Has improvisation comic John Sessions met his
Waterloo? As his one-man biography of Napoleon hits Glasgow, Sara Villiers puts him on the spot and wipes the smug smile from his face.
John Sessions, the diminutive comic with the inflated rhetoric, greets me with typical dramatic aplomb. We chat, and his mild Scottish burr warms to my Glaswegian twang. He suddenly stops in mid-flow. ‘If I say darling once more,‘ he shudders, ‘say Buzz! I‘m bugging everyone at the moment. I keep calling them darling. You must stop me.‘ He is most emphatic. ‘I mustn‘t say darling.‘
Why ever not, I query dryly (my teeth have in fact been gnashing at this affeetation).
Exasperated. he exclaims: ‘Because I‘ll turn into an old lovey. that‘s why! I‘ll wake up one morning and I‘ll be Lionel Blair. Ugh . . .‘
A hideous fate indeed. John Sessions had come dangerously close to epitomising all that he purports to satirise; irritating, self-satisfied theatrical pretentiousness. That was before the media spat on him from a great height. When the acclaimed show-stealer of Whose Line Is It Anyway did a solo series for BBC2. On The Spot, he committed a career faux pas; the sparkling moments of improvisation on Whose Line strained over a tense half-hour format. As criticisms rained down, Sessions retaliated by slagging himselfoff more thoroughly than his deprecators dared to. It was a brilliant tactic and somewhat stemmed the wave of insults, but the
whole episode has taught him to be wary. I am yet another potential press piranha, nipping at his ankles and bothering him with questions about his self-declared obsession with literature, art and all things cultural.
‘Look, I‘ve got to lose this idea of being a smart alec; I‘m not an intellectual,‘ he insists.
1 counter that he himself engendered such an image, hanging his humour on élitist hooks, invoking Wordsworth, Kafka and Marlowe as reference points, and creating a pompous comedy that revelled in its exclusivity.
‘Yes,‘ he admits. ‘I set myselfup for that, didn‘t I— sometimes I do things that aren‘t for my own good.‘
the exhibitionist peacock tail is tucked between his legs; Sessions wants to chase a wider audience. He is tired ofthe demanding improvisation routines; when they peaked he won critical kudos; when they bombed he was soundly beaten about the ego.
‘It‘s not so much that I‘m fed up with my style. I just want to change it before the audience gets fed up with it. I‘m going to do another series for the BBC but I‘m not going to do any more impro. This will be scripted. I want to show that I can cover all sorts of things without referring to books or art.‘ He changes tack. ‘Having said that, I get sick and tired of the idea that books and art are dirty words. I was talking to someone the
other day and I ran right into this sort ofinverted snobbery. I thought, hang on a minute — you‘re saying that working-class people have to keep watching Blind Date? they‘ve got to have their own sense of the chips on their shoulders confirmed by that sort of rubbish?‘
At the moment he is touring with a one-man theatre show Napoleon, the Untold American Story, directed by famed thespian Kenneth Branagh.
‘It all looks very 1789ish, sort of red, white and blue uniforms and big flags and smoke and cannons and bangs and crashes and Beethoven and heaps of famous paintings, but woven in and out of all this are aspects of American culture — when he meets Josephine. it‘s done as a sequence from Manhattan — Napoleon becomes Woody Allen. In another scene he becomes Bilko — and there‘s bits from Cheers and The A - Team. '
It all sounds a tad Post-modern.
‘Post-modern?‘ he muses. ‘Yes, yes exactly.‘ He drifts into an American whine. ‘Hey. after all the technology. let‘s re-evaluate. . .‘
Sessions has been doing a bit of rc-evaluation oflate. Major overhauls, in fact, following angst-torn. drink-sodden confessions in the Groucho Club to jubilant journos from music mags Q and CUT. whereupon he was promptly dismembered. He groans at the memory.
‘That CUTpiece, I was half-cut
when I did it, so I supposeI ' m all I got. And the Grouch< - mo was such a bad idea . . .‘
So, the Groucho Club. haven to media luminaries. isn‘t really your scene at all. John?
‘Well. it is very handy,‘ he points out. ‘and it‘s such a nice wee place; it's right in Soho — just down the road from my agents— and I do a lot of work in Soho. and er. it‘s got air conditioning and, well. a lot of my pals gothere . . .‘
Sessions is talking to me at 11.30 in the morning. He is sober and very sharp. carefully filtering out all the ostentatious name-dropping that usually besmirches his conversation. I ask if he is becoming distrustful of the press.
‘Not distrustful. just discreet,‘ he stiffly replies. ‘Someone from The Sunday Times came round last week, and I invited him in and then he did a character assassination. It‘s the policy of reviewing, isn‘t it'." he demands icily.
‘Right now everyone‘s knocking Ken (Branagh), ‘cos he‘s doing that thing that people hate in Britain. He‘s being successful. They can‘t fucking stand it. That Sunday Times bloke who interviewed me was such a. . .‘ he searches for a suitable insult ‘such a wee man,’ he declares contemptuously. ‘Not because he didn’t give me a blowjob, but because he was a small, griping, tabloid-minded, cliche-ridden little hackf
The most frequent cliche fired at Sessions is that he is unbearably smug. The man could outsmirk Carroll‘s Cheshire Cat. These days he anticipates such complaints by a constant self-parody, referring to himselfas Mr Smuggy.
‘I‘ve just got one of those pudgy faces,‘ he sighs, ‘I can‘t do anything about it. I‘m working on it. . . Obviously its easy to look egotistical — you need a certain amount of confidence before you even get up on stage. People think “Oh God, he‘s going around saying I‘m stupid”, but it‘s not like that. I‘m saying aren’t we stupid. We. All of us. Everybody.‘
So, is the poor misunderstood dear limping around doing public penance for his pains. wearing metaphorical sackcloth and ashes and berating himself, mea culpa, mea culpa — and is it terribly sincere?
‘Yes. I suppose it can all become a bit of a wank — all that “let me bare all“ crap. . . You know. darling?‘
‘What? Oh God, yes. Quite.‘
You don‘t really want to drop the affectations. do you John?
‘No! Yes! I really have to. . .‘
Someone passes him a typed letter and with a flourish he kisses their hand. ‘Just to show you how camp I am.‘ he explains nonchalantly. ‘I go round kissing hands and calling everybody darling — but I don‘t wear a pink ﬂuffy jumper with “I Love LWT“ emblazoned on it.‘
‘No. Not yet. Exactly.‘
Napoleon: The Untold American Story runs at the Tramway Theatre, Glasgow, 19—23 September.
BThe List 15 — 28 September 1989