Arts: The mother of all Bubbles

The praise lavished on Little Voice could take Jane Horrocks to Hollywood superstardom. As if she'd want it.
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The Independent Culture
The first time I met Jane Horrocks, I didn't take to her at all. The second time I met her, I practically fell in love. Such are the psychodynamics of the interview. My first was in September 1995, in the dressing-room of a photo-studio. Jane sat opposite the mirror; I was perched to one side. We did our best to maintain a conversation while a make-up artist fluttered around her face. She was about to open as Lady Macbeth in Mark Rylance's production of the Scottish play. "I'd say that 95 per cent of the productions I've seen of Shakespeare have been abysmal," she proclaimed, with regal authority.

The RSC tradition, she said, encouraged snobbery and elitism. The idea that actors required training to speak blank verse was "Bollocks! It's just bollocks." But the Rylance production, in which Horrocks's Lady Mac would urinate, live on stage, was going to break new ground. "I did Macbeth at Rada and I always wanted to do it professionally, but with the right person. There's no point playing Lady Macbeth unless you respect your Macbeth, and I really do respect Mark."

The more I heard, the more I suspected that this would be sort of theatrical debacle that only Macbeth can engender. Sure enough, the production was thoroughly panned, and Horrocks has recently been reported as saying that the experience of her nightly wee put her off stage acting for good. But if her feelings about Macbeth have changed, there are other aspects of her life and character that must surely have stayed the same.

"I learnt the art of acting quite early on," she said. "I could wrap my parents round my little finger, but I had two brothers who were quite tough going, so I had to fight for attention. They put me in my place. It used to be, 'Oh shut up, Jane, yer bloody thick.' But they are more in awe than they used to be."

She didn't want to discuss her then boyfriend, the theatre director Sam Mendes, and seemed on the cusp of some sort of personal change. "I think I was quite ambitious when I was in my twenties, but now I'm looking for something else. I'm just not as satisfied as I used to be by things. I get bored really, really quickly. I'm not naturally contented. I wish I was, but I have a very vivid imagination and unless that's used, I get really frustrated."

Now cut to February 1999. I met Jane Horrocks again in a restaurant in Twickenham. This time we were discussing Hunting Venus, an insubstantial but enjoyable TV movie about an Eighties New Romantic pop group, reunited for a comeback show by their sole remaining fans, a pair of lesbians, one of whom is Horrocks. It stars Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey and was scripted by the 37-year-old screenwriter Nick Vivian, Horrocks's partner and the father of her two-year-old son.

Now deep into the third trimester of her second pregnancy, she had just the neatest of bumps to suggest her condition. (A daughter, Molly, was born 10 days ago.) And across a small table, something became apparent that had not been obvious at my previous side-on interview: she is ravishingly pretty, with huge blue eyes set in a delicate, elfin face. Not that this was of any use to me, because those eyes spent most of the time looking at Nick Vivian, sitting next to her, with the mixture of amusement, adoration, possessiveness and absolute openness that women reserve for those whom they truly love.

"It's such a relief not to be talking about Little Voice," she said. The couple were just back from attending the Golden Globes awards in Hollywood. Horrocks had been nominated Best Actress in a Comedy for her performance as the Northern wallflower who can sing like Garland, Holliday and Bassey, but she lost out to Gwyneth Paltrow. They'd sat at a table a few feet from Jim Carrey. The whole place had been teeming with superstars. "That sort of hype is so alien to the world as we know it," said Jane. "You can only stand open-mouthed. And the speeches are downright embarrassing. What have Mum and Dad and your brothers and sisters got to do with the film? And thanking God - it's pitiful."

The occasion had given her no desire to go West in search of superstardom: "Airport photographers caught us getting off the plane from LA. I never thought it would happen to me, so I'd made no effort. Imagine what it must be like having to spend two hours in the loo before you land, preparing for the cameras."

Outside it began to rain. Jane peered anxiously through the window. "I'm worried about my washing," she said. "I'm a washing obsessive. If Steven Spielberg called up on laundry day and offered me a film I'd say, hang on a second, I'm doing my wash."

And if a big Hollywood star wanted her as his on-screen partner? "It depends what the script was like. If it's rubbish, what's the point?"

Er... money, usually. She grimaced. "Money's not my thing."

In these more relaxed circumstances, both Jane's wit and her comic timing became more evident. It was easy to see how Jennifer Saunders had only to exaggerate her natural character to create Bubble, the daffy secretary in Ab Fab. We started talking about Hunting Venus. Nick Vivian had been toying with the story for years. At the start, Jane was just an actress whom he admired, but who kept turning down offers to appear in things he'd written: "Two things," she interjected. "And one of them was for charity." By the time he finally sat down to write, they were living together. (The thing that made the difference to their relationship, Nick said later, was drink.)

As he wrote, Nick discussed his new script with Jane. Or, at least, he tried to. "I always used to show Jane bits and bobs of what I was writing, but I've learnt not to do that any more - there's an immediate response of boredom." Horrocks: "He reads them out to me in a pompous fashion. I'd rather read it on the page." Vivian: "She's right. It's much better to keep my trap shut until it's finished." A pause, then Horrocks again: "He's not an actor, when all's said and done." She, like every one of the film's thirtysomething cast, had fond memories of the New Romantic era. "I remember going to this club in Ribchester, where I lived, called the Lodestar. They played Bryan Ferry, Bowie and a bit of Adam Ant. It was such a weirdo period, but very exciting. There was a threat in the air about those clubs - well, there certainly was about that one. They used to hit people with bits of wood.

"I did a fashion show for a local hairdresser called Tony Winder. He dyed my hair pink and did it all up a la New Romantic and he'd roped in these other three girls who were proper punks and really quite hard. So they came down the catwalk to Bow Wow Wow and everyone was silent with fear. Then I came dancing down and they all roared with laughter. I went, 'Why? I look hard as well. I look tough. Why are you laughing at me?' I was furious."

Talking about the making of Hunting Venus, Jane recalled that she watched the England vs Argentina World Cup match with Neil Morrissey, in the hotel where they were staying while on location. Morrissey had spent the entire game agonising about his career.

"I was in the Soho House with Kathy Lloyd that night," interrupted Nick Vivian.

"Feeling her busts," said Jane.

"I wasn't..."

"You were feeling her busts brushing against you."

Vivian defended himself. "When Sol Campbell scored, I flung my arms round Kathy, only to realise that she had turned round, so I had one hand on each breast. I said, "I'm terribly sorry, Kathy." She said, "It doesn't matter, we've scored." So when it was disallowed I felt like a terrible old fraud. But she didn't seem to mind..."

"That's his story," said Jane, in mock indignation.

I paid the restaurant bill and we went out into the south London drizzle. Jane and Nick needed to buy something for supper. I last saw them wandering off in search of a butcher. None of the passers-by recognised the tiny blonde in the baggy coat. Jane Horrocks didn't seem to mind that at all.

'Hunting Venus', tonight, 9pm, ITV