John Hannah: My family values

The actor talks about his early memories of his grandparents and coming to terms with not being encouraged to work hard at schoo

My family lived in a little terraced council house in East Kilbride, Scotland’s first new town, and it was a brilliant place to grow up. The street was full of parents with young children the same age. My childhood memories are like everyone else’s in the late 60s and early 70s – endlessly playing football in the street and being at each other’s houses. I don’t remember school at all – I remember summer holidays and endless sunshine. There probably wasn’t any sunshine, but it feels like there was.

My dad is a retired tool maker. He’s called John too and my grandad was also called John. But I wanted to give my son something completely different so we called him Gabriel. My mum, Susan, worked at the Schweppes factory nearby. The best thing about that was that it was also the factory for Cadbury so on a Friday afternoon she’d bring home a bag of bashed sweets.

I am the youngest of three and the only boy. There is eight years between me and the younger of my two sisters, Joan, and nine years between me and the eldest, Elizabeth. Both were named after my parents’ parents. Joan was my dad’s mum and Lizzie was my mum’s mum. I was very much the baby of the family and I suppose being a boy I didn’t have to do the dishes or anything so I was probably quite spoilt. Joan is a nurse and Liz works for the council.

I remember my gran and grandad Hannah’s house really well and I can recall running in and sitting down on my grandad’s knee. I was talking about this recently with my elder sister and she asked, “Do you know what age you were when Grandad died?” I had always assumed I was around seven or eight but it turned out I was three. The fact that I have such clear memories of him from such a young age is incredible.

I was not academic at school and my parents didn’t push me. They didn’t give a shit really. They were great, but I have this theory that when my sisters got married, which they both did around 18, my parents basically forgot I was there. They were in their mid or late 30s and were ready to live their lives again. There are times when you blame all your faults on your upbringing – not being made to do homework, not being pushed to go to uni, that kind of thing – but as you get older, you realise that your parents did their best and you can’t ask for more.

I met my wife [actress Joanna Roth] at the National Theatre when we did a play together. We’ve been married 18 years. I don’t know what our secret is. I guess we got lucky with our choices. But there’s been hardships and ups and downs and all of that. There were times we could have walked away and times we kind of did, but ultimately we’ve come out the other side and we’re better for that.

We have 10-year-old twins, Gabriel and Astrid. The first year was a nightmare. I was shattered. Having kids changes the structure of your life fundamentally. The challenges are infinite and you have to deal with them the best you can. Children stop you from being so neurotic about yourself.

My parents are quite poorly at the minute so I go to Scotland to see them often. It’s difficult – being 400 miles away seemed a good idea for the last 20-odd years but not so good now. I’m part of that “sandwich generation”; I feel the pressure of looking after my parents as well as having my responsibilities with my children. But there’s no solution – there are lots of us in that situation and I’m very lucky in many other ways.

John Hannah is appearing in Uncle Vanya until 8 November at St James theatre, London,

Interview by Busola Evans

The GuardianTramp

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