Sean Hughes was a comedian and television personality whose simple headline career arc – a decade-long ascent from cult alternative comedy favourite in the early 1990s to household name through a regular role on BBC2 music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks – masked a deeper, richer, yet in many ways unfulfilled talent. His contradictions, at least, made for artistic diversity; he was the youngest winner of the Perrier Award (now the Edinburgh Comedy Award) at the age of 24 in 1990, a published poet and novelist, and an actor in such straight series as Coronation Street and Casualty.
Some of his earliest gigs took place at the Comedy Store in London in 1987, and within three years he had claimed the Perrier for A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes in 1990. A year later he had a small role as a record producer in Alan Parker’s film The Commitments and in 1992 and 1993 he brought Sean’s Show to Channel 4 for two series. It was an of-its-time cult success, particularly with students, for its wilfully off the wall and experimental format.
The show saw Hughes apparently resident in his own North London flat, conversing with the audience through the fourth wall, a spider who was the reincarnated Elvis Presley and answerphone messages from Samuel Beckett, and indulging his love for Morrissey and The Smiths by waving a bunch of gladioli around. The series spawned a spin-off book of poetry and writing sketches, Sean’s Book.
A supporter of Crystal Palace and a huge music fan, particularly of indie groups of the 1980s, Hughes managed to get various figures of the time involved in the show before it ended, including the footballers Vinnie Jones and Gareth Southgate, and Robert Smith of The Cure (Hughes later appeared in the video for The Cure’s 1996 single The 13th).
He also loved Julian Cope’s Teardrop Explodes and The Wedding Present, and was one of the inaugural team captains of BBC2’s comedy music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks from 1996 to 2002, alongside Phill Jupitus and host Mark Lamarr. In contrast to his wry observational style on the show, Hughes’ other work took a turn for the darker around this time, with the confessional show Alibis for Life and the novels The Detainees (1998) and It’s What He Would Have Wanted (2000), the latter on the subject of suicide. Like his hero Morrissey, he developed a more pronounced anti-authority stance as he grew older, railing against Tony Blair’s government and taking pride in his refusal to do advertising or participate in commercial television beyond Buzzcocks in the late ‘90s.
His attitude softened swiftly, however. From 2003 to 2007 he played opposite Peter Davison in the gentle ITV crime drama The Last Detective, from 2007 he was serial womaniser Pat Stanaway in Coronation Street, and from 2003 to 2006 he was the voice of Finbar the Shark in the CBeebies series Rubbadubbers, while in 2002 he played lead in Terence Ryan’s film adaptation of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon and in 2010 he appeared in Tony Hawks’ film Round Ireland With a Fridge.
One of his final roles was as stationmaster Mr Perks in the stage musical version of The Railway Children at the King’s Cross Theatre in 2015.
Sean Hughes was born John Hughes in Archway, London, in November 1965, the son of working class Irish Catholic migrant parents John and Theresa (Terry), who met one another in the city. At the age of six the family returned to Ireland, where Hughes says he was bullied at school, partly because of an English accent which didn’t stand him in good stead during the height of the Troubles in the 1970s.
He had an elder brother, Alan, and a younger brother, Martin, although he has said he didn’t relate well to other young men; only Richard Pryor and other great comedians – particularly Americans – whose work he discovered in his teens.
At the age of 16, pushing trollies at the local supermarket, he knew he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, even though his parents’ Catholic sensibilities and work ethic saw a full-time job at the same store as a far more worthy career.
In particular, his relationship with his father was difficult, and the pair spoke little when Hughes returned to London as an adult.
In later life, as his father was dying of leukaemia, the two reached a reconciliation of sorts, and in creating is 2012 stand-up tour Life Becomes Noises, Hughes came to accept that the men may have had much in common. Both used alcohol to excess and the detriment of their relationships with others, for example.
“I don’t suffer fools, I got that from my father, that will never change,” Hughes told the Guardian at the time of the show. “One reason I haven’t got children is that I’m too selfish, but I think each generation looks to their parents’ faults to make them better people.”
Among those who knew, worked with or interviewed him, many differing reports of Hughes’ character have emerged, but it’s known that he could be abrasive and difficult on occasion.
Receiving treatment for cirrhosis of the liver at the time, Sean Hughes died tragically early at the age of 51, and is survived by his brothers Alan and Martin, sisters-in-law and four nieces and nephew. Presciently, he once told the Big Issue in an interview, “I’m 43 now – two thirds of the way through my life – because all comics die before they’re 60.”
Despite the varied nature of his work, it was in his first calling as a stand-up comedian that Hughes’ voice found its best expression. “Stand-up is pretty much who I am,” he has said. “Everything else is a cheat. I have to be asked to do television and other things, but I do stand-up because that’s what I do.”
He viewed himself as a kind of court jester in the truest sense, one with a unique and privileged power to critique society. “I don’t want to be a performing monkey,” he told the Islington Gazette in 2010. “I just want to go, ‘This is what I want to say, I hope you agree with it’. You don’t realise this power that we have.
“And if you go on stage and just speak truth, people will love it.”