Born: April 22, 1963.
Died: August 18, 2021.
DRY? Sean Lock, who has died of cancer at the age of 58, was dryer than a Saturday morning throat after a night on the tiles. As dry as the sand he used to mix during his seven-year stint on building sites. Lock had a sardonic delivery that was sublime – and looked quite effortless.
But it wasn’t effortless, of course. Like building-site labouring, comedy is hard, sweaty work. “Spending tedious hours straining over a blank sheet of paper, trying to think of something funny. Some days I’d rather try and lay an egg,” he once said, with feeling.
All that straining paid off. But even though he became the darling of the TV panel-show circuit – the likes of Mock The Week, They Think It’s All Over, Have I Got News For You, QI, and 8 out of 10 cats, Lock worried about keeping the level high.
Which is why he rented an office. “I have to be at my office just in case something comes along”, he explained. “It’s like fishing. If you don’t sit at the riverbank with a fishing rod, a line, a hook and a worm on it, you’re never going to catch any fish. If I do this for a whole day, then something will slot into place.”
When he got the mix right between absurdist and observational humour, he was often quite brilliant. Take, for example, his ‘Keeping goldfish’ routine, an allegory for human interaction. “You get one goldfish and it’s lonely. You get two and they don’t get on. You get a third and it’s two on one. You get a fourth and it’s a borstal.”
Like most comedians, Lock, when young, never imagined his future career. Growing up in Chertsey, Surrey, which he once described as “Offices, offices, offices”, his only firm declaration of future intent was to live far from his home town.
But it can be difficult to travel on the one A level, English (E) he picked up on leaving St John the Baptist school. (“Because I spent most of my time drinking and faffing around.”) As for work? His father Sidney worked in the construction industry and found his son a job on a building site, “digging holes for 25 quid a day.”
Eventually, for a while, Lock escaped. He hitch-hiked around Europe. He worked in France as a goat herder. But the goats often took advantage and ran off into the forest, sensing perhaps that this young Englishman was most likely asleep and/or useless. Could they tell their herder had been enjoying hashish with his bread and cheese lunch?
Back in the UK, Lock worked as a Department of Health and Social Security office worker and a toilet cleaner. Meantime, the stand-up comedy circuit was developing. After seeing the likes of Paul Merton and Alexei Sayle perform, Lock said to himself: “I can do that; I’m loudmouthed, cocky, smart-ar***.”
But it wasn’t that simple. It took him years to win over audiences, and he was sometimes booed off and bottled. He worked on the sites during the day and the clubs at night. At one point he enrolled at drama college. He found himself in the wrong movie.
Eventually, his stand-up routine improved. He worked in Glasgow several times in the early Nineties. In 1993, he appeared with Rob Newman and David Baddiel on their TV show and on a UK tour that ended with a flourish at Wembley arena – something of a landmark concert in the history of recent British comedy. He went on to write for Bill Bailey.
His career in radio and then on TV took off when he wrote and starred in the 1998 series 15 Storeys High, in which he played a depressed, sardonic recluse named Vince, who lived in a grim tower block. His dry delivery was near perfect.
In 2000, he won the best live comic act at the British Comedy Awards, not to mention a Herald Angel award.
Success leapt forward to greet him, offering up his own TV series, and in 2005 he landed 8 out of 10 Cats, where he would remain for 18 series. Indeed, the shows he appeared on were repeated so often he joked that his hourly rate of pay was “lower than that of a small child making footballs in Indonesia.”
A tricky subject? Oh yes. But funny. Certainly. “When it comes down to it, comedy is just rehearsed moaning,” he once observed.
His panel-show moaning made him a household name. “They’re fun,” he said of the shows. “They’re well paid, and you don’t have to spend six months writing them.”
Meantime, he married Anoushka Nara Giltsoff. They had two teenage daughters and a 12 year-old son, whom he took on holidays in his camper van, in which he also slept during stand-up tours.
The camper-van trips came to an end when Lock contracted cancer. He was no stranger to the illness. Years working on building sites had exposed him to skin cancer and led to an emergency operation. “You could hardly say to a big Irish foreman, ‘Please could you rub some Ambre Solaire on my back?’” he joked, years later.
Sean Lock being Sean Lock, however, he managed to joke right up ‘till the end. Comedian Harry Hill rang his long-term friend to wish him well. “He took his illness in typically dry style,” said Hill. “I heard he was in a hospice for a bit of a rest. “’Wow!’, I said. ‘A hospice, what’s that like?’ ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘And the sex is amazing’.”
Another close friend, Bill Bailey, told The Telegraph:“Even in his last few days, we were still having a laugh, still joking, still coming up with ideas …We had great conversations. I brought in my guitar and sang him his favourite Johnny Cash songs.”