Monday, 6 August 2007

Biography 4: John Sessions

This week, we look at the life and times of Mr John Sessions.

Born John Gibb Marshall in 1953, John Sessions would later change his name when he became a performer. Sessions graduated with an MA in English literature from the University of Wales and later studied for a PhD in Ontario. Though he detested his experience in Canada, it was here that he first showed his skill at improvised comedy and stage acting. After he attended RADA he began to work in the small venue comedy circuit in the early 1980’s. He started with largely improvised freewheeling fantasy monologues, often topping a double bill with French and Saunders.

John Sessions made two film appearances in the 80’s but found these roles uncomfortable. He soon began to exhibit his strengths in improvised comedy with his one-man stage show Napoleon, which ran in London's West End. His ability to improvise landed him a spot as the first regular contestant on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?” on radio and television. It was here that he earned a reputation for being a swot because he has great literary knowledge. However, he also became known for his ability to convincingly portray accents and characters in a variety of styles.

In 1989, Sessions starred in his one-man TV show, John Sessions. 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. After other similar shows he starred in Stella Street (1997) in which he plays a variety of middle-aged actors living in a suburban street, alongside Phil Cornwell.

Increasingly Sessions has returned to formal acting, with parts ranging from James Boswell in Boswell and Johnson's Tour of the Western Isles (1993) to Doctor Prunesquallor in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (2000). He has also appeared in some Shakespeare adaptations, appearing in; Henry V (1989) and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). He also played Philostrate in the 1999 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Salerio in 2004's The Merchant of Venice. In the recent revival of Jackanory, Sessions made two appearances to tell the story of Muddle Earth.

On radio, one of Sessions’ most memorable shows came when he guested in 1997 on the regular BBC Radio 3 show Private Passions, not as himself but as a 112-year-old Viennese percussionist called Manfred Sturmer. He told anecdotes about Brahms, Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and others so realistically that some listeners did not realise that it was a hoax.

On QI, he has demonstrated his knowledge of the birth and deaths of many famous artists and composers, calling such an ability a “sickness”. He was subject to a Luvvie Alarm given to him for name-dropping Robert Redford (Stephen Fry was also given an alarm when he mentioned the Duke and Duchess of Westminster).

Given his impressive performances on QI he may be disappointed that he has only won once on his second show. His fans will also be disappointed that he did not attend any of the recordings in series E. One hopes that he will return in series F.

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