Unpredictable, dangerous, adorable: John Sessions was the Richard Burton of comedy

John Sessions (as Al Pacino) and Ronni Ancona in Stella Street - Alamy
John Sessions (as Al Pacino) and Ronni Ancona in Stella Street - Alamy

Darling, maverick, brilliant, tortured, sublimely funny, inspired, genius. John Sessions has left us far too soon. The loss will be immeasurable.

I first came to know Johnny, although I had always been a huge fan, when I was asked to be in the Stella Street movie, the film adaption of the cult series conceived by Peter Richardson, Phil Cornwall and Johnny.

He was, without doubt, the most talented performer I had ever met. I was awestruck. He played the truth of all the characters he performed so profoundly, from the brilliant comic creation of Mrs Huggett -  the cleaning lady to the stars who lived in Stella Street - to his Al Pacino impression to serious roles in hard hitting dramas or Shakespeare. He approached them all with the same respect and method.

That’s what made them so unique. The real exasperation and genuine fury etched on Huggett’s face at the indignity of picking up Michael Caine’s undies will forever be seared in my memory.

Johnny was that rare commodity, a towering intellect who was able to translate his vast intelligence into highly accessible unadulterated comedy. Who else could do a monologue combining Coronation Street with the Bloomsbury Set? His take on Virginia Woolf pulling pints at the Rovers return is the stuff of legends.

His flights of fancy could make me laugh in a mad, visceral, achingly forbidden back-of-the-classroom way.

The originality of his improvisational skills was breathtaking. He could spin his surreal stream of consciousness into an intricate web of pure comedic gold. He was a master of using juxtaposition for comic effect and he had a huge influence on me. Impressionism is often regarded as the pariah of the comedy world and I wanted to be taken "seriously" as a comic actress and was wary of being associated with the form, but he made me realise the satirical power and joy that mimicry, in the right context, can wield.

Later we were to perform together, usually as strange couples, in a deeply flawed TV sketch show. However, whatever the mixed response, the positive I took from the experience was that I got to work with Johnny.

Having both heralded from Scotland - he came from 'up the road' from me - we shared the same slight dour, camp, and odd comic sensibility. We went on to write several shows together that invariably never saw the light of day, some sketches that were bound to be invariable bloopers but that we still found hilarious.

Phil Cornwell, John Sessions and Ronni Ancona in Stella Street  - Alamy
Phil Cornwell, John Sessions and Ronni Ancona in Stella Street - Alamy

Some of them hit, others missed by a comedic mile, but that was part of the joy of Johnny. They literally don’t make comic mavericks like him anymore.  He was a one off.

As I watch the endless circle of clever, consistently reliable comedy guests on panel shows, inevitably admirable & watchable, but more often than not, safe, predictable and interchangeable, I’m reminded how Johnny was their antithesis -  delightfully capricious and exciting.

Johnny’s performances were like watching a high wire act without a net; the equivalent of chomping into a dangerous Japanese fish.

While we were all privy to his brilliance with his TV appearances, I had the added privilege of experiencing his comedic wizardry in the flesh. Such joyous memories of him doing his Dustin Hoffman impression while dressed as a sheep (don’t ask)  to cheer me up;  suited and booted at my wedding , and on his 60th birthday with some of his best friends - Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax , Ken Branagh, Kathy Lette (he didn’t care that they were losers). We laughed so much we forgot to eat.

John Sessions in 2005 - Getty
John Sessions in 2005 - Getty

There were sadder times too, of course. Like a comedic version of Richard Burton and Peter O’ Toole, he could be unpredictable, gloomy, dangerous. Yet he was vulnerable and adorable with it. Old-school magnetism and magic fairy dust seem to shine incandescently through his performances.

Talent of that magnitude always seems to come at a price. Like all great artists, Johnny was plagued with dark insecurities that almost devoured him. It manifested itself in demons, some in liquid form - thankfully he conquered those in the end. The last few times I spoke to him, I could hear the palpable relief that he had found sobriety.

Although I knew him for mostly for his comedic work, Rada trained Johnny; he was a great classical actor.

There was nothing he couldn’t do.  A true maestro, he could play any performance instrument required and used all the paints on his creative palette to colour his amazing canvasses

In an industry that notoriously loves to "box" and label performers he felt pride joy in all genres. This gentle, kind, clever man defied category.

Johnny was mischievous and surprising, damaged and beautiful. He will be greatly missed.