Ian McShane: “I had free further education under socialism”

Ian McShane on the benefits of a socialist government, his alcoholism – and the moment that changed his life forever

I came from a very happy family. I’m an only child. I wouldn’t say I was indulged but life was pretty good. I was a glass half full sort of guy. I still am. I don’t think I’ve changed much. I didn’t know what life was all about when I was 16 but I made a good job of pretending. I enjoyed school, my dad took me to see Man United, I went to local dances. The serious dancing boys would take their shoes with them. I just hung around for ages and waited for the last waltz: “Hello, can I have the last waltz please? Thank you very much.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school. I’m sure my mother would still have loved me to be a doctor but that’s not how it worked out. I knew I was never good enough to be a footballer. My dad was a pro – he played for Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield, Man United – so I played with a lot of good players when I was eight, nine. I broke my leg but that’s no excuse. I wasn’t good enough and I knew it from an early age.

I’m glad I got the f**k out of Manchester but you never escape your childhood. I love going back

What advice would I give to my younger self? Shut the fuck up sometimes. But no, the kid I was when I was 16 – I like that kid. I got on with everyone. At school there were all these groups – you had the teddy boys, the swots. But I got on with them all. I’m glad I got the fuck out of Manchester but you never escape your childhood. I love going back. I still see my oldest friends. And the odd ex-girlfriend I had when I was 16, which all seems very sweet now I look back on it. I had a happy life there. I had the best of the NHS and free further education – I was brought up in the first 15 years of socialist rule.

A teacher put me in the school play and suggested to my parents I try out for drama school. So my mum and I took the train to go to Rada – I’d never even been to London before. I did my little audition then afterwards mum and I went to see West Side Story. I’ll never forget it, sitting up in the gods with mum, watching the original Broadway cast. I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, wow, is this what I have to do? Will I have to do singing and dancing? Oh please God no. I’ve never been one of those ‘I must act or else I’ll die’ types. I’ve never given a toss about any of that. It’s just something I found I was good at. It felt like something that was just inside me. Just as my dad was a footballer, I am an actor. You’ve got to have a bit of talent of course but a lot of it is luck. I’ve had good luck all my life.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

I left England in 1975 and came out here to LA and I’ve been back and forth for the last 40 years. I like the roving life that acting brings. It may have been tough on relationships when I was younger but that’s the way life is. I’m very close to my kids now. It could have been better when they were young. I got what I could but that’s just a fact of life. I can’t go back now. There were lots of reasons for that. The kids were brought up in Hawaii and LA. I saw them when I could – I’d fly out then back again. In some ways I feel I’ve rediscovered them in the last few years. Sometimes you can take each other for granted when you’re too close. It’s all good now. I’m seeing my children and my grandkids next week. We’ll all have a big dinner and a good laugh about life together.

I was drinking from the middle ’70s to the late ’80s. Everything started to slow down. Even though I was high-functioning. I’d started Lovejoy by then. And drinking was getting in the way. I looked at myself and I said, my God, I’m going to have to stop this. And thank God I did. Life took on a new meaning when I got sober. That was 28 years ago. And look at me now. I’m blessed. I’m sitting here looking out at the Pacific, having a cup of coffee, talking to you. I can’t complain.

Lovejoy

We did 78 episodes of Lovejoy [pictured above]. That’s unheard of for a big primetime show. I see it as a big turning point. A lot of people said to me, my God you’ve changed. Where’s the angry young man? Suddenly you’re doing Sunday night ITV shows? But I did it for a future legacy. The show was good, I sort of knew it would be great for Sunday nights. And we had such a good cast – Phyllis Logan, ah I love Phyllis! We did five years and I think that’s quite enough. Now they’re talking about it again but I said no, I can’t come back. But Lovejoy had a daughter – you could do it with her. You could have these people talking about Lovejoy for a bit then in would walk this stunning redhead.

My dad passed on just five years ago. He was the nicest guy in the world. He was from Bellshill outside Glasgow. Very funny guy. The last year got a little difficult for my mother. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s and he had to go into a home. I went back to help my mum move him. I walked into the house and my dad said [adopts a broad Glasgow accent]: “Ah, hello there!” He recognised my mum to the end but he wasn’t always sure about me. He looked at me on this particular day and he said: “So, who are you playing for these days?” And I said: “No dad, you’re the footballer. I’m the actor.” There was a pause and he looked at me with this kind of smiling quizzical look and he said: “Would I have seen you in anything?” [Laughs] He always kept me grounded.

My dad was suffering from Alzheimer’s and had to go into a home. I went back to help my mum move him

As soon as I saw my now wife, 38 years ago, I thought, aaah shit, I’m in trouble. I wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship so I did just go, oh Christ. You can’t explain it. Love is what it is. If I’d waited a moment longer I might have walked the other way. If I could go back to any time in my life it would be just a week after we met. I was in LAX airport, leaving to go to Britain, thinking ah, great girl, I’ll be seeing her again in two weeks. And she suddenly turned up to say goodbye. I was sitting having a beer and she came up and said, hello darling, I love you. I think that’s one of my happiest memories.

Ian McShane plays boxing promotor Joe in Jawbone and stars in American Gods, available on Amazon Prime