John Sessions
OccupationActor and comedian

John Sessions (born 11 January 1953) is a Scottish actor and comedian. He is known for comedy improvisation in television shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?; as a panelist on QI and as a character actor in numerous films, both in Britain and Hollywood.

Early life

Sessions was born John Gibb Marshall in Largs, North Ayrshire and spent some of his earliest years in Kempston, Bedford and St Albans, Hertfordshire. Sessions is openly gay.[1] He changed his name when he became a performer as there was already a John Marshall on the British Actors' Equity Association register. He graduated with an MA in English literature from the University of Wales and later studied for a PhD from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, although (contrary to common assumption for many years) he did not complete the doctorate.[2] From later interviews and references in his work it appears this latter period was an unhappy one: in a 'Worst of Times' column for The Independent 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'. Nonetheless he began to make appearances to small audiences with his comedy there.


He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and in the early 1980s worked on the small venue comedy circuit with largely improvised freewheeling fantasy monologues. He topped a double bill with French and Saunders at times. He had a number of small parts in films including The Sender (1982), The Bounty (1984, which also starred Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier) and Castaway (1986). Not appearing particularly comfortable in these roles however, he 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. Sessions and Stephen Fry were the only two regular panelists 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 panelist for the first season, a frequent player in the second, but he did not appear again after his two appearances in the third series. A gifted impressionist (he 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. His ready ability to switch between accents and personae meanwhile allowed his career in improvisation to flourish.

In 1989, he starred in his own one-man TV show, John Sessions. 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. This series prompted two further one-man TV shows: John Sessions' Tall Tales (1991) and John Sessions' Likely Stories (1994), although these were increasingly pre-planned rather than improvised: 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 wasn't entirely spontaneous but that if it were advertised as scripted 'it had to be funnier'.

Ultimately Sessions grew weary of this kind of performance (as did the viewing public). More successful was Stella Street (1997 to present), a surreal "soap opera" comedy about a fantasy suburban British street inhabited by celebrities like Michael Caine and Al Pacino, which he conceived with fellow impressionist Phil Cornwell, the two of them playing several parts in each episode.

Increasingly Sessions has returned to formal acting, with parts ranging from James Boswell (to Robbie Coltrane's Samuel Johnson) in the UK TV series Boswell and Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles (1993) to Doctor Prunesquallor in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (2000). He has also appeared in some Shakespeare films, playing Macmorris in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), Philostrate in the 1999 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Salerio in 2004's The Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.

In between appearing in regular film and TV roles Sessions has made appearances on Have I Got News for You and, more recently, as a semi-regular panelist on QI. Sessions was one of four panelists, 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").

On radio, Sessions guested 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 Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and others) so realistically that some listeners did not realize that the whole thing was a hoax. Other Sessions creations appeared on Berkeley's show in subsequent years. Also since the demise of Willie Rushton Sessions has taken the role of narrating the popular Asterix stories for audio book.

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 also appears in the BBC series Judge John Deed as barrister Brian Cantwell on an occasional basis. In 2007 he guest-starred in the Doctor Who audio adventure 100.

In 2006 he 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. In 2007 he appeared in the final episode of the second series of Hotel Babylon, playing a hotel owner, Donovan Credo.


  1. Hoggard, Liz (2007-07-01), How we met: Alan McWalter & John Sessions, London: The Independent, <>. Retrieved on 4 January 2009 
  2. John Sessions”, Penguin Books: Authors, <,,1000061985,00.html?sym=QUE>. Retrieved on 5 September 2007 .

External links

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