John Sessions

John Gibb Marshall (born 11 January 1953),[1] better known by the stage name John Sessions, is an English 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.[2]

John Sessions
Sessions in 2018
John Gibb Marshall

(1953-01-11) 11 January 1953
Bedford, Bedfordshire, England
Alma materUniversity College of North Wales
OccupationActor, comedian
Years active1982–present
TelevisionWhose Line Is It Anyway? (UK)
Stella Street

Early life

John Sessions was born John Marshall on 11 January 1953. He has a twin sister, Maggie, and an older brother.[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 from McMaster University, 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] 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.[6] He had a number of small parts in films including The Sender in 1982, The Bounty in 1984 and Castaway in 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] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

In 1989, Sessions starred in his own one-man TV show, John Sessions.[6] 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 wasn't 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 the 1999 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Salerio in the 2004 movie The Merchant of Venice, 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 has made appearances on Have I Got News for You and, more recently, as a semi-regular panellist on QI.[21][5] Sessions 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 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 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 has 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 Brummy vicar in an episode of Outnumbered on BBC1.[29]

Sessions has also played 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, Sessions 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".[33] Sessions also appeared as Mycroft Holmes in the 2015 film Mr. Holmes.[34]

Sessions played the role of Arthur Lowe in the 2015 drama We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story.[35] He played Dr Hermann in the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins.[36]

Personal life

Sessions supports UKIP,[37][38] "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] Sessions is openly gay.[39]

In August 2014, Sessions 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.[40]

His name change occurred when he became a performer, owing to the presence of a John Marshall on the Equity register already.[41]



1982The SenderPatient
1984The BountySteward John Smith
1986Whoops ApocalypseMr Sweetzer
1986Sky BanditsFlight
1986CastawayMan in Pub
1989Henry VMacmorris
1990Sweet RevengeJohn Michaels
1991The Pope Must DieDino
1992Freddie as F.R.O.7Scotty / Additional characters (voice)
1994Princess CarabooPrince Regent
1995In the Bleak MidwinterTerry Du Bois (Queen Gertrude)
1996The Adventures of PinocchioThe Professor
1997My Night with RegDaniel
1998The Scarlet TunicHumphrey Gould
1998Cousin BetteMusical Director
1999A Midsummer Night's DreamPhilostrate
1999FaeriesChudley (voice)
2000One of the Hollywood TenPaul Jarrico
2001The Kingdom of BonesWilliam Rutherford
2001High Heels and Low LifesDirector
2002Gangs of New YorkHarry Watkins / Lincoln
2004HawkingDennis Sciama
2004Stella Street: The MovieVarious characters
2004Lighthouse HillMr. Reynard
2004The Merchant of VeniceSalerio
2004Five Children and ItPeasemarsh
2005Rag TaleFelix Miles Sty
2006The Good ShepherdValentin Mironov No. 1 / Yuri Modin
2008InconceivableFinbar "Finn" Darrow
2009The Last StationDr. Dušan Makovický
2009NativityMr Lore
2010Made in DagenhamPrime Minister Harold Wilson
2010The Making of Plus OneDerek
2011The Iron LadyEdward Heath
2012The Domino EffectTalk Show Host
2013FilthBob Toal
2014Pudsey: The MovieThorne
2014The Silent StormMr. Smith
2015Mr. HolmesMycroft Holmes
2015Legend Lord Boothby
2016Florence Foster JenkinsDr Hermann
2016 Denial Richard J. Evans
2017Finding Your FeetMike
2017Loving VincentPere Tanguy (voice)


1984Danger: Marmalade at WorkAnnouncer / Scorpion2 episodes
1984Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence FeeVarious charactersAlso writer
1985Happy FamiliesDeanEpisode: "Cassie"
1985Tender Is the NightYoung ScotEpisode: "Episode Six"
1986BoonBarney SpitzEpisode: "Box 13"
1986Spitting ImageVarious characters (voice)13 episodes
1986Girls on TopRodneyEpisode: "Who's Ya Uncle Shelley?"
1986The Madness MuseumDr. Arthur Foulis UwinsTelevision film
1987Porterhouse BlueZipser3 episodes
1988Menace UnseenLarry Knight3 episodes
1989Agatha Christie's PoirotRadio Voice Overs (voice)Episode: "Four and Twenty Blackbirds"
1989A Day in SummerCroserTelevision film
1990One Foot in the Grave(voice)Episode: "Dramatic Fever"
1990Die FledermausFroschTelevision film
1991The New StatesmanLord PenistoneEpisode: "Let Them Sniff Cake"
1991John Sessions' Tall TalesVarious characters6 episodes: also writer
1991Jute CityMcMurdo3 episodes
1992Life with ElizaEliza’s husband12 episodes
1993ScreenplayJames BoswellEpisode: "Boswell & Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles"
1994Citizen LockeJohn LockeTelevision film
1994John Sessions' Likely StoriesVarious characters6 episodes; also writer
1994Nice Day at the OfficeTippit6 episodes
1997The History of Tom Jones: A FoundlingHenry Fielding5 episodes
1997–2000Stella StreetVarious charactersAlso writer and creator
1998In the RedHercules Fortescue3 episodes
1998Queen's Park StoryThe OwlTelevision film
2000GormenghastDr Alfred Prunesquallor4 episodes
2001Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock HolmesProf. RutherfordEpisode: "The Kingdom of Bones"
2001Randall and HopkirkCombe FishacreEpisode: "O Happy Isle"
2001–2002Death Comes to TimeGeneral Tannis (voice)5 episodes
2002The Inspector Lynley MysteriesJohn CorntelEpisode: "Well Schooled in Murder"
2002George Eliot: A Scandalous LifeGeorge Henry LewesTelevision film
2002Dalziel and PascoeCharlie Penn2 episodes
2002–2005Judge John DeedBrian Cantwell, Q.C.3 episodes
2003Midsomer MurdersBarrett FilbyEpisode: "Painted in Blood"
2003That'll Teach 'Em Series 1Narrator5 episodes
2003The Lost PrinceMr. HansellTelevision film
2003–2012QIHimself10 episodes
2004The Legend of the Tamworth TwoRival EditorTelevision film
2005Absolute PowerJohn KennedyEpisode: "Spinning America"
2005The English HaremRidleyTelevision film
2006Low Winter SunProfessor Barry LennoxMiniseries
2006Agatha Christie's MarpleCardew PyeEpisode: "The Moving Finger"
2006JackanoryStorytellerEpisode: "Muddle Earth"
2007Reichenbach FallsProfessor BellTelevision film
2007New TricksDr Finlay McKenzieEpisode: "Casualty"
2007Hotel BabylonDonovan CredoEpisode: "Episode 8"
2007Ronni Ancona & CoSpecial Guest2 episodes
2007Oliver TwistMr Sowerberry2 episodes
2009MargaretGeoffrey HoweTelevision film
2009Braking the MouldEdward MellanbyTelevision film
2010LewisProfessor Rufus StrickfadenEpisode: "Falling Darkness"
2010SherlockKenny PrinceEpisode: "The Great Game"
2010Just WilliamMr. WellbeckerEpisode: "William Holds the Stage"
2011OutnumberedVicarEpisode: "The Funeral"
2011Rab C. NesbittChief Inspector HaggertyEpisode: "Broke"
2011The Comic Strip Presents...TebbitEpisode: "The Hunt for Tony Blair"
2011Little CrackersDr. Edward ColeEpisode: "Alan Davies' Little Cracker: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Daytime"
2011–2012SkinsGeoff Fitzgerald2 episodes
2012Dead BossSir HumphreysEpisode: "Episode six"
2012ShamelessFather McGinnEpisode: "All Fall Down"
2013Mr SelfridgeSir Arthur Conan DoyleEpisode: "Episode 7"
2014BlandingsLord DidcotEpisode: "Necessary Rhino"
2014Doctor WhoGus (voice)Episode: "Mummy on the Orient Express"
2014–2015OutlanderArthur Duncan2 episodes
2015Moone BoyDr. Stephen GnotEpisode: "Unidentified Feckin' Objects"
2015Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJohn Murray2 episodes
2015We're Doomed! The Dad's Army StoryArthur LoweTelevision film
2016Mid Morning Matters with Alan PartridgeThe Partridge Playhouse Players (voice)Episode: "Episode 1"
2016Upstart CrowLord InquisitorEpisode: "Love Is Not Love"
2016The Rack PackTed LoweTelevision film
2016Friday Night DinnerMr. MurrayEpisode: "The Carpet Cleaner"
2017Father BrownReverend Adam GillespieEpisode: "The Eve of St John"
2017The LochITV drama series


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  2. "BBC Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs, John Sessions". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  3. Mesure, Susie (24 February 2013). "John Sessions: 'I do tend to sound like a bit of a creep'". The Independent. London: Independent Print Ltd. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  4. "John Sessions on playing Scots legend Harry Lauder". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  15. "Sessions, John 1953- -". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  20. "Various - When Love Speaks". Discogs. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  22. paul (20 July 2015). "John Sessions". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  24. "BBC - Press Office - Judge John Deed series two". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  25. "Doctor Who Guide: John Sessions". Doctor Who Guide. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  26. Gibson, Owen; correspondent, media (20 October 2006). "Jackanory gets revamp for specials with CGI characters". Retrieved 1 April 2019 via
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  36. "BBC One - Florence Foster Jenkins". BBC. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
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  40. "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". The Guardian. London. 7 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
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