John Sessions – actor
Sessions’ ability for mimicry had already been a gift for two series’ of the original Spitting Image (1986), where he voiced puppets for Laurence Olivier, Norman Tebbitt, Prince Edward and many others. He later did something similar, albeit in the flesh this time, in Stella Street (1997), based around a suburban corner shop inexplicably run and frequented by celebrities. Here, Sessions played exaggerated versions of the likes of Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and a magnificently camp Keith Richards.
Sessions’ inherent gravitas born of his early ubiquity lent itself naturally to Shakespeare. On screen, he appeared as Macmorris in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989), Philostrate in Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) and Salerio in Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice (2004).
Inbetween numerous guest appearances on TV panel shows, QI and Have I Got News for You?, Sessions’ increasing elder statesman status allowed him to play a series of real life characters. In 1993, Sessions was James Boswell to Robbie Coltrane’s Samuel Johnson in John Byrne’s TV film, Boswell & Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles, and he went on to play two very different British Prime Ministers. In Made in Dagenham (2010) he was Harold Wilson, and played Edward Heath in Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady (2011).
It was in his assorted one-man shows on stage and screen saw Sessions fly without a safety net. His first solo breakout came in the mid 1980s with Napoleon, which saw him play the West End. In this and his at times brilliantly inventive solo TV shows that followed, he dazzled. His talent had been nurtured early on by maverick theatre director Ken Campbell, who is quoted in Michael Coveney’s biography of Campbell, The Great Caper, as saying that ‘If Billy Connolly was Lenny Bruce and had an MA in literature, he’d begin to look like John Sessions’.
Others saw Sessions as too clever for his own good. Even on Spitting Image, Sessions was the only mimic to receive his own puppet, in which he was cast as Branagh and Emma Thompson’s pet cat, at one point disappearing up his own behind. It was a suitably clever parody even Sessions could appreciate.
Sessions was born John Gibb Marshall in Largs, Ayrshire, but moved with his family to Bedford in England when he was three years old. He went to Bedford Modern School and Verulam School, St Albans before studying English Literature at the University College of North Wales in Bangor. It was here he started performing one-man comedy shows before he moved to Hamilton, Ontario in Canada for what he described as an unhappy time studying for an uncompleted PhD on John Cowper Powys.
Sessions went to RADA, where student contemporaries included Branagh and Douglas Hodge. Sessions wrote to Campbell, who took him to Liverpool, where he appeared in improvised revues. Campbell toughened Sessions up by having him play venues ranging from tough Toxteth pubs to Greenham Common women’s peace camp.
By the time he performed Napoleon, on the West End, Sessions was seemingly ready for anything. A bout of stage fright in 1995 whilst appearing in My Night With Reg, however, kept him away from live performance for almost two decades, before he returned in 2013 in William Boyd’s play, Longing. In interviews at the time, Sessions declared his distaste for both Scottish independence and the EU, and declared himself a supporter of UKIP.
Latterly, Sessions appeared in the big-screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Filth (2013). There were a couple of episodes of Outlander (2014), and a brilliantly gnomic turn as actor Arthur Lowe in We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story (2015), a TV drama about the creation of the classic 1960s and 1970s sitcom.
As captivating as these late period flashes of comic genius remain, it is Sessions’ early flourish of unabashed intellectual artistry that remains embedded in the culture that his work was so deeply rooted in.
“I’m not clever,” he once said. “I’ve just read a lot of books.”
The Herald, November 4th 2020