ARTS / A short note from bedsit land: Show People: 59. Sean Hughes

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The Independent Culture
SEAN HUGHES remembers the precise moment he decided to write his first novel. 'I was on holiday in County Cork and I bought the jotter. I got as far as page one and then I thought I'd go out and play for a bit.' He was nine. The novel still isn't written, though much of the material appeared in the act that made him, in 1990, the youngest winner of the prestigious Perrier Award for comedy. That was followed by the Critics' Award at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival for the play Patrick's Day. Then came the bed-sit-com Sean's Show, on Channel 4 last year, sell- out tours, and now Sean's Shorts, which began on Monday on BBC2.

Hughes's success is built not on telling jokes, an art he claims never to have mastered, but on the surreal observation of everyday life - a life which, to hear him tell it, has consisted largely of alienation, loneliness and an inability to form stable relationships. Perhaps that's why he has such a strong student following. That and his cherubic good looks, of course. In A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes, the show which won the Perrier Award, he claimed: 'I'm not into one-night stands. I can't take that level of commitment . . . the whole night]' It's a humour based on shared emotions; another typical gag runs: 'Are you ever sitting at home and feeling good about yourself but you're actually feeling that lonely that you check to see that the telephone's working?'

'What I try to do,' Hughes says, 'is explore my own weaknesses as a character, which are everyone's weaknesses. It stems from Catholic self-hate. People start off wanting to be pure, but then they realise it's not possible all the time. What I do is I go out on stage and I talk about these things. It makes the audience feel better about themselves.'

I went to see him on Tuesday, the morning after the show before. For one to whom success came relatively early - he is only 27 - he lives frugally in a small Crouch End flat which bears more than a passing resemblance to the student digs of Sean's Show. Rapier-thin and, unusually, taller than he looks on screen, he is vegetarian, smokes fiercely and brings his stage uniform (black Levi's, grey M&S cardie) home with him. I was thinking how unspoilt he seemed, until he told me how he used to live.

He was born in London of working- class Irish parents, who returned to Dublin when he was five, settling in the same suburb, he thinks, that produced Dave Allen. He went to the local Christian Brothers school and entertained thoughts of the priesthood. 'When I was 14 I'd sit at home waiting for my calling,' he says. 'But nothing happened, so I watched soap operas instead.' His schooldays were 'not violent, but quite grubby all the same'. The experience finally instilled in him an atheism which he long ago incorporated into his stage act: 'I'd like to thank God for fucking up my life and at the same time not existing, quite a special skill.' By the age of 19, he was 'fairly messed up. If I hadn't come to London I would have ended up hiding under a bed for the rest of my life.'

London didn't welcome him with open arms. He'd come over as a partner in a double-act, playing 10-minute sets in pubs. But 'we were terrible', and his other half left. He landed in a squat off the Old Kent Road. 'It was despicable - one of the most depressing times of my life,' he says. 'There were three of us living there. We'd have three fortnights of dole money so we'd have a great time for three days and then live on beans.'

After a brief return to Ireland, he decided to change tack. 'I was so bored telling the same jokes every night, I decided to just be myself on stage. I said I'm just going to talk about things and if it doesn't work . . .' He stopped using a script and 'all of a sudden the things that were coming to mind were real things, based on my life'. It's this line that he has pursued ever since.

It's hard to know what to make of the six 10-minute programmes that make up Sean's Shorts - they are really no more than postcards, vignettes of life in London, Manchester, Oxford, Norwich and the isles of Mull and Man. Certainly the amount we learn about life in each destination could be written on a postcard. But if the individual programmes are slight, there is a gentle, cumulative charm, as gags build on gags made earlier in the sequence. This isn't apparent after one episode, which may be why the critical response hasn't been overwhelming.

Hughes is dismissive: 'I always do my television programmes as a linked sequence - if you don't watch it week in week out there are certain things you're not going to get. I know that that's demanding a lot and that's why I get a smaller audience. But I'd rather a small audience than a huge, flippant one.' It's an odd approach, but one that will be familiar to those who have watched his career progress. He shuns the normal outlets of the bright young comic, refusing to do adverts and 'parlour-game- type' programmes.

'If I'm going to be on TV,' he insists, 'I want it always to be in my own space.' It doesn't sound like the ideal way to further a media career, but he doesn't seem bothered. 'I've accepted that not everyone will love me,' he says. 'You're always going to get people who say 'You're shite'. I just go 'Fair enough'.'