The recent death of comedian, actor and writer SEAN HUGHES, at the age of just 51, came as a shock to most people. OLAF TYARANSEN pays tribute to a genuine trailblazer of Irish comedy
When Sean Hughes passed away in London on October 16, following a heart attack brought on by liver cirrhosis, the 51-year-old comedian, actor and writer had already lived almost a decade-and-a-half longer than he’d once expected to.
“The point is that I don’t expect to live forever,” he told Hot Press’ Joe Jackson back in 1993. “I probably expect to be dead within ten years. Not that I’ve any serious illness. It’s just that that’s a thought I constantly live with. And part of it is that things have happened too fast for me. I always wanted to do things with my life and I seem to have done them already. So I’d be happy with another ten years.”
Hughes was 28 at the time of that interview, and pretty much already had the world at his feet. Four years earlier, the impishly-faced, floppily-fringed Dubliner had become the youngest-ever winner of the highly coveted Perrier award for his 1990 Edinburgh festival fringe show, A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes. At that time, most alternative comedy shows in the UK tended to be little more than extended gag-fests. A genuine trailblazer, Hughes innovatively bucked this trend by weaving an actual narrative into his routine. Not that he couldn’t tell a good gag. “I saw my brother fight at the National Stadium,” he once quipped. “It was at a Depeche Mode concert.”
One Night Stand was set in an imaginary bedsit. A few years earlier, he had been living in a very real bedsit in London which he shared fellow Dublin comedian Michael Redmond (who would later star as the ridiculously dreary Father Stone in the classic Father Ted episode ‘Entertaining Father Stone’). The pair had first met on the then fledgling Dublin comedy scene in 1987, at a time when the biggest names in Irish stand-up were old school cabaret stars such as Brendan Grace and Neil Toibin.
“We didn’t actually go over to London together,” Redmond recalls. “We met in a basement club on Dame Street, I can’t remember the name of it, but we got talking, realised there wasn’t much going on in Ireland, and decided to go to London. I went about four weeks before him and we ended up sharing a grotty bedsit in a place called Turnpike Lane.”
Hughes would eventually appear on the covers of the NME and Select, but comedy was then still a few years away from becoming “the new rock ‘n’ roll”. The pair struggled for a time on the London circuit. “We were doing open spots,” says Redmond. “You’d do five minutes, unpaid, and if it went well you’d get a booking. We were doing that for four or five months before we started getting bookings. We didn’t know anyone else in London, so if I had an open spot he would go along with me, and if he had one I would go with him. So we went everywhere together.
“For the first year, that’s what we did. Then I met a woman and we moved into the same flat together. Sean got his own place. After a while I moved to Dublin, then Glasgow, and we lost touch for a long while.”
They might have fallen out of touch, but Redmond couldn’t have been unaware of what his old friend was getting up to. After the Perrier win, Sean Hughes’ career began to really take off. He had a minor role as a record producer in Alan Parker’s The Commitments the following year, but TV is what made him really famous. In 1992, he had his own hugely successful sitcom, the cutely titled Sean’s Show, ostensibly set in his own home.
His stand-up tours were sell-outs. He marked his 30th birthday with a tour called Sean Hughes Is Thirty Somehow, which was broadcast on Channel 4.
Hughes was a big indie music fan, and famously a devotee of Morrissey, Julian Cope and Robert Smith (he even appeared in the video for The Cure single ‘The 13th’). For eleven series, from 1996 to 2002, he was a team captain on TV comedy pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, along with Mark Lamarr and Phill Jupitus. On the day of his death, Jupitus posted an old photograph of the two of them hugging, looking shockingly fresh-faced and young, on his Facebook page. “Today was deeply shocking,” he wrote. “I hadn’t seen him much in recent years. Last time was in the street in Edinburgh. He was enjoying gigging again. We exchanged the standard, ‘We must catch up for a beer sometime’. But we never did.”
Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews knew him a little in the mid-‘90s. “There wasn’t really a huge Irish camaraderie in London at the time,” he recalls. “But when Dylan Moran and Ardal O’Hanlon and Dara O Briain came over, Sean was definitely a trailblazer for them. I just remember that we’d bump into each other from time to time, and talk about stuff. He’d always remember previous conversations that we had. It was a nice quality about him. Kind of unusual. I met Stephen Fry a while ago, and he has the same kind of thing. It’s a nice trait in people. Sean was always quite engaging, you could see why the ladies liked him.”
Hughes might have been popular with the ladies, but he never settled down. A mercurial personality, he didn’t seem to have much talent when it came to romantic relationships. Former friends say that he was terrified of intimacy, and could be deliberately cruel as a way of cutting off the people he loved.
“I guess you could have called us both womanisers,” Mark Lamarr told The Guardian last week. “We were both young, rich and famous. We both had lots of girlfriends. One day he rang me, and it was the only time I remember him reaching out with sadness. He said, ‘I really worry you and I are going to end up being lonely old men.’ I said, ‘I’m not worried, because I like being alone.’ The big sadness is that he didn’t even get to be old. He just got to be lonely.”
Hughes retreated from comedy for a few years after leaving Buzzcocks, and mainly devoted himself to acting and writing. He’d already published novels and books of poetry in the ‘90s, and one more of each followed. He was apparently especially proud of his well-received novel It’s What He Would Have Wanted, published in 2000. His last poetry collection was titled My Struggle to be Decent and Poems of Sadness and Light.
Much to his disappointment, his books weren’t major bestsellers. Acting is what mostly paid the bills. He appeared as Peter Davison’s sidekick in four series of crime show The Last Detective, starred in the long-running West End play Art, and voiced the character of Finbar the Shark in the infants’ TV animation Rubbadubbers. In 2007 he appeared for a time in Coronation Street, where he played the character of Pat, a love rat travelling salesman.
He eventually returned to stand-up and, while his celebrity status had undoubtedly dimmed, the work was as good as ever. His 2012 show Life Becomes Noises dealt with his late father’s alcoholism and was widely acclaimed. Both father and son drank heavily, but their relationship was always strained anyway.
Although he quit drinking and smoking for a time, it didn’t last. “Apparently I’m tedious when sober,” he told the Irish Times. “People were uncomfortable when I wasn’t drinking. It made them question their own habits.”
His alcoholism is what ultimately killed him. “The last time I saw him was in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” recalls Michael Redmond. “I hadn’t seen him for about five or six years. We only spoke for about ten minutes, but he didn’t look well. He looked quite poorly.” He claimed to still be sober during what turned out to be his last-ever Hot Press interview in February 2013. “I was drinking a lot out of boredom,” he told Roisin Dwyer. “I thought, ‘You’re not doing this for any sort of fun. I was starting to spiral a little. So I thought I should stop. So I let it spiral a bit more because I knew I was going to stop… but it was getting to the stage where I’d go, ‘Have I got a bit of a cough. I should have a hot whiskey!’”
In that same Hot Press interview, he touched again on the subject of his own mortality. “I think Irish people in general are very aware of their own mortality,” he proffered. “I’ve been aware of mine since my first moment of consciousness. Now I’m at that age where, if I had a heart attack, it would be awful. And yet it wouldn’t be a big shock. It’s a nonsense as well because I was in the  tsunami and I survived that, and yet two days later I was back on the couch watching Neighbours. It wasn’t life-changing. I think one in every four days I wake up remembering that it’s a joy that I have all my faculties.”
His poignant final tweet was posted on October 8th and simply said “In hospital.” However, he reportedly suffered the heart attack at his home in Crouch End (his friend and fellow comedian Adam Hills wrote that he had made plans to leave the house to “a couple of charities”). Needless to say, there have been countless tweets and tributes from comedians, fans and celebrities since the news of his death broke. Irish comic author Paul Howard, creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, put it well when he tweeted: “Irish comedy in the 1990s. Linehan and Mathews were Lennon and McCartney to me. D’Unbelievables were the Kinks. But Sean Hughes was Elvis.”
“I think that Sean will be remembered as a pioneer,” muses Michael Redmond. “I’ve heard stories about how people found him difficult. I knew him only in the early years, but I think he’ll be remembered largely with affection. I’d be surprised if he isn’t.”
Sean Hughes, 1965 – 2017. RIP.
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