Obituary: John Sessions, Scottish-born comedian and actor

John Sessions, comedian and actor. Born January 11 1953 in Largs. Died: November 2 2020 in Austin, Texas, aged 67.

John Sessions attends a film premiere in London in 2014
John Sessions attends a film premiere in London in 2014

Such was the breadth of John Sessions’ talents that he could improvise a comedy sketch around random objects, dredge up the dates of birth and death for various historical figures in panel shows and played both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers in hit feature films.

A regular panellist on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and QI, Sessions loved facts, history and stories. And although he left his native Scotland as a small boy, he regularly returned to visit family and developed his love of storytelling from a granny in Paisley.

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“She saw Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley in Glasgow,” he said in an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, before heading to Orkney, where he performed a one-man show about Harry Lauder at the St Magnus International Festival. “She saw Gladstone open a bridge over the Clyde and when Greenock got bombed she took soup and blankets. She was a great lady. She very nearly became rich. Her uncles went out to the Klondyke in 1899 and sent gold back on a ship, but it sank.”

Sessions retained a gentle Scottish burr and was in demand for voice-overs and audio books. He appeared in hundreds of stage and radio shows, television programmes and feature films, from panel shows and comedy to Shakespeare and even the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

The son of a gas engineer, he was born John Gibb Marshall in Largs in 1953 – he later changed his surname because there was already another John Marshall registered with Equity, the actors’ union. His family, which included a twin sister and older brother, moved to the South of England when he was only about three.

He studied English Literature at the University College of North Wales, where he appeared in comedy shows, including the wittily-titled Look Back in Bangor, and he spent four years on a PhD at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, at the end of which all he had to show for it was, in his own words, “200 pages of rubbish” and the memory of a few “disastrous flings”.

The London Evening Standard effectively “outed” him as gay in 1994. He had never told his parents. He sensed his mother’s disapproval when he had tried to broach the subject, and she died suddenly a few weeks after the article appeared. At the time he was appearing in a play set in the gay community and the interviewer asked him directly if he was gay and he confirmed it.

Later he recalled how he had been uncomfortable and hesitant a few years earlier in an intimate scene with Rosanna Arquette in the film Sweet Revenge.

Eventually she lost her patience. “For Christ’s sake stick your tongue down my throat,” she demanded.

In the late 1970s he attended RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where contemporaries included Kenneth Branagh. He appeared in Branagh’s acclaimed 1989 film of Henry V and his 1995 film, In the Bleak Midwinter, about a group of actors trying to stage Hamlet in a village hall. He was the actor playing Queen Gertrude.

In the early 1980s he toured small comedy venues and became a regular on the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? on radio and then on television. He had a vivid imagination and a great talent for voices, enabling him to deliver monologues “in the style of” celebrities and writers. Later he admitted that his comedy was not always as spontaneous as it seemed, adding that if audiences knew it had been sketched out in advance they might expect it to be better.

He voiced several puppets on Spitting Image, including Norman Tebbit and Laurence Olivier, and he also featured as a puppet character himself. “They did John Sessions going up his own a***,” he said. By the 1990s he had his own television shows John Sessions’ Tall Tales and John Sessions’ Likely Tales. And he created and played various celebrities in the spoof soap Stella Street, including Keith Richards, Roger Moore and Al Pacino. It was based on the premise of international celebrities all living in the same street in Surbiton. It ran for four series between 1997 and 2001.

A few years later Sessions appeared with Pacino in a film version of The Merchant of Venice. Asked if he had ever done his Pacino impression for the man himself, Sessions said: “Al used to like me doing Laurence Olivier a lot, but I wasn’t going to do him. He has a selective sense of humour.”

As well as television comedy and panel shows, Sessions continued to appear in TV dramas and feature films, often playing eccentric or larger-than-life characters.

He was James Boswell to Robbie Coltrane’s Samuel Johnson in Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles, Dr Prunesquallor in the BBC mini-series Gormenghast, Harold Wilson in Made in Dagenham, and the Tory trio of Ted Heath in The Iron Lady, Geoffrey Howe in TV drama Margaret, and Norman Tebbit in The Comic Strip Presents The Hunt for Tony Blair.

In recent years he was the character Arthur Duncan in a couple of episodes of the Scottish-set fantasy Outlander and Arthur Lowe in We’re Doomed – the Dad’s Army Story.

Although he retained his Scottish accent, Sessions was against both independence and devolution. He was also against the EU and a keen supporter of Nigel Farage. He struggled with mental health problems sometimes and admitted to drinking too much during his darker periods. He was not married and had no children.

BRIAN PENDREIGH