John Sessions : biography
John Gibb Marshall (born 11 January 1953), 10 January 2009, Retrieved 2010-01-09 better known by the stage name John Sessions, is a Scottish actor and comedian. He is known for comedy improvisation in television shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?; as a panellist on QI; and as a character actor in numerous films, both in the UK and in Hollywood.
Sessions was educated at Bedford Modern School, an independent school for boys (now co-educational), and Verulam School, St Albans, followed by Bangor University, from which he graduated with an M.A. in English literature. 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 from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, although he did not complete the doctorate.. This period in his life was unhappy. 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’, ‘had a couple of disastrous flings’ and described his PhD dissertation as ‘200 pages of rubbish’.
Life and career
Sessions attended RADA in the late 1970s, studying alongside Kenneth Branagh; the two would work together on many occasions later in their careers. 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. He had a number of small parts in films including The Sender in 1982, The Bounty in 1984 and Castaway in 1986.
Sessions is openly gay. His name change occurred when he became a performer, owing to the presence of a John Marshall on the Equity register already.
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. Sessions 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, 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 1987 he played Lionel Zipser in Channel 4’s mini-series Porterhouse Blue.
In 1989, Sessions 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 billed as ‘improvisation, these were increasingly pre-planned. 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’. 1991 also saw Sessions in the BBC drama "Jute City", a 3-part thriller based around a sinister Masonic bunch of villains, co starring with vocalist Fish (Derek W. Dick) from the 1980s rock band Marillion. 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 in a one-man show.