Sharon Horgan - The queen of darkness

Forget cosy Miranda, Sharon Horgan is the funniest woman on TV for viewers who prefer their comedy with a murky twist. With two new shows on air, she tells Gerard Gilbert this is a golden age for female-led sitcoms. Here, we introduce five of the best

Gerard Gilbert
Thursday 14 June 2012 15:54
Sharon Horgan
Sharon Horgan

Later this so-called summer, Miranda Hart finally goes into production with the third series of her old-school, feel-good BBC1 sitcom Miranda – one female writer-performer among many, it suddenly seems, bringing gender equality to the genre. In fact it has has never been a better time for women-led British sitcoms, as Kathy Burke returns with a full series of her self-penned Walking And Talking (based on her Seventies schooldays as a teenage punk), and (also on Sky Atlantic), Nighty Night star Julia Davis introduces her Gothic costume-drama romp Hunderby, and Sarah Alexander (Coupling) stars in BBC1's Me And Mrs Jones – about a divorcée pursued by a much younger man.

There's an even larger age-gap between BBC3's Some Girls (about an inner-city teenage girls football team) and the returning grandes dames of Absolutely Fabulous.

Then there is Psychobitches on Sky Arts, a pilot for an all-female sketch show in which Rebecca Front's shrink gets various great women from history on to her psychiatrist's couch – two of whom (Jane Austen and Frida Kahlo) are played by the Irish comedian Sharon Horgan, whose own self-penned sitcom, Dead Boss, arrived this week on BBC3.

Sharon Horgan, 42, is perhaps the most talented "new" female comedian on TV – although personally she has had enough of being described as the "the funniest woman you've never heard of". "It would be great to write something a lot of people watch", she says when we meet. "I'd be absolutely lying through my teeth if I said that wasn't an aim."

In recent years, Horgan has co-starred with Stephen Mangan in Channel 4's Free Agents, and in two series of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, but what she is most cherished for – by the privileged minority who watched it that is – is her Bafta-nominated BBC3 sitcom Pulling. A deliciously honest riff on the dark side of female friendship, Pulling featured Horgan's Donna, who, after an epiphany at her hen do, pulls out of her upcoming nuptials to the dull but dependable fiancé and moves in with her miscreant friends Karen and Louise. It was an anti-Sex and the City, with such breathtakingly scabrous lines as: "Reliable? Terry Wogan's reliable, but you wouldn't want him blowing his muck up you every night."

"Yes, but the only thing they [the BBC] slapped us on the wrists for was when Karen put her cat out of its misery with a brick because she couldn't afford the vet's bills," she laughs. We're sitting in the dubbing suite where Horgan is putting the final touches to Dead Boss, in which she plays Helen, a woman wrongly imprisoned for the murder of her employer.

"I just loved the idea of writing about an ordinary person stuck inside a prison for something she didn't do, and how everybody else's lives seem to be so much better now she's in there", says Horgan, who co-wrote Dead Boss with the stand-up comedian Holly Walsh. In the show, Helen's younger sister takes over her flat and job, her boyfriend's happy she's stuck inside because he can't bring himself to dump her, and the only person volunteering to help find the real killer is a male co-worker with a creepy ulterior motive.

In an eye-catching casting coup, that doyenne of British female TV comedy Jennifer Saunders plays the prison governess. "Luckily our executive producer, Jo Sargent, has worked with her a lot in the past [on Absolutely Fabulous and French and Saunders]", says Horgan. "Jo said, 'Look – she [Saunders] takes a long time to read stuff, so don't get your hopes up' – but she came back to us the next day and said yes. I think she liked the silliness of it."

And Dead Boss is silly – in an unabashed way that reminded me of Michael Palin's 1970s series Ripping Yarns, although Horgan cites the Father Ted creator Graham Linehan as her inspiration. Horgan tried to research in a women's prison but was refused permission. "I don't blame them [for not letting us] come into this place of grimness and woe just to make our comedy a bit funnier," she says – Horgan and Walsh instead watched ITV's documentary series about Holloway prison.

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"But that almost put us off writing it," she says. "We were grimed out afterwards. Ours is pure nonsense, and we thought we should be more responsible. But then we thought 'Hold on – there's a huge tradition of comedy in prisons'. I loved Porridge – and even ridiculous shows like Prisoner: Cell Block H.

Horgan's research also included wining and dining a former prison inmate [like Helen's cellmate in the show, an arsonist], as well as drawing on her own experiences at a convent school in rural Ireland. "We wanted it to feel like the worst boarding school of all time," she says. "A little bit of my convent school went in there." She was brought up in the Republic after her Irish mother and New Zealander father went to live in County Meath after having run a pub in the Kray-era East End of London. "There was a situation when my father was asked to give an alibi for someone, and he realised he didn't want his girls brought up in that environment," she says. "They made the predictable progression from pub-owning to turkey farming."

One of five siblings (her brother, Shane, went on to become an Irish rugby international), Horgan was aged four at the time, returning to London at 19 to study English at Brunel University – and a decade of "fannying about" trying to be an actress, but mostly waitressing – "And then you suddenly realise it's 20 years later".

Her time was not entirely wasted however, providing her with many of the experiences that went into Pulling. "It has all been good material really," she says. "Dead Boss is not so autobiographical, or about anything I know about. You just have to take a leap of faith that it's going to have a bit of truth somewhere among all the madness."

Horgan had turned 30 when she finally found her metier after joining forces with her friend and future Pulling writing partner Dennis Kelly – these days the toast of the West End after co-authoring Matilda with Tim Minchin. Horgan and Kelly are currently working on a film script together. "It's on spec," she says. "We got asked to write a lot of films after Pulling and we thought, 'No, let's just write what we want to write and it's ours', and it's the best way really."

She has returned to her East End roots – albeit in gentrified Hackney, where she lives with her husband, the advertising executive Jeremy Rainbird, and her two daughters, Sadhbh (pronounced Syve, as in 'Clive') and Amer – both too young to catch much of their mother's dark and distinctly child-unfriendly oeuvre. "The only thing they've been able to watch was when I did The Borrowers at Christmas. Normally when they ask to see my stuff it's just the whole button-on-fast-forward thing."

A fair amount of time recently has been spent stuck in development hell in the US – with HBO, with a sitcom called The Old Age of Youth ("a sibling rivalry thing") and ABC, with the self-explanatory Bad Mom, which at least made it to pilot stage. "The harsh truth is that it doesn't always work out," observes Horgan. Happily we will be seeing more of her in the coming months – in the above-mentioned Psychobitches, a 30-minute sketch show written by Jeremy Dyson and Morwenna Banks (among others), in which Rebecca Front plays a therapist analysing various interesting women from history, including Catherine Tate's Eva Braun and Edith Piaf, Katy Brand's Joan of Arc and George Eliot, and Samantha Spiro (Auntie Liz from Grandma's House) as Mary Whitehouse and Judy Garland.

"There are some great ladies in it. I'm playing Jane Austen and Frida Kahlo. Do you want to see a photograph of me with a moustache?" asks Horgan, reaching for her iPhone. It's a good likeness, I must say, complete with monkey on her shoulder.

Another promising sounding pilot is the Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's Bad Sugar, which will be made into a full series next year. "It's got a Dallas feel to it with a bit of Brass thrown in," says Horgan of this spoof telenovela-style melodrama about a wealthy mining family. "I'm an upstart with a shady background. I marry into the family ... I marry Peter Serafinowicz".

Her co-stars are Julia Davis and Olivia Colman – a female sitcom dream team, but then it's something of a golden age for women comedians, she reckons.

"The funniest person on the planet at the moment is Tina Fey; the most successful show on British TV at the moment is Miranda; the funniest film of last year was Bridesmaids; Sarah Silverman is one of the funniest stand-ups out there ... all my favourite things at the moment are female-led or based."

'Dead Boss' runs on BBC3 on Thursdays at 10.30pm; 'Pyschobitches' starts on Sky Arts HD on 21 June

Five to watch: Sitcoms with female stars

Parents (Early July, Sky1)

From Bridget Jones to Miranda, every casting director's favourite "best friend" supporting actress, Sally Phillips, gets a long overdue leading role – as Jenny, a newly unemployed high-flyer forced to boomerang back into her parents' home, her husband and teenage children in tow. Tom Conti plays Jenny's father.

Walking and Talking (25 June, Sky Atlantic)

Kathy Burke writes her first series – a four-part extension of her semi-autobiographical short Little Cracker, about growing up in 1970s Islington under the heady influence of Catholic nuns (Burke dons a wimple as her own teacher – sweet revenge indeed) and punk rock. Ami Metcalf is winning as the Burke's younger self.

Hunderby (August, Sky Atlantic)

One-time Rob Brydon and Ruth Jones cohort, and Gavin & Stacey co-star – but most importantly the creator and star of the splendidly dark Nighty Night, Julia Davis makes a welcome return in a self-penned sitcom – a riotous pastiche of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and other Gothic melodramas set in the early 1800s.

Me and Mrs Jones (Autumn, BBC1)

Sarah Alexander (right) plays a "yummy mummy" balancing love, affection, sex and motherhood between an ex-husband (Neil Morrissey), an on-off-lover (Nathaniel Parker), one grown-up son, two young daughters and an admirer 20 years her junior (Robert Sheehan from Misfits). BBC1 it may be, but the writers are veterans of Green Wing and Campus.

Some Girls (Autumn, BBC3)

Adelayo Adedayo from Skins and Natasha Jonas from Attack The Block lead a young cast in a sitcom about "the lives and loves of a group of quirky 16-year-olds who play on the same school football team and live on the same inner-city estate". Written by Bernadette Davis, co-creator of Game On.

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