SEAN Hughes was born in London. His parents moved back to Ireland when he was around school-going age. “It was one of Dad’s practical jokes,” he likes to say, “– making me move to Dublin when I was five years old in 1970 in the height of the Troubles and sending me over there with a cockney accent. It was a nightmare.”
At first, the family lived for a spell in Whitehall. One colourful feature of life in the neighbourhood was the presence of the flame-haired lead singer of The Dubliners. Hughes’s father used to go out of his way to help the troubadour.
“Initially, we lived with my granny, from my dad’s side,” he says. “It was north Dublin, which was very grim, even though Luke Kelly lived on the same road. That was our claim to fame. My dad would give him lifts to places even if it was out of his way. I used to ask: ‘Dad, why is there a man with a really big beard in the car?’ ”
Hughes has an interesting mix of republican and loyalist roots. His grandfather on his father’s side fought with the Black and Tans. His grandfather on his mother’s side — who is from Rathcormac, Co Cork, close to Fermoy — was part of Tom Barry’s Flying Column during the War of Independence, which landed him in prison.
“A cousin recently found a statement from the British government,” says Hughes, “which they took from my grandfather. I was very young when we were down there on holidays and never really spoke to him about [his time as a fighting rebel] when he was alive. And also the old IRA didn’t really like to talk about it too much.”
Hughes is, however, happy to talk about an early, abortive sexual encounter he had in Co Cork. “I can’t remember what the situation was but we were camping near Blarney. I was with a Cork girl who was a lot more experienced than me and she was up for it, but I was, like, about 16 years of age. I was at school with the Christian Brothers so I didn’t even know what women’s breasts looked like.
“She wanted to have sex and I kind of said, ‘No,’ and that expression came into my life for the first time when she went, ‘Go fla a cat,’ which is a very Cork expression. If I had any balls about me I would have lost my virginity in Cork.”
It was around this time that Hughes started to dabble in comedy. Watching a live Richard Pryor comedy video had piqued his interest, putting in mind the possibility of a career as a comic. He always loved kidding around, too.
“We did a Christmas show at the school when I was in fifth year in secondary school,” he says. “At the time, Bob Monkhouse used to do a show where he always had American comics on as guests. I heard a brilliant joke from one of them. I said it to my mate, Morgan: ‘You should do this joke.’ I didn’t tell him I’d seen it on television the night before. He gets on stage and does it, and someone from the audience goes: ‘Heard that on telly last night!’
“Even at 50, I still like a practical joke. I’ve a friend who comes around, a girl, who is always drinking 7 Up, and I always put a little bit of this horrible health drink into it, which makes it taste really grim. I still smile thinking about things like that.”
Hughes moved to London in the mid-1980s, bunking down in a one-bed apartment with fellow Irish comic Michael Redmond, while they both did the live comedy circuit in the city. In 1990, Hughes won the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, while still only 24 years of age, and is still the youngest winner of the prestigious gong.
Within a couple of years, the acclaimed Sean’s Show on Channel 4, in which a charming, slacker version of himself ponders life’s zany aspects and the trials of unrequited love: “You say stupid things to the person you’re in love with, like, ‘Here’s all my money’.”
The show was such a ratings hit it catapulted him into a rock’n’roll lifestyle. After life stand-up gigs, he’d spend an hour signing autographs before going out to party with the Britpop generation.
“At the time, I was drinking way too much,” he says. “The Cure brought me down to Bath to hang out with them while they were recording an album. They’re one of those bands who sleep during the day and play all night.
“At half four in the morning, Robert Smith turned to me and said, ‘Should you and me go out and watch the sunrise together?’ I’m not really a spirits kind of guy. I’m more a wine drinker. He drinks brandy so he brings out a bottle of brandy. He had also brought out a mandolin. So we’re sitting there, watching the sun come up together. He’s singing The Cure’s hits, just to me, serenading me, and I’m that pissed that I go, I think it was in the middle of ‘Love Cat’s: ‘I’m off to bed.’ That was when I realised my drinking was getting out of control.”
Hughes stopped drinking alcohol a long time ago. After several years as a team captain on the popular TV panel show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he gave up that lucrative pay cheque, too. He felt the show was getting repetitive.
“I was so proud of Sean’s Show. I wanted that to be my legacy,” he adds. “The more I did the Buzzcocks, the more people were coming up to me, ‘Eh, I saw you on the Buzzcocks.’ I certainly didn’t want to be remembered as the guy on the Buzzcocks.
“I was also getting on a bit. I think they used to record it on a Monday. They’d ring you up and you’d ask, ‘Who are the guests?’ And I’d think, I have no idea who any of these people are. I just thought: I have to get out of here.
“It was quite brave [to walk away] because I was getting paid a lot of money, but I’m quite frugal. Working class people can go one way or the other — spunk it all away, or look for bargains in supermarkets, and I’m one of the latter.”