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John Sessions

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John Sessions
Sessions in 2018
John Marshall

(1953-01-11)11 January 1953
Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland
Died2 November 2020(2020-11-02) (aged 67)
London, England
EducationUniversity College of North Wales (BA, MA)
McMaster University
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (BA)
Occupation(s)Actor, comedian
Years active1980–2020
TelevisionWhose Line Is It Anyway? (UK)
Stella Street

John Sessions (11 January 1953 – 2 November 2020), born John Marshall, was a British actor and comedian. He was known as a regular performer on comedy improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, as co-creator, co-writer and co-star of the sitcom Stella Street, as a panellist on QI, and as a character actor in numerous films, both in the UK and Hollywood.[1][2]

Early life


John Sessions was born John Marshall on 11 January 1953 in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland.[3] His father was a gas engineer. He had an older brother, Bill, and a twin sister, Maggie.[3] His family moved to Bedford, England when he was aged 3.[3]



Sessions was educated at Bedford Modern School, an independent school for boys (now co-educational), and Verulam School, St Albans, followed by the University College of North Wales in Bangor, from which he graduated with an MA in English literature.[2] At university, he had begun to appear to audiences with his comedy in shows such as "Look back in Bangor" and "Marshall Arts". He later studied for a PhD on John Cowper Powys at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, although he did not complete the doctorate.[3]

This period in his life was unhappy.[4] In a "Worst of Times" column for The Independent from around 1990, he talked of how the freezing Canadian weather had depressed him, he was smoking "far too many cigarettes" and "had a couple of disastrous flings", and described his PhD dissertation as "200 pages of rubbish".[4]



Sessions attended RADA in the late 1970s, studying alongside Kenneth Branagh; the two would work together on many occasions later in their careers.[5] His name change occurred when he became a performer, owing to the presence of a John Marshall already on the Equity register.[6] In the early 1980s, he worked on the small venue comedy circuit with largely improvised freewheeling fantasy monologues. He topped a double bill with French and Saunders during this period.[3] He had a number of small parts in films including The Sender (1982), The Bounty (1984) and Castaway (1986).[7]

Sessions played to his strengths in improvisation and comedy with his one-man stage show Napoleon, which ran in London's West End for some time in the mid-1980s.[8] He and Stephen Fry were the only two regular panellists on the original radio broadcast of Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the late 1980s. When the show, still hosted by Clive Anderson, made the transition to television, Fry departed from regular appearances, but Sessions remained the featured panellist for the first season. A frequent player in the second, he did not appear again after his two appearances in the third series.[9]

A gifted impressionist who also voiced characters for Spitting Image, he drew heavily on his extensive literary education and developed a reputation for being "a bit of a swot", being able to quote extensive passages of text and make endless cultural and historical references.[10] His ready ability to switch between accents and personae meanwhile allowed his career in improvisation to flourish. On Whose Line Is It Anyway?, his ability to affect the contrived witticisms of Restoration Comedy became an audience favourite. In 1987 he played Lionel Zipser in Channel 4's mini-series Porterhouse Blue.[11]

In 1989, he starred in his own one-man TV show, John Sessions.[3] Filmed at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the show involved Sessions performing before a live audience who were invited to nominate a person, a location and two objects from a selection, around which Sessions would improvise a surreal performance for the next half-hour.[4] This series prompted two further one-man TV shows: John Sessions' Tall Tales (1991) and John Sessions' Likely Stories (1994).[12] Although billed as improvisation, these were increasingly pre-planned.[12] In an interview headlined 'Who The Hell Does John Sessions Think He Is?' in Q magazine in the early 1990s, he admitted that some of his improv was not entirely spontaneous, but that if it were advertised as scripted 'it had to be funnier'.[13] 1991 also saw Sessions in the BBC drama Jute City, a three-part thriller based around a sinister Masonic bunch of villains, co-starring with vocalist Fish (Derek W. Dick, singer in the first incarnation of rock band Marillion).[14]

In 1996, he was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts to write "Paint, said Fred", the life of Frederic, Lord Leighton, the pre-eminent Victorian artist, in a one-man show that used his comic writing abilities and his gift for impersonation.[15]

Sessions also starred in Stella Street, a surreal "soap opera" comedy about a fantasy suburban British street inhabited by celebrities such as Michael Caine and Al Pacino, which he conceived with fellow impressionist Phil Cornwell, the two of them playing several parts in each episode.[16]

Sessions later returned to formal acting, with parts ranging from James Boswell (to Robbie Coltrane's Samuel Johnson) in the UK TV comedy drama Boswell and Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles (1993) to Doctor Prunesquallor in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (2000) and in 1998 as Hercules Fortesque, a BBC HR manager in the BBC mini-series In The Red adapted from the book and the BBC radio series by Mark Taverner.[17] He provided the voice of the Professor in The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1996.[18] He also appeared in several Shakespeare films, playing Macmorris in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), Philostrate in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999), and Salerio in the movie The Merchant of Venice (2004), with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.[19] He also contributed "Sonnet 62" to the 2002 compilation album When Love Speaks (EMI Classics), which consists of famous actors and musicians interpreting Shakespearean sonnets and play excerpts.[20]

In between appearing in regular film and TV roles, Sessions made appearances on Have I Got News for You and, more recently, as a semi-regular panellist on QI.[21][5] He was one of four panellists, including the permanent Alan Davies, on the inaugural episode of QI, in which he demonstrated his effortless memory of the birth and death dates of various historical figures (while simultaneously and apologetically deeming the knowledge of such facts "a sickness").[5]

On radio, Sessions was a guest in December 1997 on the regular BBC Radio 3 show Private Passions, presented by Michael Berkeley, not as himself but as a 112-year-old Viennese percussionist called Manfred Sturmer, who told anecdotes (about Brahms, Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and others) so realistically that some listeners did not realise that the whole thing was a hoax.[22] Other Sessions' creations appeared on Berkeley's show in subsequent years. Sessions had taken the role of narrating the popular Asterix stories for audiobook, since the death of Willie Rushton.[23]

Sessions made a guest appearance in a special webcast version of Doctor Who, in a story called Death Comes to Time, in which he played General Tannis. He occasionally appeared in the BBC series Judge John Deed as barrister Brian Cantwell QC. In 2007, he guest-starred in the Doctor Who audio adventure 100.[24][25]

In 2006, Sessions presented some of the BBC's coverage of The Proms and featured in one of the two Jackanory specials, voicing the characters and playing the storyteller in the audiobook version of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's children's book Muddle Earth.[26] In 2007 he appeared in the final episode of the second series of Hotel Babylon, playing hotel owner Donovan Credo, and as Geoffrey Howe in 2009's Margaret.[27] In 2010, he played Kenny Prince in Sherlock.[28]

Sessions appeared in the teen drama TV show Skins in 2011 as one of two adopted fathers of Franky Fitzgerald.[4] He also appeared as a Brummie vicar in an episode of Outnumbered on BBC One.[29]

He had the distinction of playing two British prime ministers in films, Harold Wilson in Made in Dagenham and Edward Heath in The Iron Lady.[30] In 2013 he appeared in the premiere production of the new play Longing.[31]

In 2014, he made a short appearance in Outlander as Arthur Duncan.[32] In October 2014, Sessions was heard as Gus, the mysterious, psychopathic computer that controlled the eponymous train/spaceship in the Doctor Who episode "Mummy on the Orient Express" as well as[33] appearing as Mycroft Holmes in the 2015 film Mr. Holmes.[34]

In addition to appearing in the role of Arthur Lowe in the 2015 drama We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story.[35] he also played Dr Hermann in the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins.[36]

Sessions narrated a 10-part radio adaptation of The Adventures of Captain Bobo on Fun Kids in 2020,[37][38] which was still running at the time of his death.[39]

Personal life


Sessions was gay.[40] He was outed in a 1994 Evening Standard article, while starring in the comedy My Night with Reg, a play set in London's gay community.[41]

A Eurosceptic, Sessions voiced his support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2014.[42][43] He stated, "I get so bored with people going, 'UKIP are a bunch of racists.' They're nothing of the kind. Nigel Farage talks more sense than the rest of the politicians put together. The United States of Europe is madness."[3]

He was also critical of Scottish nationalism, and argued for the abolition of the Scottish, Welsh and European parliaments.[3] In August 2014, he was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.[44]



Sessions died of a heart attack at his home in South London on 2 November 2020, aged 67.[41] The team behind the BBC television programme QI praised his "incredible wit and encyclopaedic knowledge [which] played a huge part in the show's history."[41][45]




Year Title Role Notes
1980 Animalympics Uncredited
1981 The Great Muppet Caper Muppet Performer Uncredited
1982 The Sender Patient [4]
1984 The Bounty Steward John Smith
The Muppets Take Manhattan Muppet Performer Uncredited
1986 Sky Bandits Flight
Castaway Man in Pub
Whoops Apocalypse Mr Sweetzer
1989 Henry V Macmorris
1990 Sweet Revenge John Michaels
1991 The Pope Must Die Dino
1992 Freddie as F.R.O.7 Scotty Voice
1994 Princess Caraboo Prince Regent
1995 In the Bleak Midwinter Terry Du Bois (Queen Gertrude)
1996 The Adventures of Pinocchio The Professor
1997 My Night with Reg Daniel
1998 The Scarlet Tunic Humphrey Gould
Cousin Bette Musical Director
1999 A Midsummer Night's Dream Philostrate
Faeries Chudley Voice
2000 One of the Hollywood Ten Paul Jarrico
2001 The Kingdom of Bones William Rutherford
High Heels and Low Lifes Director
2002 Gangs of New York Harry Watkins / Lincoln
2004 Hawking Dennis Sciama
Stella Street: The Movie Mrs. Huggett / Keith Richards / Jeremy Hickman
Joe Pesci / Dean Baraclough / News Reader
Jack Flatley / Johnny Van Damm / Muthatrucker
Lord Tony Stanford / Dustin Hoffman / The Vicar
Policeman / Al Pacino
Lighthouse Hill Mr. Reynard
The Merchant of Venice Salerio
Five Children and It Peasemarsh
2005 Rag Tale Felix Miles Sty
2006 The Good Shepherd Valentin Mironov No. 1 / Yuri Modin
2007 Intervention Joe
2008 Inconceivable Finbar "Finn" Darrow
2009 The Last Station Dr. Dušan Makovický
Nativity Mr Lore
2010 The Making of Plus One Derek
Made in Dagenham Prime Minister Harold Wilson
2011 The Iron Lady Edward Heath
2012 The Domino Effect Talk Show Host
2013 Filth Bob Toal
2014 Pudsey the Dog: The Movie Thorne
The Silent Storm Mr. Smith
2015 Mr. Holmes Mycroft Holmes
2015 Legend Lord Boothby
2016 The Rack Pack Ted Lowe
Florence Foster Jenkins Dr Hermann
Whisky Galore! Doctor McLaren
Denial Richard J. Evans
2017 Loving Vincent Julien Tanguy Voice
Finding Your Feet Mike Abbott
2019 Intrigo: Dear Agnes Pumpermann
2021 Belfast Joseph Tomelty as Marley Posthumous release


Year Title Role Notes
1984 Danger: Marmalade at Work Announcer / Scorpion 2 episodes
Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee Also writer
1985 Happy Families Dean Episode: "Cassie"
Tender Is the Night Young Scot Episode: "Episode Six"
1986 Boon Barney Spitz Episode: "Box 13"
Spitting Image Prince Edward / Caspar Weinberger / Laurence Olivier Voice, 13 episodes
Girls on Top Rodney Episode: "Who's Ya Uncle Shelley?"
The Madness Museum Dr. Arthur Foulis Uwins TV movie
1987 Gramsci: Everything that Concerns People Antonio Gramsci TV movie
Porterhouse Blue Zipser 3 episodes
1988 Menace Unseen Larry Knight 3 episodes
1988–1991 Whose Line Is It Anyway? Himself 24 episodes
1989 Agatha Christie's Poirot Radio Voice Overs Voice, Episode: "Four and Twenty Blackbirds"
A Day in Summer Croser TV movie
1990 One Foot in the Grave Voice, Episode: "Dramatic Fever"
Die Fledermaus Frosch TV movie
1991 The New Statesman Lord Penistone Episode: "Let Them Sniff Cake"
John Sessions' Tall Tales 6 episodes: also writer
Jute City McMurdo 3 episodes
1992 Life with Eliza Eliza's husband 12 episodes
1993 Screenplay James Boswell Episode: "Boswell & Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles"
1994 Citizen Locke John Locke TV movie
John Sessions' Likely Stories 6 episodes; also writer
Nice Day at the Office Tippit 6 episodes
1997 The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling Henry Fielding 5 episodes
1997–2000 Stella Street Various characters Also writer and creator
1998 In the Red Hercules Fortescue 3 episodes
Queen's Park Story The Owl TV movie
2000 Gormenghast Dr Alfred Prunesquallor 4 episodes
2001 Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes Prof. Rutherford Episode: "The Kingdom of Bones"
Randall and Hopkirk Combe Fishacre Episode: "O Happy Isle"
2001–2002 Death Comes to Time General Tannis Voice, 5 episodes
2002 The Inspector Lynley Mysteries John Corntel Episode: "Well Schooled in Murder"
George Eliot: A Scandalous Life George Henry Lewes TV movie
Dalziel and Pascoe Charlie Penn 2 episodes
2002–2005 Judge John Deed Brian Cantwell, Q.C. 3 episodes
2003 Midsomer Murders Barrett Filby Episode: "Painted in Blood"
That'll Teach 'Em Narrator Voice: 5 episodes
The Lost Prince Mr. Hansell TV movie
2003–2012 QI Himself 10 episodes
2004 The Legend of the Tamworth Two Rival Editor TV movie
2005 Absolute Power John Kennedy Episode: "Spinning America"
The English Harem Ridley TV movie
2006 Low Winter Sun Professor Barry Lennox Miniseries
Agatha Christie's Marple Cardew Pye Episode: "The Moving Finger"
Jackanory Storyteller Episode: "Muddle Earth"
2007 Reichenbach Falls Professor Bell TV movie
New Tricks Dr Finlay McKenzie Episode: "Casualty"
Hotel Babylon Donovan Credo Episode: "Episode 8"
Ronni Ancona & Co Special Guest 2 episodes
Oliver Twist Mr Sowerberry 2 episodes
2009 Margaret Geoffrey Howe TV movie
Breaking the Mould Edward Mellanby TV movie
2010 Lewis Professor Rufus Strickfaden Episode: "Falling Darkness"
Sherlock Kenny Prince Episode: "The Great Game"
Just William Mr. Wellbecker Episode: "William Holds the Stage"
2011 Outnumbered Vicar Episode: "The Funeral"
Rab C. Nesbitt Chief Inspector Haggerty Episode: "Broke"
The Comic Strip Presents... Tebbit Episode: "The Hunt for Tony Blair"
Little Crackers Dr. Edward Cole Episode: "Alan Davies' Little Cracker: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Daytime"
2011–2012 Skins Geoff Fitzgerald 2 episodes
2012 Dead Boss Sir Humphreys Episode: "Episode six"
Shameless Father McGinn Episode: "All Fall Down"
2013 Mr Selfridge Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Episode: "Episode 7"
2014 Blandings Lord Didcot Episode: "Necessary Rhino"
Doctor Who Gus Voice, Episode: "Mummy on the Orient Express"
2014–2015 Outlander Arthur Duncan 2 episodes
2015 Moone Boy Dr. Stephen Gnot Episode: "Unidentified Feckin' Objects"
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell John Murray 2 episodes
We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story Arthur Lowe TV movie
2016 Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge The Partridge Playhouse Players Voice, Episode: "Episode 1"
Upstart Crow Lord Inquisitor Episode: "Love Is Not Love"
The Rack Pack Ted Lowe TV movie
Friday Night Dinner Mr. Murray Episode: "The Carpet Cleaner"
2017 Father Brown Reverend Adam Gillespie Episode: "The Eve of St John"
The Loch DCI Frank Smilie ITV drama series
2018 Death in Paradise Hugh Davenport Episode: "Murder on the Day of the Dead"
2019 Victoria Lord John Russell Series 3
2020 The Great Bishop Tarcinkus Episode: "Moscow Mule"




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  4. ^ a b c d e "John Sessions on playing Scots legend Harry Lauder". Scotsman.com. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  5. ^ a b c Moss, Stephen (14 July 2014). "John Sessions, comedy pioneer: 'I lost my way'". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  6. ^ Barker, Rhodri (10 July 2012). "Actor John Sessions and lawyer Malcolm Evans among Bangor University's honorary fellowships". northwales. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  7. ^ "John Sessions". Aveleyman.com. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  8. ^ "Lord, it's hard to be humble". Telegraph.co.uk. 31 July 1998. Archived from the original on 26 February 2016. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  9. ^ Anderson, Clive (13 December 2018). "Clive Anderson on Whose Line Is It Anyway? We were making it up as we went along". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  11. ^ "Porterhouse Blue – C4 Comedy Drama". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  12. ^ a b "John Sessions's Likely Stories – BBC2 Comedy". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  13. ^ "Series 6, Episode 11 – QI Transcripts dot com". Qitranscripts.com. Retrieved 1 April 2019.[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "Jute City – tape 1290". Vhistory.wordpress.com. 5 August 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  15. ^ "Sessions, John 1953". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  16. ^ Bass, George (1 October 2015). "Stella Street box set review: just popping down the shop to see Mick and Keef". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  17. ^ "BBC Two – ScreenPlay, Series 8, Boswell and Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  18. ^ Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and John Sessions – Listen Online. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  19. ^ "John Sessions". IMDb. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  20. ^ "Various – When Love Speaks". Discogs. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  21. ^ "John Sessions". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  22. ^ "John Sessions". Usefulvoices.com. 20 July 2015. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  23. ^ "Pick of the Day: Radio". The Independent. 26 December 1998. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  24. ^ "BBC – Press Office – Judge John Deed series two". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  25. ^ "Doctor Who Guide: John Sessions". Doctor Who Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  26. ^ Gibson, Owen (20 October 2006). "Jackanory gets revamp for specials with CGI characters". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  27. ^ "Hotel Babylon Series 2, Episode 8". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  28. ^ Elliott, Matthew J. (23 October 2013). The Immortals: An Unauthorized guide to Sherlock and Elementary. Andrews UK Limited. ISBN 9781780924922. Retrieved 1 April 2019 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ "BBC One – Outnumbered, Series 4, Episode 1". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  30. ^ Walker, Tim (25 August 2012). "John Sessions reviews a trio of Margaret Thatchers". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  31. ^ "CASTING ANNOUNCEMENT: Iain Glen to star opposite Tamsin Greig and John Sessions in Longing". Hampstead Theatre. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  32. ^ Byrne-Cristiano, Laura (21 August 2014). "First Look: 'Outlander' images feature Jaime and Geillis". hypable.com. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  33. ^ "BBC One – Doctor Who, Series 8, Mummy on the Orient Express". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  34. ^ "Film of the week: Mr. Holmes – Sight & Sound". British Film Institute. 5 December 2016. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  35. ^ "John Sessions went bald for the 'terrific' challenge of playing Dad's Army icon Arthur Lowe (VIDEO) – TV News – What's on TV". What's on TV. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  36. ^ "BBC One – Florence Foster Jenkins". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  37. ^ "John Sessions: Comedian dies at the age of 67". BBC News. 3 November 2020. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  38. ^ "Captain Bobo – John Sessions narrates the radio series on Fun Kids". Belle Media. 21 August 2020. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  39. ^ "Everyone at Fun Kids is very sad to hear that actor John Sessions has died. He was the voice of the current series "The Adventures of Captain Bobo" which he brought to life so vividly for our audience this year". Twitter. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  40. ^ Hoggard, Liz (1 July 2007). "How we met: Alan McWalter & John Sessions". The Independent. London: Independent Print Ltd. Archived from the original on 26 September 2010. Retrieved 4 January 2009.
  41. ^ a b c "John Sessions, actor and comedian, dies aged 67". The Daily Telegraph. 3 November 2020. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  42. ^ Dessau, Bruce (15 July 2014). "Opinion: Comedians & UKIP". Beyond The Joke. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  43. ^ Moss, Stephen (14 July 2014). "John Sessions, comedy pioneer: 'I lost my way' | Film". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  44. ^ "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". The Guardian. London. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  45. ^ J Davies, Hannah (3 November 2020). "Actor and comedian John Sessions dies aged 67". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 November 2020.