John Sessions, actor-comedian noted for deft improvising and shows such as Stella Street – obituary

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Sessions: a genius for surreal improvised monologues - Larry Ellis Collection/Getty Images
Sessions: a genius for surreal improvised monologues - Larry Ellis Collection/Getty Images

John Sessions, the actor and comedian, who has died of a heart attack aged 67, added to his extraordinary gifts as a mimic an erudition and knowledge of language and literary references that divided audiences between those left speechless with admiration at his virtuosity and those who found him insufferable.

Sessions enjoyed a breakthrough turn in 1987 in Porterhouse Blue, the Channel 4 series adapted by Malcolm Bradbury from Tom Sharpe’s novel, in which he played Lionel Zipser, the sexually inexperienced graduate student whose lust for his stout middle-aged bedder ends in disaster.

He then found further fame as one of the most talented of the performers on the 1988 debut series of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the comedy improvisation game hosted by Clive Anderson, in which he and Stephen Fry battled it out to improvise sketches in genre styles based on shouted suggestions from the audience.

The ease with which Sessions improvised going to the dentist in the style of Hemingway, or his description of a day at the seaside in the style of James Joyce, revealed a serious comic genius but established his reputation as something of a “smarty-pants”.

Stalwarts of Whose Line Is It Anyway?: Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson (host) and John Sessions, 1989 - Tony Timmington /Alamy 
Stalwarts of Whose Line Is It Anyway?: Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson (host) and John Sessions, 1989 - Tony Timmington /Alamy

Paul Merton, who often appeared alongside Sessions, admitted counteracting a Sessions riff in the style of William Faulkner by doing “something deliberately prosaic in the style of the Automobile Association manual. I just thought, ‘Well, nobody knows who William Faulkner is. Or if they do, they’re not laughing very loudly’. ”

In one famous edition of the show when contestants were invited to portray the person with whom they would least like to be trapped in a lift, Merton stepped forward and smirked: “Hello, my name’s John Sessions.”

Before that, Sessions’s voice had become well known on Spitting Image, ITV’s politics and puppets show, in which his 40-plus voice repertoire stretched from Prince Edward and Keith Richards to Laurence Olivier and Norman Tebbit. In 1989 he himself became a target of the show, when a John Sessions puppet began appearing as one of Kenneth Branagh’s Brit Pack, spoofed as disappearing up his own back-passage.

Sessions, who sometimes styled himself “Mr Swotty”, was in person a quietly self-effacing and genial figure who conceded that many people found him infuriating, admitted to what he called an “over-compensatory urge to intellectualise”, and blamed his tendency for showing off on the fact that he went to Bangor University and not Oxbridge.

When pushed, however, he would admit that his show-off tendencies had emerged in childhood.     

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and John Sessions as Edward Heath in the film Iron lady, 2011 - Film Stills
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and John Sessions as Edward Heath in the film Iron lady, 2011 - Film Stills

He was born John Gibbs Marshall on January 11 1953, in Largs, Ayrshire (he would change his name to Sessions because there was another John Marshall in Equity). His father was a gas engineer and a Protestant; his mother was a Catholic from Glasgow’s east end, who was ostracised by her family when she got married. He had a twin sister and an older brother.

When John was three, the family moved to Bedfordshire and later to St Albans, Hertfordshire, where John was educated at Verulam School.

He recalled doing his first impersonation aged seven, singing Lonnie Donegan’s Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley – partly to win the approval of his father, a stern man who none the less had a sense of humour, and later he kept the sixth form bullies at bay by making them laugh.

He could not tell his father that he was gay, and although as a teenager he blurted a confession to his mother, she was so distressed that he quickly backtracked. He only disclosed his homosexuality publicly in 1994.

After school, Sessions went to Bangor University to read English and started performing one-man comedy shows. After graduation he travelled to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to teach undergraduates and do a PhD on the writer John Cowper Powys. But he did not complete it, found Canada too cold and bland, became depressed, and later described his dissertation as “200 pages of rubbish”.

Returning to London in the late 1970s, he won a scholarship to Rada, despite turning up to the audition with a hangover.

With Ian Hislop, 1994 - Richard Young/Shutterstock
With Ian Hislop, 1994 - Richard Young/Shutterstock

“I did Benedick’s ‘This can be no trick…’ from Much Ado,” he recalled. “Hugh Cruttwell said: ‘That was terrible. You weren’t acting, you were doing an impersonation of what an actor sounds like’. ” So he performed a bit of Pinter’s The Homecoming instead, and won the scholarship.

He studied alongside Kenneth Branagh, forming a lifelong friendship and working relationship that saw him appear in Branagh’s film of Henry V (1989) and his comedy In the Bleak Midwinter (1995).

Sessions’s film debut, however, was in The Sender (1982), a horror feature in which he played a patient. He also had small parts in Roger Donaldson's The Bounty in 1984 and Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway (as “man in pub”) in 1986.

Sessions, left, with Anthony Hopkins and Liam Neeson in The Bounty, 1984 - Alamy
Sessions, left, with Anthony Hopkins and Liam Neeson in The Bounty, 1984 - Alamy

At the same time he worked the comedy circuit with surreal improvised monologues, often sharing a bill with French and Saunders. One review, written in praise of his one–man stage show The Life of Napoleon – which transferred to the Albery in 1987 – described with awe how “in the course of a few sentences Sessions is liable to change voices from Olivier to Lofty of EastEnders, include a pun and a simile, refer to Picasso and Faulkner and move from the battle of Jena to a golf course. It is exhausting, exhilarating and mostly very funny.”

Sessions at the King's Head Theatre in London, 1985 - Alastair Muir/Shutterstock
Sessions at the King's Head Theatre in London, 1985 - Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

In 1989 he starred in his own one-man television show, John Sessions, which involved him 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 performance.

There were two follow-up shows: John Sessions’ Tall Tales (1991) and John Sessions’ Likely Stories (1994), but by the mid-1990s improvisation of the sort he excelled at had rather fallen out of favour. In 1995 he suffered stage fright when, having come out as gay the previous year, he starred in Kevin Elyot’s searing Aids drama My Night With Reg. He would not return to the stage for nearly 20 years.

Nevertheless, if his public profile was lower than it had been in the late 1980s, there were many flashes of brilliance, most notably in the cult “mockumentary” Stella Street, which ran to four series on BBC Two between 1997 and 2001, about a fantasy suburban British street populated by celebrities including Michael Caine, Al Pacino – and the football presenter Jimmy Hill.

Sessions conceived the programme with fellow impressionist Phil Cornwell – the two of them playing several parts in each episode – and the director Peter Richardson.

In the 2004 film spin-off of Stella Street as Mrs Huggett, cleaning lady to the stars, with Ronnie Ancona as Madonna and Phil Cornwell as David Bowie - Alamy
In the 2004 film spin-off of Stella Street as Mrs Huggett, cleaning lady to the stars, with Ronnie Ancona as Madonna and Phil Cornwell as David Bowie - Alamy

In 1994 he played James Boswell to Robbie Coltrane’s Samuel Johnson in Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Western Islands for BBC Two. In the channel’s four-part adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s fantasy Gormenghast (2000), he stole the show as Prunesquallor, the hyperactive, obsequious royal physician to the House of Groan.

In the Thatcher bio–drama Margaret (2009, BBC Two), he put in a brilliant performance as Geoffrey Howe, one critic observing: “Everything about it - the voice, the demeanour, the doleful decency – was perfect.” In We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story (2015, BBC Two), he was superb as Arthur Lowe playing the blustering Captain Mainwaring.

He also did much radio work, became a regular panellist on shows such as Have I Got News For You, and impressed with arcane knowledge on QI.

Among numerous film credits, Sessions transformed himself into Harold Wilson in Made in Dagenham (2010), Ted Heath in The Iron Lady (2011), and Norman Tebbit to Jennifer Saunders’s Baroness Thatcher in the spoof film noir The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011).

As Lord John Russell in ITV's series Victoria (2019) - ITV/Shutterstock
As Lord John Russell in ITV's series Victoria (2019) - ITV/Shutterstock

He had a part in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and appeared with Brad Pitt in The Good Shepherd (2006). In 2013 he gave what one critic described as a “pitch-perfect performance” as an exasperated police superintendent and bigot of a boss to James McAvoy’s increasingly out-of-control cop in Filth.

John Sessions lived in a section of a white stucco Victorian villa in East Putney. A heavy drinker at times, prone to gloom and self-doubt, he was a bit of a loner. “I like the solitary life,” he said. “I couldn’t be doing with people leaving biscuits around the house.” 

He was also disarmingly outspoken on political matters, admitting, after years of voting Labour, that he had voted for Ukip in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament on the grounds that “the European Union is the biggest money-wasting piece of s---”.

His views on Scottish devolution were equally robust: “Get rid of the European bloody Parliament, the Scottish assembly, or Parliament, I should say, the Welsh Assembly. They’re just money spinning … oh God, they make me so angry.”

John Sessions, born January 11 1953, died November 2 2020     

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