A revolutionary Irish comedian in Britain: Sean’s show wasn’t all laughs

Sean (John) Hughes obituary: Born November 10th, 1965 – Died October 16th, 2017


“I’d hate to think I’ll be remembered for Buzzcocks. I was so proud of what I did on Sean’s Show – I’d like that to be my legacy.” The battle for recognition between those two, and the balance between art and populism, seemed to dog comedian Sean Hughes’s life. The balance, too, between his undoubted talent and his sometimes troubled life have figured in commentary since his death this week aged 51.

Hughes was a team captain on the BBC2 music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks from 1996 to 2002, and though it married his twin interests of comedy and music – he was a big Smiths fan – he was bemused about how popular the ephemeral gameshow was, and sometimes dismissive, calling it “very easy, lazy TV”. He was thrilled with a letter he received after his novel The Detainees was published in 1997: “I love it when people suss me out. It was like – “I love it, and PS - Why Never Mind The Buzzcocks?”

He will probably be best remembered for his influential role at a formative point in stand-up comedy, and for genuine innovation and inventiveness in his early 1990s Channel 4 sitcom Sean’s Show. He had artistic autonomy there and he made the most of it: “They let me do anything I wanted to do and it was brilliant.”

He was born John Hughes, the middle of three boys, in London in 1965 (he changed to Sean because of another John Hughes in Equity). His family moved to Dublin when he was six, to live with his grandmother in Whitehall, later settling in Firhouse, “a grey suburb on the edge of Dublin”.

‘Very male household’

His father worked on the telephone exchange and was a driving instructor. He later said: “It was a very male household and I think that was hard for my mum. There wasn’t a lot of tenderness. I was very shy with girls and didn’t really understand them.”

Seventies Dublin was grim; a cockney accent was no help socially. “Secondary school was godawful. Around that time it was okay for kids to be punched in the face by teachers.”

At 14 seeing Richard Pryor in concert on TV inspired him. “I was from a poor working-class family and I wanted to do stand-up. They felt I had delusions of grandeur.” He tried comedy at school, and did stints on RTÉ’s TV Gaga and Megamix. But the bright comedy lights of London beckoned and he moved in the late 1980s, a period of vibrancy in stand-up. He was innovative as a performer and was the youngest comic to win the prestigious Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1990, aged 24, with A One Night Stand With Sean Hughes, weaving his stand-up into a personal narrative, set in an imaginary bedsit. That show is credited with changing the texture of comedy at the time. Hughes was young, cool, smart, creative and he rode the wave of success.

Sean’s Show in 1992, combined stand-up in front of an audience with sitcom. It deconstructed the classic structure by breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience and comment on the action, with surreal touches such as musicians living under his bed.

His 1990s live tours were very rock ’n’ roll but Hughes eschewed the commercialisation of stand-up and later the celebrity game; he was more interested in being creative and making art.

Hosted radio shows

He wrote poetry and novels (including It’s What He Would Have Wanted in 2000) – though not comedies nor celeb cash-ins – and hosted radio shows on London stations. As an actor he was in four series of the gentle TV crime show The Last Detective (2003-07) and Coronation Street (2007), where he played love rat Pat, a travelling salesman.

On stage he did Shakespeare (Touchstone in As You Like It in 2005), Art, and was Mr Perks in The Railway Children in 2015. Other acting ranged from Casualty to the lead in a film of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon in 2002, to a remake of The Signal Box for RTÉ with David Kelly, to voicing Finbar the Shark in Rubbadubbers.

Later he returned to stand-up, and seemed to find his mojo again. Life Becomes Noises (2012) dealt with the death of his father from leukaemia and he was frank about his dad’s alcoholism; both father and son drank heavily, but they weren’t close.

Hughes was thoughtful, talented, and revolutionary in his long-form stand-up and sitcoms; he wove serious material and poetry into his comedy, but was also great at one-liners and quick on his feet.

His former agent describes him as a “poetic, lonely soul”; he seems to have feared intimacy, and had a troubled relationship with alcohol.

He lived alone in his house in Crouch End, north London. He had girlfriends and friends, especially in comedy, but no long-term relationship. In 2015 he said: “I have lived on my own for most of my life and I am very happy.”

He is survived by his brothers, Alan and Martin.