Feature - Sean Hughes

Renaissance man

Sean Hughes tells Susan Walker why he’s going back to his stand-up roots

After 40, the old joke goes, everyone gets the face they deserve. Sean Hughes has had the same hangdog expression for years but he maintains that he hasn’t lost the drive which made him a star in his 20s. ‘When I started out I was full of young comic ambition,’ he explains. ‘Young comics just want to succeed. Now I’m older I’ve still got the ambition, but it’s the ambition to do something really good.’

It’s an attitude which goes some way to explaining Hughes’ return to stand-up after an absence which has lasted for the best part of this century. ‘The stand-up was running on empty,’ confesses the 41-year-old comedian, who is appearing at the Glasgow Comedy Festival. Clearly rejuvenated after the break, he adds, ‘But this year is all about stand-up.’

Yet, when Hughes started out, he was already doing something really, really good, becoming in 1990 the youngest winner of the Perrier Award (until fellow southern Irish wag Dylan Moran nicked that crown six years on). He then took his leftfield blarney onto Channel 4 and became a cult TV star with Sean’s Show.

But with such lightning fast glory comes the inevitable pitfalls. ‘After two series they wanted me to do more but I toured the show and the audience was all 14-year-old girls who knew I was off the telly,’ he recalls. ‘They’d just scream and weren’t interested in the material. Autograph sessions lasted longer than the show. I hated it.’

Another downside of fame was having his private life scrutinised. ‘It’s very hard for me to maintain relationships, because when you’re in the public domain you’re very open to gossip. The two things I always hear back are that I’m a womaniser and I’m gay,’ says Hughes, who is currently single.

For a comic mired in the Irish storytelling tradition, a literary career was the obvious way out of the theatres. With his books and short stories (from revenge drama The Detainees to collected thoughts about God and the National Lottery in The Grey Are), he began to carve out new roles for himself.

These included a spell in ITV Sunday evening drama The Last Detective as Peter Davison’s sidekick and voicing the part of a shark on the children’s animation series Rubbadubbers. He also appeared in As You Like It in London’s West End. During the four month run he started throwing in ad-libs and got a great response, reminding him how much he enjoyed writing his own comedy material. He discovered there was a whole new audience out there.

‘It was weird, I had people coming to see me via so many different routes - those who know me as the voice of Rubbadubbers, fans of The Last Detective, Buzzcocks devotees and people who saw my stand up last time round,’ he says. ‘At my first warm up there was an 11-year-old kid in the front row. I warned the parents, “I’ll take it easy in the first half, but I’ll go hardcore in the second act.” When I came back after the interval they’d gone. So I let rip.’

Listening to him talk, it’s clear that Hughes is a man whose one true ambition is not to be trapped in a single place for too long. It’s why he left stand-up and it’s probably why he quit his plum role as team captain opposite Phill Jupitus in Never Mind the Buzzcocks. ‘It was a great show, and not to belittle it, but it really required only one brain cell. And panel shows get you into places you never want to go. I was asked if I’d like to go on Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing. It was confirmation that nobody has any idea what I stand for.’

While he may be appalled at the very thought of being asked to appear on a primetime personality-fest, he’s not been entirely averse to chucking his hat into the reality ring. In 2001, he showed up on Celebrity Blind Man’s Bluff, going from Blackpool to London without the advantages of sight; the following year he spun his way from Auld Reekie to the Big Smoke for Celebrity Wheelchair Challenge and earlier this year, checked into Barnsley General to work as an auxiliary for So You Think You Can Nurse?

But at last he is back to where it all began, having played a one-off in Edinburgh last August and now appearing in Glasgow before jetting off on his Australian tour. ‘My favourite part of the show is the first ten minutes,’ he says. ‘I never know what my opening line is going to be. I just go on stage and see what happens. I tend to read the local paper, which gives me lots of material to kick off with. There was one story I saw that I might keep in for good. It was a true police report; this house was broken into, the burglars went through every room but they took nothing. This family must be going: “how rubbish is our house? They went through every room and they hated everything”.’

It’s barely a shock then, that Hughes will be chatting whimsically on stage about the semi-highs and dramatic lows of having a youngster’s soul trapped in a midlife-riddled body, seeing his parents begin to physically shrink while chatting up girls young enough to have not heard of his early successes.

‘On stage is the safest I feel. I can talk about everything from my perspective and this show is all about accepting that I’m 41 but when I’m drunk I think I’m 25 and when I’m lonely I think I’m 8. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Everyone is dysfunctional, but comedians are the ones who analyse it and if we didn’t strike a chord, you wouldn’t find us funny. That’s what I love about comedy; people know we’re speaking essential truths.’

ABC, Glasgow, Fri 16 Mar.

Good to be back

Sean Hughes isn’t the only comic from the good old days who is currently on the comeback trail

Ben Elton The man partly responsible for two of the finest sitcoms of our generation (The Young Ones and Blackadder) is back on the road and still dividing opinions.

Jo Brand When she heads our way on April Fools Day, will the funniest person ever to fill the guest’s chair on Countdown churn out the gags about periods and weight? Maybe not.

Frank Skinner Having got more or less shot of his Baddielian shackles, the comedian and West Brom fan brings his cheeky chappie, curly-haired wit to Aberdeen in September.

The Goodies Their dramatic Fringe reunion last August has now been followed up with a national tour, though fans might have felt slightly cheated with Bill Oddie’s bits being inserted by VT.

Jenny Eclair The first woman to win the Perrier Award, Eclair did the circuit with a pair of Grumpy Old Women. She’s back again in October being tetchy all on her lonesome.

Lenny Henry The Red Nose Day pioneer and all-round nice guy started the year with a show all about the things which make people laugh in different parts of the country.

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