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Sanjeev Kohli

The writer and comedian was a bit of an outsider at school, but a speech in an English class brought him out of his shell

The writer and comedian was a bit of an outsider at school, but a speech in an English class brought him out of his shell

Being asked who my most influential teacher was is quite a strange question for me, because I always thought I was going to do something completely different with my life. All the way through secondary school at Glasgow's St Aloysius' College I thought I would become a doctor.

It wasn't even any stereotypical pressure from my Asian parents; it was from myself because I had, and still have, glaucoma. I was in and out of the ophthalmologist's office and I convinced myself that I wanted to be on the other side of all the machines.

As a result I was always very studious at school, a straight As guy, at the expense of having any meaningful friends and personal hygiene. To say I was a loner would be overstating it, but I was clinically shy and had very low self-esteem.

One day in English we were told that we had to stand up and give a speech in front of the whole class. I wrote a speech about advertising and the way we like certain adverts more than others. I was obsessed by television at that time, watching The Young Ones, which made a real impact on me and was the education which really stuck.

When I wrote the speech it was my intention to just stand up, read it out without making eye contact with anyone and sit right back down. I remember I wrote a few jokes that I would find entertaining but I didn't expect to get a reaction and I was really surprised when I had to stop because people were laughing.

Afterwards our English teacher, Anne Higgins, took me aside and asked if I'd ever thought about joining the debating society. I was so surprised and flattered because that was completely parallel to my existence.

My elder brother, Hardeep (also a famous comedian, presenter and writer), was in the debating society. He was always the attention seeker - he still is - and I would sometimes go along to watch him.

I had never thought of joining and I never took Mrs Higgins up on the suggestion. But she was the only teacher at Aloysius' who spotted my potential as a performer.

I was good at English and she used to compliment me on my essays when we were doing Shakespeare. I had an insight into language and expression which I never thought I would have a use for.

I remember she always looked smart, but always with a flourish, such as a cravat or a floaty scarf. She was always very animated, using her hands a lot and giving the sense that she loved her subject and wanted to engage you. She had quite an infectious, giggly laugh, too.

I saw her about a decade ago when she was taking some pupils to the theatre. We didn't really have a chance to chat, but I did apologise to her for something I once said in class. We were having a discussion and in a sudden burst of confidence I said I didn't really see the point of Shakespeare. I remember her face rolling like a sea from the window as she asked how someone who understood Shakespeare so well could say that! I think she chuckled about it when we met.

I think being brought up in a Sikh family and going to a Catholic school shaped my sense of humour, and Hardeep's, in terms of being outsiders. There's a great wealth of material from both cultures.

I'm often curious as to what would have happened if I had joined the debating society. I still want to do stand-up, but I still have the fear and I'll probably never do it unless I'm forced, which goes back to Mrs Higgins.

A new series of `Fags, Mags and Bags' is due to air on Radio 4 later this year. Sanjeev Kohli was talking to Julia Horton.


Born: London, 1970

Education: St Aloysius' College, Glasgow; maths at University of Glasgow

Career: Radio Scotland presenter before breaking into writing and acting. Famous for playing Navid Harrid in TV sitcom Still Game and Ramesh Majhu in radio sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags.

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