Spike Milligan insisted on having the words “I told you I was ill” written on his tombstone. In the case of the comedian Sean Lock, who has died of skin cancer at 58, such an epithet could be similarly inscribed, although in his case it might be his comment: “I hope I don’t get Alzheimer’s.”
It was key to Lock’s laconic, world-weary persona that he dealt with an illness that he had suffered from much of his adult life, and career, in the same shrugging, stoic fashion that he seemed to approach the various ups and downs of his work. Yet underneath the apparently grumpy act that he adopted was a marvellously versatile comic performer who bore comparison to such deadpan stars as Tony Hancock and Bill Hicks, both of whom he resembled to an extent.
As a performer, he was both thrillingly unpredictable and reassuringly gloomy
Lock was born in Woking in 1963, and, after an undistinguished early life that included everything from working as a labourer on building sites — where he developed his eventually fatal skin cancer due to overexposure to the sun — to the more outré profession of working as a goatherd for a hippie in France, he began his career supporting Rob Newman and David Baddiel in 1993, appearing in skits in their Wembley Arena show Newman and Baddiel in Pieces. The Wembley gigs were famously the first time that any comedian had sold out a venue more associated with large-scale musical gigs, leading the excitable to describe comedy as being the new rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly, many of Lock’s peers spent the Nineties in a state of drink and drug-fuelled over-excitement, believing that they were the new Rolling Stones, only for their careers to fall into the gutter when they ceased to amuse their audiences.
Yet Lock did not develop any wild egomania, but instead concentrated on building up his own career while working alongside the better-known. He appeared alongside Lee Evans, then at the peak of his fame, in The World of Lee Evans, and wrote for the likes of Bill Bailey and Harry Hill. When he wasn’t working for others, he adopted an unusually disciplined and single-minded approach to his comic writing. As he later said, “I go to my office nearly every day, and I’ll sit there for six or seven hours and come up with ideas, and that’s the only way I can justify turning up on stage.”
As a performer, he was both thrillingly unpredictable and reassuringly gloomy, and quickly built a significant reputation. He won the much-coveted award for best stand-up at 2000’s British Comedy Awards, and continued to enjoy enormous success thereafter. He remained clear-sighted about the ups and downs of his profession, and once remarked that, “Whenever a young comic asks me for advice I only have two things to say. One is to try and do what you think is genuinely funny and the other is just do loads of gigs.”
His first solo entry into mainstream broadcasting was 1998’s Radio 4 show 15 Minutes of Misery, which established his Eeyore-ish comic persona as a misanthrope listening in to the various activities of his neighbours in a South London tower block. The series then led to Lock being offered his own sitcom, 15 Storeys High, which increasingly seems to be one of the greatest comedies of its time, but which came about at least a decade too early. Its first series was broadcast in 2002, and revolved around two characters, the misanthropic, cynical Vince Clark (played, naturally, by Lock) and the ever-ebullient Errol Spears (Benedict Wong), who served as the butt of Vince’s gallows humour and morose banter.
Sean Lock was one of the greatest comedians that Britain produced in the past half-century
To describe 15 Storeys High as “surreal” does not quite come close to capturing its unique appeal. It resembles Peep Show, if the characters had no interest whatsoever in sex or other people but instead had spent a great deal of time immersing themselves in the more difficult works of Samuel Beckett, fifteen storeys up. (There is probably something of JG Ballard’s High Rise in its DNA, too.) Yet if that makes it sound inaccessible or unfunny, this does it a disservice. Thanks to a stellar cast of supporting actors that includes everyone from Toby Jones and Bailey to Tracey-Anne Oberman and Peter Serafinowicz, the episodes worked beautifully as self-contained and hilarious half-hour comedies, but also cumulatively showed Lock’s skill at creating an offbeat and wholly absorbing comic universe in which the topsy-turvy became commonplace.
Needless to say, it was not obvious mainstream viewing, and has all but disappeared from memory. Lock morosely but accurately commented that: “I hate moaning comics, but I do find it very frustrating when I switch on BBC Four or BBC Two to find they’re repeating some piece of crap sitcom. I think: Why don’t they show mine? Not because I’d make any money, it would just be nice for it to be shown.” One hopes that his untimely demise will lead people to rediscover the show, and reassess it as one of the most engagingly strange comedies ever to have been commissioned by the BBC.
Lock may have been disappointed by the lack of success for 15 Storeys High, but he soon bounced back to participate as a regular team captain on the show 8 Out of 10 Cats and its spin-off 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Lock’s witty, laconic persona was well used in the many series that he appeared in, and even if it sometimes seemed as if audiences were getting “Lock lite”, he continued to be a vital, hilarious presence in his own live shows, as well as the benefit galas that he frequently participated in.
There were other activities, too. Somewhat incongruously, he co-wrote the script for the Zola adaptation This Filthy Earth in 2001, and proved himself an enjoyably spiky presence on many panel shows on the TV channel Dave, although he later claimed that he’d had to restrict his appearances to the (presumably very lucrative) 8 Out of 10 Cats as he was bored with strangers shouting “Dave!” at him in the street.
There would have been many more shows, and appearances, and jokes had he lived, but, as ever, we must be grateful for what we had. Sean Lock was one of the greatest comedians that Britain produced in the past half-century, and the tributes from peers such as Ricky Gervais, Bailey and Ross Noble all indicate how universally popular he was as both a man and a performer. Not bad for someone who described himself as “a miserable, authoritarian guy”. Truly, Sean, you were the master.
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