John Sessions has worked in film, television, theatre, and is perhaps best known for his one-man shows. He has appeared, most notably, in Stella Street, My Night With Reg, Gormenghast and In the Bleak Midwinter.
He’s the man of many voices, a star of stage and screen, and a great reader of Penguin Audiobooks. Find out what John Sessions and Martin Scorsese chatted about on the set of Gangs of New York, and what’s all this about a paddle steamer?
How did you start as an audiobook reader?
I think the first book I did was in 1992, a Peter Ustinov novel called The Old Man and Mr Smith. If only the late, great John Smith had been Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time; the ERM catastrophe happened while we were recording it.
You recently recorded Sue Townsend's new novel, Number Ten, for Penguin Audiobooks. A comic satire on New Labour's Britain, the central character - the Prime Minister - is called Edward Clare ... As an impressionist (and indeed Spitting Image alumnus), was it tempting to go straight for the jugular and give him a Tony Blair voice?
My Blair isn't a patch on Rory Bremner's. I just go for the Sixth Form Socialist Society priggishness and I hope I get the essential TB. Of course, the essential Blair is a far better man than events suggest. I think he means well but is in danger of being overwhelmed by his advisers. (A dull observation, but not without a grain of truth.)
I understand you have a part in Martin Scorsese's new film, ‘Gangs of New York’. Tell us about your character - and how did a Scot come to play a native New Yorker?
I had to play a hammy American actor - my being from Scotland had no bearing on the casting. I was just loud and over the top at the audition, which is what Scorsese wanted. It's a very small part. My hammy character is playing Lincoln and I get pelted with fruit by Leonardo di Caprio and Daniel Day-Lewis - well, that's if I don't get cut, which I fear is very likely given the controversy over the film's length. It was a great experience anyway, filming in Rome with Martin Scorsese with whom I had a few very interesting conversations about John Ford, Michael Powell, Pasolini, Catholicism in film, etc. I could have talked to him all day but then, he had a film to direct. Moreover, given the fact that he treated me with a courtesy wholly at variance with his power and my lowly position, I'm relieved that I decided it might be a bit impolitic to show him my impersonation of him. His editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, was delightful, as were many others involved in the film. I'll stop now as I'm rambling and - God forbid - gushing ...
I remember seeing you in the BBC's ‘Gormenghast’ a couple of years ago, playing Prunesquallor, a surreal character in a surreal story. I must admit that, for me, it was the stuff of nightmares, but presumably it made sense to you?
‘Gormenghast’ wasn't for everyone. God bless those who fought for it to be made, though.
You've written so much material for radio and television but nothing literary as far as I know. Is (was?) there a novel in you?
I don't think I could write a novel as well as I would desperately need it to be. A rushed-off piece of junk would leave me feeling very ashamed of myself. So much garbage gets published. Caxton and Gutenberg would have a fit, never mind Richard Hoggart. Some years ago, Chatto and Windus considered a treatment I had, but I think I was wise not to proceed. The skill involved in creating any novel is very considerable. Another consideration is that a lot of my convictions don't really fall in with current cant. One should never say never, but ...
‘Stella Street’: pure genius. How did you and Phil Cornwell come up with the idea, and am I right in thinking you're currently working on the script for a feature-length ‘Stella Street’ film?
Peter Richardson, our co-writer, director and overall driving force, must take the lion's share of the credit for ‘Stella Street’. Phil and I constantly reflect on the fact that, without him, it would just have been another chat in the Groucho club. Yes, we're doing a 90-minute film - we're still writing but have also done a week of filming. Columbia Tri-Star are financing it and it should be on release by next summer. It'll be Phil and myself, and we're blessed with having Ronnie Ancona [of Alistair McGowan's ‘Big Impression’ fame] to do all the female parts. I absolutely HATE doing drag! I can cope with doing Mrs Huggett but hate having to attempt to play beautiful women.
I have discovered, thanks to the internet, that you have a PhD. What was the subject?
No, I'm afraid I don't have a PhD. I studied for one in Canada and did not complete it. When I did ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1990 I told Sue Lawley this and it bothers me that some people still believe I have one or, more to the point, believe I propagate the fib that I have one. MA (Wales), that's me lot!
Finally, if you weren't an actor and writer, what would be your dream job?
The captain of a paddle steamer in the eighteen-nineties.