How We Met: John Sessions and Timothy Spall

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The Independent Culture
Timothy Spall, 36, was born in Battersea, south-west London. He went to Rada, and established himself in the television series, Auf Wiedersehen Pet. He is currently playing the title role in the acclaimed series Frank Stubbs Promotes. He lives in south London with his wife Shane, their two daughters, Pascale and Mercedes, and son, Rafe. John Sessions, 40, studied English at university in Wales and Canada and then went to Rada. He won a cult following in London in the mid-1980s with his one-man shows, and was a star of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

He lives in south London.

TIMOTHY SPALL: I'd heard about this incredibly clever stand-up comic but I'd never seen him when we first met. It was an ill-fated production of Brecht's Man Equals Man at the Almeida in 1986. John was playing about five parts, including my wife. He held Brecht personally responsible for the fact that it wasn't working. He'd rant and rave about what a wanker Brecht was. It was quite unnerving to hear someone get so worked up about a dead person. The play was a total shambles. At the end of each day's rehearsal we'd fall about laughing on the way to the Tube. It was like being let out of school. I liked him straight away. He had a mind like quicksilver, he was angst-ridden and it was clear to me from the start that he was a deeply sensitive bloke.

Eventually the director of Man Equals Man was fired and the opening night delayed, so John put on his one-man show to recoup some of the losses. I found it awe-inspiring.

You could practically see his brain spinning on a stick. I think we share the same kind of imagination, except he can tap into his in the most extraordinary way.

He finds it very hard to relax, just to sit down and talk about trivia. In some relationships you don't make enough time to be down with someone - to bare your soul, if you like. I think that's important for a friendship to last. I feel I might be able to help him when he's down. Having his sort of mind can do you in. There is a real desolation sometimes.

Before I got to know him well I'm sure I was guilty of expecting him to perform. He used to do that a lot in company because, like me, he works hard at being liked. It's not something I like about myself, but it's often a means to an end. I can't stand working in a bad atmosphere. If someone is moping around, I tend to think it's my fault.

John drives himself round the bend sometimes, agonising over things. He sees everything from about 75 different angles. I tell him he works too hard, but to be honest I enjoy him when he's stressed out because it makes him hyper and

he is hysterically funny when he's firing on all cylinders.

In recent years his colleagues have turned on him, and accused him of being pretentious. Comics turn on their own if they become too successful or over exposed. He can come across as a bit of a clever dick. (I played Trivial Pursuit with him once and he knew everything.) I know personal criticism hurts him, but he takes it on the chin. What you see is not always what you get with John. He might appear to exist entirely in his head, but he is genuinely interested in people. I remember sitting with him in an Asda car park once, when my car broke down and we had to wait for the AA. He was fascinated by all the shoppers coming out of Asda, wondering about their lives. He has a perspicacity about what makes people tick.

John seldom seems to spend any money on himself but he's always shown enormous generosity towards me. I'm a profligate spender, which means that I'm always skint, and he has often offered to lend me money.

When we first got to know each other our friendship was quite frenetic. It's calmed down a lot now, we've become much more relaxed with each other, and there is a real affinity. I feel for his soul. I bet this ends up in Pseuds' Corner.

JOHN SESSIONS: You learn to differentiate between friends and acquaintances in this business. I knew as soon as I met Tim that we'd be friends. I liked the cut of his jib, and I have an enormous respect for him as an actor. I first saw him act with the Royal Shakespeare Company - I was still at Rada, even though he is a good deal younger than me.

I took the job in Man Equals Man because I knew Tim was in it. We hit it off straight away, largely because we found we laughed at the same things. Laughter is water in the desert for me. I tend to play up to people who find me funny. I'm not quite as desperate for laughter and approval as I used to be, but it still gives me a kick to make friends laugh. I cannot communicate at all with humourless people. Tim makes me laugh a lot, and I make him laugh a lot. It's terribly liberating to find somebody who can understand something you'd previously thought uncommunicable. We're both drawn to the forgotten grotesques of life, strange Dickensian misfit people, society's leftovers. The oddest thing to me is normality, and Tim and I are both passionate about bearing witness to the oddness of every individual.

I wrote a character into my last show called Billy Twinkle with the express intention of making Tim laugh. It came out of a routine we've been doing for years as a couple of queeny old theatre dressers. I think we started doing it when we first met during the run of Man Equals Man.

You know exactly where you are with Tim, there's no middle-class evasion. He is obviously south London, but he doesn't wear it like a badge. You don't hear him ranting on about the poncey middle classes, at least not when he's sober.

Because of the characters he plays, a lot of people assume he's a buffoon, which clearly he is not. He has a rare poetic feel for things, seeing the sadness and strangeness of life.

We both suffered from Ugly Duckling-itis as youngsters, and we both took recourse to playing the clown. I was a terrible loner and an outsider, having moved from Scotland to England when I was little, which was why I started inventing characters and creating little worlds. Being funny was the only way I knew to make friends and stop people hitting me.

We've never really spelt it out, but I think Tim and I both feel that we're keeping the melancholy at bay with what we do. We tap into the things that cause us to be melancholy and try to make then funny. He understands only too well this harnessing of the demons to create comedy.

I think I'm a good friend to the people I care about. I like to think I've reciprocated kindnesses. I've been there as a listening ear, and Tim certainly has for me. A good friend is someone who can be rung up in the middle of the night and not feel imposed upon.

Tim's an eccentric Englishman, a full-blooded Dickensian character, with a rich individual craziness beneath the cheery Cockney lad. I'd love to see him play Arnold Bennett.

(Photograph omitted)