Wednesday, November 04, 2020

John Sessions: A lost comic genius

Embed from Getty Images

When the improvisational comedy panel show Whose Line Is It Anyway? was first screened on Channel 4 in 1988 it was compulsory viewing. People would make a point of staying in to watch it.

And the most talented performer on the show, above Paul Merton or Josie Lawrence or Stephen Fry, was John Sessions.

His ability to mimic almost anyone, extraordinary range of knowledge and love of cinema history led to some remarkable performances.

Sessions died on Monday. Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Moss expresses what many who remember his appearances in the 1980s must feel:

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.

Later in his article Moss describes Sessions as suffering from Peter Cook syndrome: 

the imagination is so great, the possibilities so enticing, that they cannot easily be fitted into a conventional commercial box.

Except that Sessions had one thing over Cook: he could act. In his films, Cook always seems a little disconnected from what is going on around him. Sometimes directors made good use of this - it is one of the things that makes him so enigmatic in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer - but it did limit him as an actor.

I remember discussing Cook with Adrian Slade, who had auditioned him for the Cambridge Footlights. He said Cook was the funniest man he had ever met and that you would spend all evening with him laughing and then not be able to remember a word he had said the next day.

Adrian also said, however, that being a revue performer - putting on a hat and a funny voice for a two-minute sketch - is not the same as being an actor. And he agreed that sometimes with Peter Cook it showed.

But John Sessions could act: he was RADA trained. Moss quotes him as saying:

"When I left Rada, my plan was to try and do two careers at once - to be a comedian and an actor. 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."

Moss concludes:

If only Sessions had realised that in comedy terms, he was God.

Wishing that a performer had enjoyed a more stellar career can be selfish, in that it is expresses disappointment that you did not get to see more wonderful things from them. But it also contains a love and concern for that performer, and I think Moss is right about John Sessions.

No comments: