Whatever happened to bubbly Jane?

Jane Horrocks, the woman of a thousand faces, has a new sketch show. Here's hoping she doesn't make the same mistakes as our Emma.

There are just two words of warning for any talented young actor attempting to branch out into comedy sketches: Emma Thompson. Dame Emma's efforts with her sketch series, Thompson, stand as an object-lesson in how not to go about it. Kinder critics homed in on its self-indulgence and advised her to stick to what she does best - act with great conviction in a circulation-endangering corset.

With her new one-off sketch show, the felicitously titled Never Mind the Horrocks, the actress Jane Horrocks now runs the risk of being irradiated by the same high level of vituperation. Seamus Cassidy, the Channel 4 comedy executive who commissioned Horrocks's show, is all too well aware of Emma overtones but thinks they have been avoided. "The feeling around Emma at the time was that she could do no wrong," he remembers. "But she was stretched too thin and relied too much on celebrity mates, and it just wasn't funny enough. Nobody would deny that now. But I don't see a comparison between Emma and Jane. Emma's series was an enormous explosion of energy and enthusiasm which led her to write and perform the whole series. The thing about Jane's series is that she hasn't written that much of it herself."

Which means she could concentrate on the performing - and it has paid off. Despite being 32, she plays with equal facility a gawky young teenager chatting endlessly to her boyfriend on the phone, a stern, middle-aged children's TV presenter, and a doting Mrs Merton-esque blue-rinse. That's to say nothing of her skills as a mimic. Is there any other actress around who could so accurately portray both Cilla Black and Gita Kapoor from EastEnders? Oh yes, and she can sing her socks off too - as wonderful interpretations of Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Bassey prove.

Cassidy makes his pitch to be President of the Jane Horrocks Fan Club, marvelling at her chameleon-like qualities. "For someone you might think it would be easy to pigeon-hole, she has quite a range. She goes from a bulimic in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet to Shirley Bassey. She's a consummately versatile actress, but she's also got a sense of humour - which helps. Some people who are great actors are not that funny. But Jane is naturally funny, she has a comic instinct for the jugular. People laugh when she walks on stage. She's likeable."

Likeable is the word that springs to mind when you come face to face with Horrocks. We meet in the snooker room at the Groucho Club in central London, where her five-foot-two, seven-stone frame is almost dwarfed by the bowl of chips she is ploughing through. Resplendent in a hot-pink mini-dress and black clogs combination, she answers questions in the same down-to-earth language she presumably used when telling the tutors at Rada that she wasn't going to blandify her thick Lancastrian accent into Received Pronunciation. "My accent has been a source of amusement to people," she observes, "but I actually came across more snobbism in Oldham than at Rada. There the father of a middle-class friend of mine asked me, 'And do you speak English as well?' 'No, just the Swahili'."

This no-nonsense approach permeates her work. In Never Mind the Horrocks, she was careful not to appear in every sketch. "That can be nauseating," she says. "If you're saying, 'Look at me, I can do this, that and the other', the audience never get a break. Then it tends to look like showing off. Dan Patterson [the show's producer] was very aware of that. When we were talking about the supporting cast, I suggested lots of friends from the theatre, but Dan rejected them. He didn't want it to become in any way luvvie." More lessons learnt from Thompson.

But Patterson did encourage Horrocks' bravura impersonations, which she first flourished as a means of entertaining friends during lunchbreak at Oldham Technical College. She caught the showbiz bug at the age of 15 after seeing Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born. Her Bassey - all grimaces of sincerity and black feather boas - is particularly near the knuckle. "It's not very fair on Shirley Bassey," Horrocks concedes. "She would be thick-skinned if she didn't mind. I was on Des O'Connor with her and ended up doing an impression of her. In hospitality afterwards, I told her I was embarrassed, but she said, 'Don't worry. I was shaving my armpits at the time and didn't see it'. I hope she's shaving her armpits for a very long time during this show."

Horrocks is glad to be bringing gaiety on to the small screen after such depressing roles as the anxiety-stricken mother in the BBC's Suffer the Little Children and the wife nursing a brain-damaged husband in Some Kind of Life on ITV. "I'm fed up with tragic heroines," she says. "I'd rather make people laugh than cry - it's better for the soul. I've been playing too many victims of circumstance or social injustice. There's only so much difference you can bring to each of them. Playing a victim, all you're doing is eking out the audience's sympathy. I find it manipulative."

What really brought down the curtain on her life as a tragedian, however, was the trying tour she undertook last year as Lady Macbeth opposite Mark Rylance in the now notorious "Hari Krishna" production of the Scottish play. "It was an exhausting experience," Horrocks confirms. "It wasn't very good for my health. Psychologically, I felt I was turning into a neurotic nutter. I had complete back strain, because I was carrying the weight of the role. That sounds pretentious, but it is ridiculous if you can't shake it off when you go home at night."

She had a year at the RSC straight after Rada but does not envisage doing any more Shakespeare for a while; she would prefer less draining - and, it must be said, more lucrative - roles such as Prunella Scales's uptight daughter in the Tesco commercials. "Doing those ads has given me a feeling of ease that I can pick and choose my work. I don't have to do an episode of The Bill, which is a great relief to me."

The other light role Horrocks has relished is Bubble, Edina's scatty PA in Absolutely Fabulous. "Bubble was incredibly easy to play," she recalls. "You could be as stupid as possible - which isn't very difficult for me. You could throw it away at the end of the day and think, 'I've got my laughs.' The thing about Ab Fab was that it was something we'd never seen before - women behaving badly. In the past, we hadn't been allowed to do that. Jennifer [Saunders, the show's writer and star] was brave enough to do that."

Horrocks goes on to praise Saunders for opening the door for other women comedians. "It is more difficult for women," Horrocks says. "I'm not being all feminist, but men outnumber women in comedy because people have more trouble laughing at women. This is a mass generalisation, but people feel safer with male comedians. People watching women think, 'Is this going to be embarrassing? Please don't do this to yourself.' "

Despite her success - most casting-directors would sell their contacts' book to employ her - life has not always been sweet for Horrocks. She was reportedly less than gruntled when the role Jim Cartwright wrote for her in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was recently offered by a Hollywood studio to Gwyneth Paltrow. Horrocks is also not noted for suffering fools gladly. On Memphis Belle, she rewarded a fellow actor's persistent lateness with a damn good clout. And more than once - when she had chocolate spread licked off her body in Life is Sweet, say, or when she urinated on stage as Lady Macbeth - she has attracted headlines she could have done without.

But those sort of incidents only serve to enhance one of her great strengths. "I don't know whether it's a strength or just sheer idiocy," she laughs, "but I think I'm quite brave. What excites me most is doing something that challenges an audience rather than letting them ease off. Sometimes people have to be shocked into thinking, or they just sit there bleary- eyed. Take that scene in Macbeth. It should be disturbing and embarrassing, but people pussyfoot around with it. Madness isn't particularly pleasant to observe, it's a loss of control and inhibition. Lots of people sleep- walk and pee their beds. I wanted to show a character seemingly in control at the beginning and out of control at the end."

Cassidy is licking his lips at the prospect of developing Never Mind the Horrocks into a series. "I'm having to restrain myself from holding a gun to her head," he says. "She's got so much potential. I feel I know what an awful lot of actors in this country can do. You know that if you cast certain actors, you're always going to get the same thing. But not with Jane. I've no idea what Jane will do next. She could turn her hand to anything."

Except, perhaps, an episode of The Bill.

'Never Mind the Horrocks' is on Channel 4 on 19 Sept

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