkney Theatre, £11-£14, St Magnus International Festival, Orkney, Friday-26 June, www.stmagnusfestival.com