Another view: My night with Madonna (and Sean Hughes)

Tim Cooper
Madonna with The Sneaker Pimps, 1999: Dave Benett

Back in the late 1990s I used to run into Sean Hughes all the time at parties. He was a Perrier Award-winning stand-up comedian and team captain on Never Mind The Buzzcocks who would go to the opening of an envelope, so long as it included a free drink. I was the Showbusiness Correspondent of the Evening Standard so I was often there too.

Sean usually had a fag in one hand and a drink in the other. He was often drunk, which seems to be what did for him in the end, the poor sod. Only 51 too, when he died this week, an event he foresaw in a rather wonderful poem:

"I want to be cremated

I know how boring funerals can be I want people to gather meet new people have a laugh, a dance, meet a loved one. I want people to have free drink all night.

I want people to patch together, half truths. I want people to contradict each other I want them to say 'I didn’t know him but cheers' I want my parents there, adding more pain to their life. I want The Guardian to mis-sprint three lines about me or to be mentioned on the news Just before the 'parrot who loves Brookside' story.

I want to have my ashes scattered in a bar, on the floor, mingle with sawdust, a bar where beautiful trendy people

Will trample over me … again"

At that time, in the late 1990s, he rubbed shoulders with, but never seemed to be part of, the Britpop A-list who dominated the tabloids’ showbiz pages - Liam and Noel, Damon and Jarvis, Baddiel and Skinner, Meg (Matthews) and Fran (Cutler), Kate (Moss) and Sadie (Frost), Patsy (Kensit) and Davinia (Taylor). Sean was never quite on the A-list. He had the same level of fame, and he was seen at the same parties, but the paps weren’t as interested in Sean, perhaps because he didn’t have a celebrity girlfriend for them to snap. Consequently, he was occasionally reduced to talking to me.

Such was the case when we both found ourselves in a room at the ICA waiting to meet Madonna one night in November 1999.

Madonna had expressed an interest in seeing the band Sneaker Pimps and, unbeknown to most of the audience (but not me and Sean, who were in on it), had sequestered the upstairs area of the music venue so that she could watch them without having to mingle with the plebs - me and Sean, and all the paying punters. The first most people knew of that was when we were all herded out of the bar and into the downstairs auditorium before the gig began.

We then waited, muttering darkly, while security men blocked the exits for Madonna and her then-boyfriend Guy Ritchie, riding high with his film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, to ascend the stairs to the balcony and take their seats in the front row. It was like the Royal Box at Wimbledon: all that was missing was a regal wave from Her Madgesty to signal to the band that she was ready for her command performance to begin.

At the end, by prior arrangement, Madge and Guy and their entourage were whisked away behind a battalion of security men. The audience were shooed out to the bar, while Sean and I were escorted up some stairs to a private room. Inside was a selection of free drinks, a few members of ICA staff, and Madonna. Sean and I helped ourselves to free drinks. “You again!” he said in a friendly fashion, waving his drink in my direction. “You’re always at these things. I see you all the time, you’re at everything. Don’t you think there’s more to life than this? Going to these parties. Hanging about with these people.” He waved his drink around erratically, to emphasise his existential point. “Why are you always here?"

“Because it's my job," I said. "I have to be here, so I can write about it afterwards. That’s why I’m here.” I paused, wondering whether to turn the question around. Then I did. “What about you?” I inquired. “Why are you always here?" Sean looked momentarily perplexed. "Well,” he said, pondering his presence for perhaps the first time. “I always get invited. And there's always free drinks."

We both stood around, drinking our drinks and wondering what the protocol was for meeting Madonna. She was a few feet away from us, talking to important-looking people in suits and evening dresses who looked as if they had been granted an audience with the queen. The system seemed to involve waiting until someone summoned you to be in her presence.

Eventually I thought to myself: “What the hell, there’s only about a dozen of us here, and I’m a journalist, so I’ll just go and have a chat with her myself.” I’d barely taken a step or two towards here when I was intercepted by a minion who materialised out of nowhere and asked me what I was doing.

I explained that I wished to speak briefly to Madonna and was informed that I would require permission to interview Madonna “from Liz” – her publicist in New York. I explained that I wouldn’t call this an interview; more of an informal chat. “You’ll need to get her quotes cleared by Liz first,” said the minion. I was confused so I repeated that back as a question. I’d have to get Madonna’s own quotes cleared by her publicist in New York? “Yes,” said the minion. “Before she can talk to you.” But I haven’t got any quotes until I talk to her, have I, I said, suddenly having the feeling I was talking to a small child. So I can’t get them cleared by Liz. Because I don’t know what they are yet. “Well she can’t say anything without Liz clearing it,” said the minion with a certain finality.

So I stood there, looking at Madonna, who was about ten feet away, thinking about the irony that, she was probably the most powerful person in showbusiness at that time yet she was apparently unable to make polite small talk to a journalist for a minute or two in a private room without having her own comments approved by her own publicist 2,500 miles away.

I attempted a compromise. “I only wanted to ask her a couple of questions,” I said to the minion, who asked what questions they were. “I just wanted to ask her what she thought of the gig,” I replied, “that sort of thing, really.” The minion, by now very keen to end my pestering, agreed to go and put them to Madonna, explaining that this was highly irregular and breaking protocol. They had a quick consultation, during which Madonna looked over at me, frowned a little, and turned away to say something discreetly.

The minion returned, announcing gravely: “I have a quote for you from Madonna.” “What is it?”, I asked excitedly, pulling a notebook from my pocket and producing a pen. “She says she enjoyed the concert,” said the minion. “Is that it?” I asked. “Yes,” said the minion. “You can use that. You’re very lucky. She doesn’t normally give interviews so that’s an exclusive.” I looked at the minion carefully and then wrote down the quote in shorthand in my notebook. “Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful.”

Sean was luckier than me. I could only watch enviously as he was led over to Madonna, drink in hand, and observe him shaking her hand. Moments later he returned, grinning that big goofy grin from ear to ear, to tell me about the experience. He was like an excited schoolboy, albeit one who has been to the pub for a few hours and can barely stand upright. “That was f***ing great,” he said. "Oh! What did you say to her?" I asked, getting out my pen and notebook again in anticipation of a bit more Madonna for my story.

"I said 'Hi' to her," he gushed delightedly. "And what did she say?" I asked. "She said 'Hi' back."Anything else?" I asked. "Not really," he said. "Someone took me away so she could talk to someone else." Oh, I replied, making a sympathetic sad face, that must have been a bit disappointing. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "It was f***ing great. She wouldn't even talk to you but I can go home and tell all my friends I met Madonna."