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CRAIG BROWN: Ra-ra Rasputin and a very difficult storyline


Email has unsung advantages. Now when a friend dies, you can instantly call their words together and read them as if they had just been broadcast.

I did this on Tuesday when I heard that actor and comedian John Sessions had just died.

I've known him for 20 years or more.

A few years ago my wife Frances invited him to a party to publish her new biography about Rasputin. John emailed back and suggested he give a little speech. If he reads this email today, his voice will come back, alternately mischievous and generous.

"I have a great little anecdote about Serena McKellen as Nicholas II. Of all Russians and Alan Rickman as Rasputin," he wrote. Both were in the hands of a particularly demonstrative and humorless director. It's a very short rasputinadote and I'd only say it if you think it might help get things going with a zing.

“I leave that thought to you. I'm really looking forward to your book launch, Frances, after Jimmy Naughties at the ICA. What a start roll I've become! & # 39;

The comedian John Sessions died on November 2nd. He was best known as a panelist on the improvisational TV and radio show Whose Line Is It Anyway ?, QI, Spitting Image and Stella Street in the 1980s and 90s. Pictured: John Sessions attends the world premiere of & # 39; Pudsey The Dog: The Movie & # 39; at Vue West End in London 2014

I remember John arriving at the party and stepping right on the makeshift stage to begin his anecdote. Then he easily slipped into the voices of Ian McKellen and Alan Rickman and the ghastly director.

For a few seconds the partygoers were confused. Book launches are generally more of a stealthy, mumbled affair. It climaxes with a dutiful speech that a nervous publisher read from a piece of paper. But soon everyone was crying with laughter.

Some comedians are tightly fisted with their jokes and only tell them when they're paid to do it. The great Keith Waterhouse used to say that telling jokes to friends was like throwing gold coins down a drain. But John was the opposite: he loved making people laugh, maybe even more so when he wasn't paid to do it.

Craig Brown: A few years ago my wife Frances invited him to a party to post her new biography on Rasputin (picture)

Craig Brown: A few years ago my wife Frances invited him to a party to post her new biography on Rasputin (picture)

He was, as everyone knows, a master of improvisation: one joke led to another, then to another and to another, and soon all these different jokes were bred and multiplied.

It was like that at the Rasputin party. The "very short" anecdote he suggested in the email turned into a hundred anecdotes, all of which were funny. His comic book appearance lasted half an hour or more and included John Gielgud as Rasputin, followed by Al Pacino, Harold Pinter, Keith Richard and John Prescott.

After John's death, Stephen Fry said, "He was able to make me laugh until I became sick and dizzy with pleasure and exhaustion."

Many would repeat this. I had to give a funny speech once, just after John came off the platform. My job was hopeless. The audience was exhausted with laughter: it was like trying to follow a symphony orchestra with a few moves on a brass pipe.

His fertile comic book imagination reminded me of Peter Cook, who could also make comedy out of nowhere and how the dancer in The Red Shoes just had to keep going, regardless.

At Peter's funeral, Alan Bennett said, “Being funny was something we set out to do, do when needed, and then turn it off. For Peter, however, there was no switching off; The stream of verbal association that was his trademark kept flowing in his head. We clocked in, so to speak, while Peter never clocked out: he was completely at the mercy of the language. & # 39;

Craig Brown: The great Keith Waterhouse used to say that telling jokes to friends was like throwing gold coins down a drain. But John (pictured 1990) was the opposite: he loved making people laugh, maybe even more so when he wasn't paid to do it

Craig Brown: The great Keith Waterhouse used to say that telling jokes to friends was like throwing gold coins down a drain. But John (pictured 1990) was the opposite: he loved making people laugh, maybe even more so when he wasn't paid to do it

Every Christmas John and I attended a Private Eye evening at the National Theater. He also starred in a radio comedy or two that I wrote, starring Mohamed Fayed, Jeremy Clarkson, Tony Blair, Alan Sugar, and crotchety historian A. L. Rowse, among others.

He was like a human jukebox, but he could also sustain a single performance: witness his eerily accurate and personable performance as Arthur Lowe in the 2015 television drama about the making of Dad's Army.

John himself felt that his talent for mimicry and improvisation came from somewhere outside of him.

Perhaps that is why, on some level, he never felt quite at home with his great talent: with his huge, labyrinthine brain and strong Scottish work ethic, he was probably suspicious of and causing such amusement of anything that came so easily.

"It's very strange," he said to Sue Lawley when he appeared on Desert Island Discs. "At best, it's like someone else is in charge, or like you're doing it in a dream."

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