Comedian Seann Walsh speaks to James Kettle about his current 2019 UK tour After This One, I’m Going Home – his revelatory new stand-up show which is already drawing critical raves.
A lot of people have the wrong idea about Seann Walsh. He tells me a true story that indicates the problem. He was out in Glasgow recently – not drinking, having a quiet night out with friends. And he went outside for some fresh air and started chatting to a girl.
Seann takes up the story. “And after a few minutes, the girl said ‘You look exactly – exactly – like Seann Walsh.’ And I said, ‘I get that a lot.’ And she said ‘But he’s a p***k.’ And I said ‘I know what you mean. Why do you think he’s a p***k?’ And she said, ‘Just his general demeanour.’ Seann roars with laughter (it’s a noise you get used to in his company). “It’s very strange,” he muses, “that people can have these ideas about you, and still be talking to you for five minutes and getting along with you! I don’t know what idea they have of me, but it’s evidently different to that of the reality.”
Of course, we know why people have certain ideas about Seann. Six months ago, he was one of a number of the youngish male comics you see plugging holes in panel shows and comedy reality formats. Possibly best known to the public for his role as jaded rockstar Grizzo in Jack Dee’s ITV sitcom, Bad Move. Well-known to comedy critics and connoisseurs for a form of frank-speaking and gag-heavy observational comedy that outstrips any of his ostensible peers.
Seasoned Walsh-watchers knew he had a massive, irresistible talent, if only he could find the right vehicle to get it in front of the public. And when he got picked for last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, it felt like this could be the moment. The BBC1 audience would fall in love with him, and come flocking to his then recently announced 2019 tour, After This One I’m Going Home. The early weeks panned out well, with viewers clearly warming to this awkward, disheveled bloke and his clear determination to impress.
But then…well, Seann. You explain what happened. In your own words. He pauses, and thinks. How to express it? “I kissed my dance partner [Katya Jones] who was married. I was in a long-term relationship. And following that, I was central to a big media storm. And whilst a lot of stories about me then went out, what was actually happening to me in real life was very different to what was going out.”
Overnight, Seann found himself going through one of the bleakest aspects of the modern celebrity experience – a public shaming. He had journalists outside his house, going through his bins and following his parents around. And following him, too, on the lookout for a moment where he slipped up. “Every time I left a building and was half way through a blink, they’d take a picture and say ‘Seann Walsh drunk again.’”
“My friends would read me out comments from newspaper websites. I’d be cycling down my street and then suddenly it would be in the press that I was cycling recklessly because I wasn’t using my hands. And someone posted comment on that saying ‘He’s just as irresponsible as I imagined him.’
People are out there imagining how irresponsible I am! That’s what it’s come to! It’s absolutely bonkers. Apparently Philip Schofield was having a go at me on This Morning. I mean, I stayed away from these things. I tried to. It became increasingly stressful and surreal.”
Suddenly Seann found himself having to cope not just with the personal repercussions of his own actions, but also the ensuing tabloid tornado – and at the same time continue to take part in the biggest show on television. “We get to the next Saturday, and it’s showbusiness, its entertainment.
You’re there smiling on television but it’s not what you’re actually feeling.”
And how were you feeling? “My brain was fried. I hadn’t really slept. We missed out on dance rehearsal days because of what happened. Katya couldn’t teach me – we never really got the dance down because nothing would go into my head. I was never there.”
Viewers of the show might have wondered that week if Seann would walk away from Strictly. He came closer to it than they knew. “I did quit the show that week, and then my agent, friends and people close to me convinced me not to. But I did actually quit.”
The reason he eventually stayed was out of a desire not to be defeated by all those forces out to bring him down. When he’d signed up for Strictly, Seann hadn’t taken it all that seriously. He didn’t have dreams of winning the final or getting to Blackpool, he saw it as ‘just an entertainment show.’ Under the new circumstances he found himself in, everything felt different. “It was halfway through the week and suddenly, with the way I was being vilified in the media and the hatred coming my way, suddenly – this show suddenly meant something to me. It meant that getting through would be a victory.”
Somehow, Seann made it through another couple of weeks of Strictly. When the judges let him go, it felt more like a merciful release than an elimination. He was then left to come to terms with the consequences of his misjudged snog – the kind of mistake that’s sad though unremarkable when it happens between ordinary people, but looks so much worse through the mad prism of the media and tabloids.
Seann realised that he wanted to talk about the experience on stage. Not to cash in, but because that’s what his stand-up has always been about – taking the raw material of his life and finding the funny within it. And while the whole situation was harrowing to live through, he could also see the undercurrent of humour.
“I started to realise that if I were to take a step back, there are elements of this that are sort of funny. When you look at the fact there were people dressed up as me for Halloween. That’s just something you never think is going to happen to you. And then there were stories circulating that Television X were offering me 500 thousand pounds to do a porn film with Katya. I mean, these things that start happening to you, and although you’re not laughing at them at the time – I couldn’t laugh, I was an absolute mess – but deep down I still knew certain aspects were funny.”
The new show tells the story of what happened to Seann from the moment the photo was published to his appearance on Strictly the following Saturday. There are flash-backs, and flash-forwards, but essentially it’s the story of that devastating week. He discusses in detail his decision to go on the show in the first place (despite its high profile, it was far from a no-brainer for Seann) and everything that went through his mind when he found out the photo existed.
All stand-ups, including Seann, depend on work-shopping new material to find out what’s successful and what stinks. But it was impossible to try out Seann’s new material giving the continuing level of tabloid and media interest. “At my very first gig an audience member recorded my set on their phone and then sold it to a tabloid newspaper,” he explains. “And then basically almost every time I did a gig, someone would film it and someone would sell it to the papers. So it became impossible to do work-in-progress shows. So I went to America for a month, and I did something I’d never done before – I wrote the whole show.” There was no workshopping, no trying out five minutes here, ten minutes there. Seann created his new show as a complete work of art.
“I worked harder on it than I’ve ever worked on anything. Ever.”
In some ways it’s a natural development from his previous shows, but it’s deeper and less flippant than anything he’s done before. “The main difference is this is personal and it really means something to me. And previously my shows have started with me going ‘Well, what am I like? Where am I at in my life?’ So a show will be about moving in on your own.
A show will be about moving in with your girlfriend, a show will be about turning 30. But you know – those don’t have serious consequences normally, and this did!”
Seann’s determined to make a big statement with this show – perhaps because he’s equally determined that will be the last time he tours for a good long while. Unusually for a comedian, he genuinely enjoys acting work and would like to be doing more of it. “It’s weird, because you always hear comedians getting asked that question and comedians always say they prefer stand-up. Not for me, stand-up comedy stresses me out too much. I get very stressed, and every single night when I’m stood at the side of the stage, I think this could be the one where I bomb.”
If that was true when he was just making jokes about boozing and slacking, it’ll be even more so with this revelatory new show, whose emotional frankness is already drawing critical raves. “This was the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. And I think this was the only time I could do it. I won’t be able to talk about it in two years time and the audience certainly won’t care anymore. And right now it’s still raw, I’m not completely over it. It still haunts me and I’m doing the show while that’s still fresh. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s something I felt I had to do.”
Tickets for Seann Walsh: After This One I’m Going Home are available from www.seannwalsh.com