Heaven knows he's miserable now

Reasons for Sean Hughes to be miserable: one, two, three. One: "your parents lie to you when you're 10. They say you're gonna get married, have kids... and I, like an idiot, believed it all". Two: "the bubbly people in the bar on TFI Friday who are so delighted to be part of that inaneness". Three: New Labour's vision of shiny, happy morons watching television - a medium watched by "stupid people". Dissing marriage, Evans sycophants and Blairism is fair enough - if somewhat obligatory - these days, but isn't it a mite hypocritical to bite the hand that feeds you? After all it was the telly - or "opium of the masses" as Hughes puts it - that brought his maudlin humour, puppy-dog expression and come-to-bed eyes to national attention. That was the springboard to more meaningful pursuits like poetry, novel-writing and acting. That allowed him "a brilliant opportunity to focus in on ideas and talk about stuff I'd never been able to talk about before".

His Never Mind The Buzzcocks ordeal over for another week, the veteran of such TV classics as Sean's Show and Sean's Shorts takes a swig from his Becks and a drag off his ciggie. Throughout the two hours of genial banter, knockabout bitchiness and ritual quiff-baiting (like Vic and Bob on Shooting Stars, the contestants find Mark Lamarr's hairstyle an endless source of amusement), his disdainful demeanour has suggested a slow and painful descent into Hell.

The other lads had great fun during the show's recording. Phill Jupitus made numerous references to Lamarr's neck-brace, Mark took the rise out of Jonathan Ross's speech impediment and Mark and Jonathan both made fattist remarks at Phill's expense. But the semi-detached Sean just sat back and smouldered. Declining to embroil himself in the fluff and nonsense of has-been identity parades and rock-lyric trivia, the audience was left wondering just what an angst-ridden existentialist like him was doing in a quiz show like this. Occasionally he joined in, ironically waving off The Man Who Played Bass Alongside Jimi Hendrix On The Lulu Show, but you got the feeling he would rather be back in his Crouch End bedroom, with his cat Maggie and dog Bill, listening to the first Tindersticks album while writing another treatise on disease, drugs, drink and depression; when not slumming it on Buzzcocks, Hughes has been "sweating blood" on a new tome entitled The Death of Culture in yet another attempt to cast off the shackles of niceness.

The Detainees, which came out last September, was hailed by the Irish Independent as "the most important novel of the decade" - although Time Out unkindly dismissed it as the work of "a wanker". "There are so many people with no soul out there," he muses. "I know soul is a word that people scoff at, but I think it's their loss." He once stopped seeing a woman because she liked TFI. "Those people in the bar are just sheep. Its only one step away from the Nazis."

As we have come to realise over the past few years, inside every stand- up comedian there is a sit-down novelist clamouring to get out. In joining the despised ranks of Fry, Elton, Baddiel and Newman, Hughes is aware of setting himself up as an easy target for the literary snobs. "At 32, I can't go on stage and go, `It's weird if you put a plug here' - you know, some stupid observational thing. Maybe I'm old before my time, but I just need to talk about things with a bit more depth. With pop culture it's just 30-second concentration spans."

Whether his audience will let him plumb the dark depths of the soul is another matter. Surely his fans must go on about his early, funnier shows. "Nope. What has been happening is I now get alienated people who write to me and say, `You filled a void in my life'. He hates people who clap in the wrong places or hypocritically laugh at gags about John Denver's death but not Princess Diana's. "I seem to be the only person in the country who never met the woman. If I get a laugh for a bad joke, I berate an audience."

A confirmed miserabilist, he loves music to slit your wrists to, like Tindersticks, Mark Eitzel and Julian Cope. He once wrote an essay about Cope which concluded: "At this stage in his career he was taking his pop star hat off and tying on assorted others. This was a risk, as I doubt he was aware how good he could be." Food for thought. In the BBC Green Room, Buzzcocks guest Cerys (from Catatonia) kisses him goodbye. "Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame," he smiles.

He sighs: "After the next series I think I'll quit."

`Never Mind The Buzzcocks' returns to BBC2 on Friday, 27 February at 9.30pm.

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