In a parallel universe, John Sessions would be occupying the same widespread reverence reserved for Stephen Fry. Sessions possessed the same unquenchable thirst for knowledge, piercing intellectual wit and a twinkling slice of silliness.
For one reason or another, though, Sessions – who passed away on Tuesday 3 November – never enjoyed that sustained adoration.
It could have been his determination. He initially wanted to be a comedian and actor, but found he simply “fell between two stools.” Combining frank, classical acting with fanciful, free-form comedy made him an eccentric enigma.
It could also have been his own admission that, compared to Fry’s lighter touch with intelligent facts, “I tend to sound a bit more like, well, a creep really. It’s my imparting of the information with a certain little bristle of pride or something.”
Or, more likely, it could have been Sessions’ own crippling self-doubt. This insecurity led to his retirement from the stage for twenty years, and for his “running out of confidence” when Sessions turned 40. His frequent namedrops to other thespians also may have implied this – “one wonders”, stated a newspaper piece in the late nineties, “if these mentions of other famous actors hints at a deep-seated lack of self-confidence”.
Perhaps it is unfair to sound so scornful – Sessions, after all, enjoyed a highly successful career that spanned Hollywood films, fantastic sitcoms, and riveting panel shows – but as we mourn the Scottish-born comic, there exists somewhat of a burning sense of what might have been.
Grief-stricken messages from actors and comics call Sessions a ‘genius’. It really doesn’t seem an unjust description. Indeed, there’s a frustrating sense that if Sessions believed that hype, superstardom surely would have beckoned.
It nearly did in the 1980s, as improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? ushered in a new generation of British comics. Fry, Josie Lawrence, and Tony Slattery all prospered in the Channel 4 show. Sessions, though, was on another level.
His fantastical fusion of high art and pop culture, as well as his arsenal of alarmingly accurate impressions, were a perfect vehicle for the world of improv.
Sessions later displayed his talent for mimicry further in the cult show Stella Street. Created with Phil Cornwell, it saw the likes of Al Pacino, Michael Caine, and Mick & Keith all reside on a grotty suburban estate. Many years later, he’d show off his uncanny Alan Rickman impression.
In the noughties, Sessions reunited with good friend Fry for the informative panel show QI. He was less manic than in his Whose Line… days, but still in possession of a scalpel-sharp wit.
It was on the latter programme where I first discovered Sessions. As a fellow swot and spotty-nosed 15-year-old, it was quite an awakening. Up until then, I hadn’t realised that this was what comedy could be like. I loved history, art, and literature as much as I loved football and music and was unsuccessful with girls – Sessions taught me that you could create hilarious stories about the former as successfully as the latter.
His shtick – taking mythical and historical figures and placing them into the absurdity and mundanity of the modern-day – was an amazing lesson in how the trappings of fine art could be distilled into something for the masses. I was awed by his unflappable knowledge that reached savant levels, I loved his urbane anecdotes and I was moved by his self-effacing melancholia.
I later discovered his work on Whose Line…, where I watched Sessions at his unbridled, bombastic best. That had all been and gone before I had been born. However, I was aware of the sudden success it bestowed upon Sessions and how his career afterward never quite matched that widespread recognition.
When you’re a young man, you try on many hats. As a teenager, I wanted to be a comedian. As I didn’t want to mimic my contemporaries, Sessions became my go-to comic. I wanted to match his masterful impressions, his gravitas, and his intellectual pomp. I swapped comedy for writing but I never lost that admiration for Sessions’ imitable brand of humour.
He leaves behind an admirable body of work in film and TV, popping up in anything from Gangs of New York to Friday Night Dinner. The vast array of tributes paint a vivid picture of a caring, funny, and generous man, but also one who wrestled with doubt, drink, and depression.
When David Brent mentioned John Sessions alongside Milligan, Cleese, and Everett, the line was initially lost on me. Once I got it, the joke made perfect sense. He is exactly the kind of comedian and person Brent would aspire to be – witty, engaging, but mirroring Brent’s own battles.
“I still feel like a rookie,” Sessions lamented in an interview in 2014. Hopefully, deep down, he realised just how gifted he was. As the tributes show, at least many others are rightly aware.
Words by Sam Lambeth
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