Once critically derided for the excesses of his clever-clever humour, John Sessions has reinvented himself. And this time he's serious
A thinly-disguised John Sessions once appeared in "Roger Mellie", the Viz strip-cartoon about a yobbish TV presenter. The story ended with the Sessions character being smashed in the face by Mellie for his insufferably know-all performance. Sessions laughs that: "My nephew said I was famous at last."
An appealingly open man, Sessions is the first to concede that for a while some people were irked by his clever-clever aura. "I'd be a fool not to admit that I cultivated that clever image," he sighs. "I stupidly thought it was the way to go. I spent far too much time trying to be clever and far too little being funny. I used to watch myself through my fingers and think to myself, `If I didn't know that was me, I'd want to punch him'."
Since the self-flagellation, however, Sessions has shed that skin and climbed into a more likeable and enduring one - as a respected actor. He first made his mark as a drama queen in Kenneth Branagh's In the Bleak Midwinter, then, triumphantly, as a bereft lover in Roger Michell's My Night with Reg.
Now 44, Sessions continues that progression with a show-stealing performance as Henry Fielding in BBC1's high-spirited new costume drama, Tom Jones. A mischievous puppet-master in a grand wig, the narrator dances round the players orchestrating their actions - with varying degrees of success. Throughout, Fielding takes the viewers into his confidence, throwing them nods and winks like an18th-century Francis Urquhart. At one point, a bunch of peasants slug it out in a mudbath, while Fielding stands to one side, smokes his pipe, shrugs his shoulders and smirks to camera.
Sessions is a dream interviewee; the quotes pour out, barely requiring questions to keep them flowing. The only drawback is a delicious tendency to go off on gossipy tangents; at one juncture, he has to steer himself back on track with a stern "stick to the story, John".
He acknowledges that the device of having an on-screen narrator in Tom Jones is unconventional. "Some people will go, `oh no, we're going to be lumbered with him all the way through'. But the book justifies his presence because the authorial voice there is so characterised. The narrator is holding the strings like Zeus in Jason and the Argonauts - my favourite film."
Sessions trusts viewers will be drawn to the piece because "it's a fantastically warm book. It's about a man who likes people. Fielding looks down on his heroes like a beneficent god. Even castigating the baddies, he doesn't get hysterical like Dickens, who goes off on a complete Dennis Skinner. Fielding doesn't stand on a soapbox. His bad guys and gals are fun. There's a lightness to their villainy."
For all his enthusiasm, Sessions is canny enough to realise that viewers might be suffering from a period drama overdose. "There may well be a natural zeitgeist reaction, with people saying `give us drugs and cars'," he sighs. "But you hope people will be held by the story and care for the characters. If they fall for the characters, we'll be all right."
He also believes that Tom Jones is grittier than your average bonnets- and-bustles extravaganza. "It's set in the 18th century, which is gutsier than all that empire and tea-tinkling stuff in the 19th century," he maintains. "People went easy on the loo paper in the 18th century - it was dirtier, smellier and more honest."
For Sessions, Tom Jones is part of a continuing campaign to fly from various pigeon-holes. "For years, I had the improv tag," he recalls. "When people thought, `we can't have him in our show because he'll put a lavatory seat on his head and do Dostoevsky.' The whole Whose Line Is It Anyway? thing has had its day. Then I had the one-man-show tag, and then the poof tag. I don't want that to restrict my work. I don't want casting-directors to think, `we can't have him saying, "she's got a lovely pair".' I'd like to play Mr Married with Children."
There's no reason why he shouldn't. He certainly has a great variety of work in the pipeline, including: a new Peter Richardson series called Stella Street, in which he plays 10 different characters; a part as a BBC personnel manager in a new Malcolm Bradbury thriller; and a one-man show about Picasso.
Sessions is in no doubt that in his business you have to continue running to stand still. "You've got to keep re-inventing yourself," he asserts. "Look at Stephen Fry with Wilde - it's a whole new thing for him. Kenneth Branagh is filming with Woody Allen. You can't remain doing the same old thing for the sake of career sustenance. There's nothing more tragic than leaping about pretending you are 10 years younger than you are, because the camera tells people you're not. You just look like a clapped-out old fart. People will only watch a seal balancing a ball on its nose for so long."
`Tom Jones' starts tomorrow night at 9pm on BBC1