John Sessions: a brilliantly unhinged, self-effacing genius

What an enigma John Sessions was, and what a peculiar career. Not unsuccessful by any means – he was a fixture on the emerging comedy scene in the 1980s and kept popping up in screen parts, some good, some atrocious, over the next 30 years. But there was always a sense of what might have been: of what this glorious freewheeling talent could have achieved if he hadn’t been dogged by self-doubt or if the cards had fallen differently.

Sessions, who was Rada-trained, came to prominence on Whose Line Is It Anyway? in 1988, first on BBC radio alongside Stephen Fry, then on Channel 4. The improv series was the making and in some ways the breaking of him. It channelled his skills as actor and impressionist, and was the perfect vehicle for his fantastical humour.

All those elements – mimicry, acting, wild flights of fancy – had been at the heart of his work on the comedy circuit in the early 1980s, and here they bore fruit in a hugely popular TV show that helped to establish the reputations of a new generation of comic performers – Paul Merton, Tony Slattery and Josie Lawrence as well as Fry and Sessions.

Sessions could do the improvised sketches standing on his head, and his genius on Whose Line Is It Anyway? will be lauded in all the tributes paid to him. But it was carving a career path from there that he found more difficult. He had already made a mark in the TV adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue in 1987, and acting stardom surely beckoned, but it never quite came.

He worked regularly, starred in two further semi-improvised TV shows in the 1990s – John Sessions’ Tall Tales and John Sessions’ Likely Stories – and his film career ticked over. He was in Henry V, directed by his Rada contemporary Kenneth Branagh, was Salerio in Michael Radford’s well-regarded Merchant of Venice, played Harold Wilson in Made in Dagenham and Edward Heath in The Iron Lady (only Sessions could play both very different former PMs), and appeared in films as various as Gangs of New York, the Krays movie Legend (where he played Lord Boothby – old buffers became a Sessions speciality in his 60s) and Florence Foster Jenkins. One of his final major roles was playing Arthur Lowe in the 2015 TV film We’re Doomed! The Making of Dad’s Army. Sessions, again marrying mimicry with acting, was superb as Lowe.

This is a substantial body of work, but is it enough? Genius is a word too lightly bandied around, but when comedian Ronni Ancona applied it to Sessions after news of his death broke it did not feel misplaced. No less an authority than David Brent mentioned him in the same breath as Spike Milligan, John Cleese and Kenny Everett in his pantheon of geniuses, putting all four above Newton and Einstein, whose sense of humour was questionable.

When I interviewed Sessions in 2014 – he was appearing in a truly terrible film called Pudsey the Dog – I asked him whether he felt he had failed to achieve everything his talent had promised. On the one hand, he was a little dismissive of my questioning, mocking the notion that an actor could aspire to something as grand as a “career arc”, but on the other he admitted something had gone wrong.

He evidently saw his appearance in Kevin Elyot’s play My Night With Reg at the Royal Court in 1994 as something of a watershed. Sessions was acknowledged to be brilliant in the role of Daniel, which he reprised on film two years later, but one night he had a memory lapse and had to briefly leave the stage to collect himself. The experience left a mark and he did not return to the stage for 20 years.

(L to R) David Bamber, John Sessions and Anthony Calf in My Night With Reg, 1994.
(L to R) David Bamber, John Sessions and Anthony Calf in My Night With Reg, 1994.
Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex

When we discussed this, he admitted that giving up the stage – which he called the “engine room of the career” – was a mistake. “After My Night With Reg, I should have gone to the RSC or the National and done four or five plays, really worked my arse off,” he said. “Some good old-fashioned graft would have done me the power of good. But after a six-month run, I couldn’t face a play again.”

This period was a watershed in every sense: the Evening Standard outed him as gay in an interview that coincided with My Night With Reg, his mother had died and he had turned 40, heightening the melancholy that had always been part of his nature. He suffered from depression and was treated with anti-depressants, but naturally reticent, refused to make a big deal of it and kept working. Nonetheless, what he described to me as the “twinkly years” were over.

Stella Street, which ran on BBC2 from 1997 to 2001, showed what he could achieve. A mockumentary spinning out of the typically Sessions-like premise that a host of celebrities, including Mick Jagger, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine and Princess Margaret, are living in the same street in Surbiton, it is brilliantly unhinged. Sessions co-wrote it and played many of the characters – the accuracy of his impressions, honed on Spitting Image in the 1980s, was undiminished. The series became a cult hit without ever winning the audience it deserved. A 2004 film based on the series was widely disliked.
Stella Street is a metaphor for Sessions’ career – comic genius, too often sidelined or ignored. It was the fate of many of the Whose Line Is It Anyway? crew – Tony Slattery notably but even Stephen Fry, whose generous talents have been loosely strewn. It is the Peter Cook syndrome: the imagination is so great, the possibilities so enticing, that they cannot easily be fitted into a conventional commercial box.

“When I left Rada, my plan was to try and do two careers at once – to be a comedian and an actor,” Sessions told me. “For some years, I managed to juggle the two, but I never felt I joined either club. I still feel like a rookie. I feel inadequate when I’m working with great actors like Michael Gambon. It’s like talking to God.” If only Sessions had realised that in comedy terms, he was God.