Jane Horrocks on why Ab Fab would never be made now: 'Back then Jennifer just did her own thing'

From Little Voice to Ab Fab’s Bubble, Jane Horrocks has always put a smile on our faces. She tells Katie Glass about her big comedy comeback

Jane Horrocks
Jane Horrocks shot for Stella magazine. She wears: silk/satin top, £239, Baserange  Credit: Ben Quinton

Jane Horrocks is one of those actors who so entirely inhabits the characters she plays that talking to her now, from her house in Richmond, she seems like a familiar composite of all them. She has the same pudding-bowl haircut she had in Little Voice; the same birdlike mania as Bubble in Ab Fab; touches of the impish, squeaky Nicola in Life is Sweet – and now the upbeat optimism of Wendy, the lead character she plays in new Sky paramedic comedy series Bloods. It marks her big TV return. Apart from her appearance in ITV’s The Singapore Grip last year, she was last seen on our screens in 2014 in the Sky sitcom Trollied.

For Jane, the role of Wendy, an off-the-wall, over-friendly Pollyannaish divorcée, is familiar territory. She has always liked playing oddballs; she can relate to them. ‘Perhaps,’ she considers, twisting her mouth, ‘because I feel I’m a bit left field as well…’

She has spent lockdown with her son, Dylan, 23. ‘I’ve not been going stir-crazy, I always find things to do,’ she trills, in a lively Lancashire accent that now sounds a little flatter, ‘posher’ than I expected.

Samson Kayo and Jane Horrocks in comedy series Bloods Credit:  Sky UK Ltd

Sitting on the floor, wearing a grey hoodie, she has just turned 57, but looks a decade younger. She certainly has the energy of a teenager. Her lockdown routine includes daily bike rides, morning stretching, five-rhythms dance classes via Zoom (picture the Rainbow Rhythms dance class depicted in Peep Show). During lockdown she has decluttered her whole house, started playing chess with Dylan – ‘before The Queen’s Gambit!’ – and began recording a podcast about bees. ‘I cannot speak highly enough about bees,’ she nods. She doesn’t keep them, ‘too much work’, but presents Queen Bees with her friend, long-time beekeeper Esther Coles – their warmth, nattering away to friends invited on for a bee-fuelled chat, is what makes it so appealing; it’s now on its third series. And she’s become ‘practically vegan’, mostly because Dylan is, so ‘it’s easier than cooking two meals’. Her daughter, Molly, 21, has stayed in Bristol, where she’s lived since finishing her music degree.

I jokily ask if she’s spent lockdown online dating, having heard that two years ago she separated from playwright Nick Vivian, who she was with for 22 years. (She previously dated director Sam Mendes and singer Ian Dury.) ‘No, no,’ she says, half blushing. ‘I do have somebody in my life. Umm… err… Danny.’ ‘Webb?’ I venture, presuming this is actor Danny Webb, 62, who appeared with her in The Old Vic’s 2016 production of King Lear, playing husband to ‘Horrocks’s vampy sex kitten of a Regan’ (as the New York Times review described it).

But she doesn’t ‘want to talk about that so much’, and instead, we talk about Bloods. One of very few new shows produced during the pandemic, the crew were rigorous about wearing masks, sanitising and socially distancing. Funny, idiosyncratic and well-observed, it’s a strange but hilarious offering, and co-stars a brilliant comic cast, including Lucy Punch (Hot Fuzz) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Set in London, it follows a team of paramedics, warmly focusing on the relationships between them and how they respond to the random emergencies they have to deal with. So we find the ditzy and eccentric Wendy, tending the wounds of a junkie, merrily asking: ‘What do you want to take all the crack for, you silly billy?’

Jane with her son Dylan in 2017 Credit:  David M. Benett

A lot of scenes feature pairs of paramedics driving around, bantering, bromancing or squabbling. ‘A sort of Green Wing meets Car Share,’ I suggest. ‘Car Share is a good analogy,’ Jane agrees. ‘That’s what it felt like a lot of the time filming, driving around in pairs, being filmed in their cabs. It’s very much focusing on the partnerships within the paramedic world and how they operate together, how they gel – or don’t.’

Jane, whose mother was a nursing assistant ‘on the wards doing the clerical side of things’ fell in love with ‘these idiosyncratic characters’. She prepared for the part by reading Can You Hear Me?, a memoir by NHS paramedic Jake Jones, upon which several scenes in the show are based.

‘Paramedics are incredibly brave – they don’t know what they’re going to get,’ she says. ‘When they go into situations some are quite innocuous and others are pretty full-on,’ she says, joking. ‘The blood and gore is what they really like. A road-traffic accident is like heaven to them!’ Though she herself struggled to film the gorier scenes, such as the car crashes. She has a fear of blood and has to look away while she’s watching Casualty. ‘I’m very squeamish like that.’

Given the current pandemic and our recent clapping for the NHS, Jane – who signed up for the pilot of Bloods three years ago – feels the release of the show now ‘is very apt’. ‘We’re very much celebrating these unsung heroes, and even though it is a comedy drama, it is very much an appreciation of these people, what they do, and how they manage psychologically to get through that work.’

She prefers comedy to tragedy – ‘a lot of people do at the moment’ – and found it uplifting to play Wendy, in marked contrast to the typically darker roles she’s taken on: kinky, bulimic Nicola in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990), an agoraphobic in Little Voice (1998), a neurotic mother in Stephen Poliakoff’s West End play Sweet Panic (2003), and a tormented Lady Macbeth, directed by Mark Rylance to wet herself on stage every night (2011).

 As Nicola in Life is Sweet Credit:  Everett Collection / Rex Feature

‘I made a conscious effort that I didn’t want to play those darker characters, I’ve actively moved away,’ she says, ‘Because of the way Mike Leigh works, you are completely absorbed in the character, I did find that affected me. It seeps through into your own life.’

Jane was born in 1964, the youngest of three, to Barbara and John (a travelling salesman), in East Lancashire, a place – and an accent – which has come to define her. ‘I don’t feel a great yearning to go back,’ she says, ‘I very much feel London is my home now, but I’ve not given up my Lancashire accent, that’s where my roots are. When I did Who Do You Think You Are? [2006] it turned out I was pretty much 100 per cent Lancashire!’

Her grandmother Doris was a devout Methodist and a well-known piano-playing singer in the community. Jane was raised in the religion and in a way it gave her the first taste of show business, when she made her brothers laugh with her impersonations of her grandmother singing hymns, ‘because she sang very loudly in church’.

Performing at Latitude in 2016 Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

By nine she was impersonating Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Marilyn Monroe. She put on shows for pupils at school and her parents’ friends begged her to perform at parties, which her mother discouraged. ‘She really didn’t like precociousness,’ Jane says.

Jane always loved music. As a rebellious teenager, she stalked Rawtenstall, the mill town where she grew up, with pink hair wearing combat trousers, a tutu and her dad’s string vest (‘with something underneath!’), listening to Joy Division. Behind her now, pinned to the wall, is a picture of Patti Smith. ‘If I had my time again I’d like to try being in a band,’ she says. What kind? ‘A sort of post-punk band.’ Four years ago she played Latitude festival, performing If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a show she’d conceived for the Young Vic, in which she sung songs by The Smiths, Buzzcocks and The Human League.

As a teenager, though, acting won out. Jane studied drama at Oldham College, then applied to a dozen drama schools. Only Rada accepted her. She was so nervous about moving to London that she deferred her place and spent a year working as a chambermaid. Perhaps it’s no wonder – her eventual classmates included Ralph Fiennes and Imogen Stubbs. The acting world is frequently criticised as elitist, with a preference for old Etonians, but Jane says she never felt intimidated or held back by her working-class roots. ‘I’ve never seen the restrictions, so for me there haven’t been any,’ she says. ‘I think it’s a personal perception. What you want to see and what you want for yourself. Sometimes working-class actors are in and sometimes they’re out! Sometimes Etonians are in, and sometimes they’re out!’

With Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous Credit:  Getty Images

Life is Sweet brought Jane to critical attention, but it was as Bubble, the ditzy fashionista PA in Jennifer Saunders’s Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012), that she found mainstream success. Looking back, the series seems trailblazing in its portrayal of working women, bad mothers and damaged daughters, shamelessly ricocheting between ruin and fun. ‘It was way ahead of its time, definitely,’ she thinks. ‘Jennifer is a very clever writer. We’d had Men Behaving Badly, but women behaving badly had not been portrayed before – and they really did behave badly in a good way that was progressive and interesting.’ Now, she’s not sure Ab Fab would even get commissioned. ‘There would be a lot of interference now, whereas when we made Ab Fab Jennifer was allowed to just do her own thing.’

For many, it was as LV in Little Voice that Jane proved she was a star. The role – a shy blonde who impersonated Hollywood stars in her room – was written for her. She was in her back garden doing impressions of Hayworth, Garland and Monroe for her friend, the playwright Jim Cartwright, when he said, ‘I’ll write a play about that’.

The West End production won Jane an Olivier nomination in 1993, and the 1999 film was nominated for a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Did Hollywood come calling? ‘I did get a lot of interest during that time, but I was pregnant with my daughter while I was doing the promotion for the film and I decided I didn’t like it,’ she says, ‘I just wanted to be a mum. And I was a mum, which was really lovely, actually.

‘I have engineered my working life in a way that I’ve wanted it to go. I’ve been very particular about the things I’ve chosen and not chosen to do.’

Jane wears cotton shirt, £355, Palmer//Harding Credit: Ben Quinton

If that was an easy decision to make in her 30s, I wonder if now she has regrets. Other actors have bemoaned the limited interesting parts available to mature women, but Jane doesn’t seem worried, ‘There are ways of getting around that, but you have to use your imagination… You can think, “That’s the status quo, what can I do about it? I’ll create my own work for a woman of my age.”’

She collaborated with Vivian on the musical drama Cotton Panic! for the Manchester International Festival in 2017, and has worked regularly with musicians and choreographers. ‘Evolving something artistically, that really fascinates me… it’s very empowering as a woman to be able to do that.’

She’s also excited by young talent. ‘I prefer watching young people,’ she grins. She adored Fleabag and I May Destroy You for their energy and originality, and is a huge fan of Steve McQueen’s recent Small Axe series, which depicted ‘a cultural point of view that I didn’t know a lot about. That’s what the art should be – teaching us something new.’ She is thrilled to watch the acting profession diversify.

Jane shot for Stella magazine. Jane wears: dress, £419, Tove Credit: Ben Quinton

‘I don’t remember anybody black or of colour being there [at Rada],’ she says, ‘Now it’s very much about diversity, which is right, so everybody gets a fair crack of the whip.’

She supports recent calls for minority actors to be cast in minority roles – and was impressed that The Crown used disabled actors to portray the Queen’s disabled cousins. ‘It would have been ridiculous if actors like me, able-bodied actors, were playing those roles.

‘How in this day and age could I play somebody with disabilities? I don’t think that’s right... I don’t think things like My Left Foot could happen now with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the role. They’re coming to it with such a much more informed perspective.’

She is not an actor who has ever yearned for certain parts. She hopes for another series of Bloods, but instead of ambitions she’s ‘trying to be very much in the present. I find that’s when I’m happiest. To not be too expectant, just allow things to happen.’ 

All episodes of ‘Bloods’ will be available on Sky One and Now TV in the spring.

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