This article is from 2007.
Having written one of the UK’s finest ever sitcoms, Sean Lock is back pounding the beat on the stand-up stage. Brian Donaldson talks to the man who has finally left bitterness behind
When I first ring Sean Lock, he politely asks if I could call back in five minutes. Is his kitchen on fire? Could he be in the middle of trying to talk down a suicidal neighbour? Has a cat suddenly fallen asleep in the chair he uses for interviews? No, he just needs to make himself a cup of ethical tea (the addition of milk and two perhaps a hangover from his days in the building trade). It actually feels as though I’ve been dropped into the middle of a scene from 15 Storeys High, Lock’s lo-fi, high-quality BBC2 comedy which lasted two series and, with proper backing, could have ultimately been regarded by the entire nation in the same lauded terms as landmark modern sitcoms such as The Office or Father Ted. Still, had this been Vince (Lock’s anti-social swimming instructor) on the blower, he would more likely have left the phone off the hook and allowed me to listen in frustration to the mechanics of the brew-making process.
As it is, when we do reconnect Lock is politeness personified, only really getting annoyed whenever the BBC gets mentioned. The fake phone-in scandal has reached fever pitch and he is in no mood for charity. ‘It’s really terrible, disgusting,’ he quietly, ever so calmly spits. ‘But no one ever gets sacked at the BBC.’ Lock’s slow-burning irritation with the corporation is perfectly understandable given its seeming lack of support for 15 Storeys High which was plummeted into bizarre graveyard slots despite the widespread acclaim of the critics and the cast-iron evidence of a burgeoning cult fanbase.
‘It was a very frustrating experience in many ways,’ he admits. ‘People have asked me if I was bitter and at the time I was, but one of the things you learn in this business is that you don’t take things personally.’ He may no longer feel bitter, but he is clearly still proud of the show which brought together an unlikely landlord/lodger scenario (with the astounding Benedict Wong as the put-upon lodger) and captured snapshots of the understated pain and pleasure of living in a south London high-rise flat. ‘It was a very distinctive piece of work and took risks. It was filmed in a very particular style, like a Swedish art film, and the pace and look of it wasn’t what you associate with most TV comedy which is fast-moving with lots of close-ups, all bright and colourful. So you have to accept that when you take risks, it doesn’t always work commercially.’
Since he got 15 Storeys High out of his system, Lock has cranked up the commerciality of his career. This outstanding comedy performer and writer had the stage persona of an urban sage, whose downbeat, quasi-surrealist view of life was complemented by the breadth of his comedic invention. Having succeeded on the stand-up circuit (2000 was his gala year when he won a British Comedy Award for Best Live Comic and gained a Perrier nomination), and worked on films, radio and TV (among his credits are co-writing Andrew Kotting’s rural family drama This Filthy Earth and scripting duties on Is It Bill Bailey?), he’s now more likely to appear as the funniest panellist on the likes of QI and 8 out of 10 Cats while also hosting Channel 4’s TV Heaven, Telly Hell: ‘It has been commented that it’s a bit like Room 101. And of course, it is.’
So, why the sudden shift from leftfield comic innovator to quiz show regular? ‘After 15 Storeys High, I went into entertainment because, firstly, I thought, “I’m not going to write another fucking sitcom, not going to go through all that effort”, and secondly, when you have young children [Lock has two daughters aged three and 18 months] the commitment you need to write another narrative is so intense that I knew I had to take a break from it.’
Five years on from his last assault on the Fringe, Lock hits back with a show which he describes as ‘just an hour of jokes,’ which is as high-concept as stand-up comedy needs to be sometimes. Although he embarks on a UK tour later in the year, he wasn’t able to concoct a proper poster or a show title until it was too late for the Fringe programme. ‘Everything needs to have a name now,’ bemoans Lock. ‘So it becomes like an album tour followed by the DVD, which is just bollocks. So, the name for this tour is Spot the Difference and the poster will have two pictures of me, with little differences on it and hopefully people will stare at the poster for ages and whole groups of people will subliminally realise that they have to come and see the show. I wish I’d had that ready for Edinburgh, it would have been funny to have police moving on the crowds from my poster.’
Sean Lock, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 3–12 Aug, 8pm, £12–£13 (£10.50–£11.50). Preview 2 Aug, £5.