John Sessions was once inescapable. Every chat show and panel game on TV was clamouring for his brilliant impressions and stream-of-consciousness wit.
He was the mainstay of Channel 4’s improvisation comedy series Whose Line Is It Anyway? — dazzling the other competitors with his surreal, erudite gags invented and performed in a blur of hilarity.
In conversation, he flipped between famous voices, John Gielgud one moment and Harold Wilson the next — a trick he could keep up for hours. His friends lived in fear of being skewered by his lethal impersonations: on Spitting Image, he was the voice of his old chum from theatre school, Kenneth Branagh, as well as Norman Tebbit, Larry Olivier, Prince Edward, Peter O’Toole, Jonathan Miller and Barry Took.
John Sessions, pictured here in 1985, was the mainstay of Channel 4’s improvisation comedy series Whose Line Is It Anyway? — dazzling the other competitors with his surreal, erudite gags invented and performed in a blur of hilarity
In conversation, he flipped between famous voices, John Gielgud one moment and Harold Wilson the next — a trick he could keep up for hours. His friends lived in fear of being skewered by his lethal impersonations
His talent was so outrageous that the Spitting Image puppet-makers couldn’t resist sending him up, the only time that one of the show’s voice actors was portrayed. They made a latex version of him that imitated everyone and then disappeared up its own backside.
The joke proved darkly prophetic. John Sessions, tipped for international stardom and a sack of Oscars, all but disappeared. While contemporaries went on to colossal success, Sessions — who died from heart failure at his London flat on Monday, aged 67 — ended his career doing bit parts and voiceovers.
Partly, he was a victim of his own ostentatious brilliance. ‘For an actor, really, you’re too clever,’ scolded Clive Anderson, the compere of Whose Line, during one interview.
But the real cause of his implosion went much deeper. Depressed and tormented by guilt over his sexuality, and unable ever to admit to his parents that he was gay, Sessions suffered catastrophic stage fright that kept him out of the theatre he loved for nearly 20 years.
He was born John Gibb Marshall, in January 1953, to Scottish parents in Ayrshire. When he and his twin sister Maggie were three, they moved to Bedfordshire, where his domineering father worked as a gas engineer.
John Sessions, tipped for international stardom and a sack of Oscars, all but disappeared. While contemporaries went on to colossal success, Sessions — who died from heart failure at his London flat on Monday, aged 67 — ended his career doing bit parts and voiceovers
His mother Esme was ‘a much more tender creature’ from whom he inherited a love of reading. At school he was bookish, while Maggie was fiery.
‘She was quite a tomboy and fought all my battles for me,’ he said. ‘The teachers thought I was turning into a wee jessie, so they split us up.
‘I played by myself, and lived in a fantasy world. I didn’t have friends till I was eight or nine. The headmistress of my primary school told my mother that she thought I was backward and needed to go to a special school. My mother said, “He’s not a stupid boy,” and the head said, “He gives that impression.” ’
Being funny became his defence. He had to make the bullies laugh, he said, or they would give him a kicking.
The twins were separated permanently when the rebellious Maggie, pregnant at 17, left for Canada. John adored and missed her all his life, and spoke to her on the phone every week.
With the family fractured, John was left lonely and confused. One night, aged 18, he got drunk in a pub and staggered home to tell his mother he was gay. ‘I let it all hang out, but I was so panicked by her reaction — horror — that I backtracked.’
One night, aged 18, he got drunk in a pub and staggered home to tell his mother he was gay. ‘I let it all hang out, but I was so panicked by her reaction — horror — that I backtracked’
They never spoke of it again. There was no question of discussing it with his father, also called John, who frightened him with his short temper and mood swings — full of jokes one minute, bitter and angry the next.
After doing a masters in English literature at Bangor University, Sessions abandoned his PhD to study acting at Rada, but could never decide whether he wanted to be a comedian or a serious performer. He tried to combine both, with the result that he never felt a success at either.
The world didn’t see his self-doubt. At the height of Spitting Image, in 1987, he starred in Porterhouse Blue, an adaptation of the caustic Tom Sharpe novel with Ian Richardson and David Jason. It was a huge success with critics and viewers alike.
Every chat show host was desperate to interview him. Terry Wogan asked him to demonstrate his talent for improvisation and, on the spur of the moment, Sessions turned to fellow guest Betty Marsden and chatted her up, like a drunken Glaswegian in a bar.
Marsden was thrilled: ‘Do it as J. R. Ewing,’ she gasped, and Sessions slipped seamlessly into Texan. Down the end of the sofa, Coronation Street’s William Roache called out: ‘Now be Prince Charles.’
Instantly, Sessions was transformed. His back went rigid, he clasped his hands nervously, and he mumbled: ‘I think it was Laurens van der Post who said, “The most exciting thing you can do to a woman is sit there and quote some old-fashioned writer with a centre parting, and bore her stupid”.’ All of it was invented on the spot.
Sessions provided the voice of the Norman Tebbit Spitting Image puppet in the 1980s
Wogan loved it so much, he invited Sessions back on to his teatime show a few weeks later. BBC2’s comedy commissioners were in awe as well, and gave the impressionist a series of six one-man shows called Tall Tales — freewheeling conversations between a cast of characters, all played by Sessions without cuts or costume changes.
In 1991, he starred in Moliere’s misanthropic satire Tartuffe, or The Impostor, as a religious hypocrite. The play was directed by Sir Peter Hall at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End, and Sessions baffled audiences by playing the character in different ways on alternate nights — first as a weak but sympathetic man, and then as a psychopath.
This, he admitted to Clive Anderson, was something ‘you’re not supposed to do, when you’re being a serious luvvie. A lot of the critics have found that a bit wacky.’ When he looked back on his career, Sessions would talk of these as his ‘twinkly years’ when he could do nothing wrong. It all came to a crashing end, shortly before his 40th birthday.
Sessions, pictured left, was outed by a journalist in 1994 while promoting a play about a gay man called My Night With Reg. His mother died six weeks later and his father developed dementia
His relationship with his parents was more fractious than ever. In the middle of the Moliere run, he went home for Christmas and got into a drunken row with his father. Pulling his building society book out of his pocket, he shoved it in the older man’s face to show him how much money he was making.
‘It was horrible,’ he said later, ‘like a demonic version of one of my own shows. Me doing him hitting me as a child.’
At the same time, he saw himself as a fraud. When he talked to serious actors, the ones he lampooned so mercilessly on Spitting Image, it was like talking, he said, to God. He felt inadequate.
In 1994, promoting a play about a gay man called My Night With Reg, at the Royal Court Theatre, he told a journalist that he was gay — and then begged her not to print it because, he told her, he hadn’t told his parents. ‘In that case,’ the interviewer retorted, ‘you’d better phone them now.’
The piece was published, outing him, but he never did discuss it with his family. His mother died six weeks later and his father, racked with grief, slipped into dementia.
Devastated, Sessions discovered he could no longer remember lines. One night at the Royal Court, he dried up so badly he had to walk off stage and consult the script.
The best remedy, he realised long after, would be to throw himself into theatre work, one play after another. Instead, mortified, he hid from audiences for almost 20 years.
More recently, Sessions caused controversy by his opposition to Scottish independence and later his support for Brexit and Nigel Farage
The highlight of his later career was the sketch show Stella Street, co-starring Phil Cornwell, which imagined all the world’s most famous people living on one suburban road — where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ran the corner shop. The lowlights were too many to list.
Sessions didn’t make life easier for himself with an appearance on Question Time and a series of interviews in which he espoused political views that made him a pariah among fellow actors.
It wasn’t just his staunch opposition to Scottish independence. What really made him enemies was his support for Brexit. ‘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 reaction of friends and fans to that saddened him. For years, faced with his cavalcades of impressions and flights of fancy, people begged to know who ‘the real John Sessions’ was.
When he finally found the courage to show the world, they wanted somebody else.