Funny, messy and real: why Sharon Horgan is the most watchable woman on TV

The star of the brutally honest Catastrophe talks about why fans identify with the sitcom – and why it’s tricky to watch HBO show Divorce with her husband

Sharon Horgan has angst. Ten minutes after she opens her front door with an emphatic, wide-eyed “Hi!”, she walks me through her dark, brooding front room down to the bright, appealing chaos of her kitchen and back again, to contemplate her guilt. She mops her powder-blue skirt – the coffee she has made me spilled a bit on the way – and leans into the corner of the sofa, elbow on the armrest, chin in her hand, legs tangling and untangling.

“I work a lot, don’t I?”

It’s not false modesty – I mean, she does work a lot – but she frowns because it catches on her sometimes; the anxiety of holding down a functional family while working in a dysfunctional industry, feeling, as she puts it, “a bit Holden Caulfield”.

“We moved in here about a year ago, so it still feels quite new. But I was in New York for work and I felt quite guilty because they [her husband and two daughters] were going through it.” “It” being extensive works on their terraced Hackney townhouse. “They were living in this prefab place around the corner, having a shit time. I was having a shit time too, at least!”

On the face of it, Horgan’s life should be unrelatable. She spent five months of early 2016 living in Brooklyn writing and shooting Divorce, the acclaimed HBO show starring Sarah Jessica Parker. When Horgan felt lonely in New York, Emma Freud and Richard Curtis adopted her for Sunday lunches. She appeared on chatshows, and by April, was profiled in the New Yorker.

“If I was young, free and single … yeah, New York’s fun. But I was there working and then evening would come and I’d be like, ‘Oh shit, what now? I’ll just do some more work.’ I had to fill the time.”

Married life, Catastrophe-style
Married life, Catastrophe-style: Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

So she kept hammering away at other potential series – Motherland with The IT Crowd’s Graham Linehan and The Circuit with her long-time collaborator Dennis Kelly. That she is prolific is no secret; the third series of Catastrophe is currently settling in to its well-hyped run on Channel 4. Its head of comedy, Phil Clarke, has said that contemporary culture should be split into eras “Before Catastrophe” and “After Catastrophe”. Her face is slapped on billboards and buses across London. A second season of Divorce is due and the pipeline is clogged with upcoming projects from her production company, Merman. As a boss, she is also scooping up and promoting as much female talent as possible – upcoming projects being developed include scripts with comedians Sara Pascoe, Holly Walsh and Aisling Bea.

Still, Horgan writes and performs what she knows; it is what makes her and her work so transfixing – she is endlessly watchable. The likes of Lena Dunham, Issa Rae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel have all rightly been lauded for the way they nail modern womanhood, but Horgan gives us the full arc: the trashed single years, begrudging loving coupledom, the relationship-splitting reinvention. Her most impressive trick is that she has remained real. What she writes resonates and her characters are necessary: these are funny, messy, vocal women who you know, who you are mates with, and who aren’t aspirational in the way that television usually prefers.

“I love it when women come up to me and tell me they love a show,” she says. “That feels the pinnacle of [success]. The usual thing is: ‘That’s my life.’ Sometimes people start telling you a story that’s similar territory and they tell you a little bit extra because they think: ‘This is what you do, you’ll get this.’” Do strangers often feel compelled to overshare with her? “Not really, but I do get a lot of, ‘Oh, you can have that’, or ‘That’ll be one for your sitcom.’ Yeah, that happens. You think it’d be the opposite and people would be a bit more cagey.”

It’s easily done. People are drawn to Horgan. She inspires a lot of warmth and, despite being fiercely controlling over her work and probably quite demanding in pursuit of it, she is well-liked. She is great company, less funny ha-ha in real life, more chatty and droll. There is a special kick in making her laugh (I have to suppress an embarrassing urge to keep trying). It probably helps that she isn’t smug – she has the lifestyle-magazine home, family and career, but she has always been brutally honest about the difficulty of relationships, parenting and keeping her brain sane.

“You’re still doing the same shit as everyone else and dealing with the same, y’know, same relationships, and family, and coping in this world,” she says. “Sharon [her character in Catastrophe] is better at talking about things and dealing with things. I wouldn’t say she’s any stroppier than me. She’s kind of happy with what she’s got – not that I’m not happy with what I’ve got – but she doesn’t beat herself up, she kind of just gets on with it. I think way too hard about what I should have said post-event. I’d like her ability to say arseholey things and not worry about it.”

Not that Horgan is known for holding back. The first breakthrough series that she wrote and performed in (a pattern for her best work) was about a gang of three girlfriends big on shagging and swearing. Back in 2006, Pulling was a proper two fingers up to Bridget Jones, the grotty antidote to Sex and the City. Pre-Girls and Fleabag, it still stands up as a portrait of modern female friendship – but it bears re-watching mostly because the jokes were so good. “It looks completely different, that’s the only thing I think when I look at it,” she says. “We just didn’t give a shit. I had that lifestyle to write about, it was very recent. I lived in Camden for six and a half years and for two and half of those years, I worked in a head shop. It was brilliant.” A succession of skinny indie boyfriends and drinking – always lots of drinking – became primary source material.

Rebekah Staton, Horgan and Tanya Franks in Pulling
Real lives: Rebekah Staton, Horgan and Tanya Franks in Pulling, from 2008. Photograph: Silver River/BBC

“Mainly it was just watching Graham Coxon [of Blur] – Britpop was petering out around then – but we’d go out to the Hawley Arms and the Good Mixer. I think it’s definitely part of the reason why I didn’t get my shit together – it was too much fun. Once every two years I would put on a play above a pub and think: ‘Woah, I have really fulfilled all my creative expectations.’ Then I realised I was just doing the same thing because I was scared to give it a proper go. I thought: ‘If I just do this every couple of years, at least it will look like I’m doing good.’”

Pulling, written with Dennis Kelly (Utopia, Matilda and numerous dark, brilliant plays) was pulled in 2008 after two series on the BBC, but it established Horgan’s reputation for filth. Not just pigs rutting in muck filthy, but the filth plundered from the slovenly depths of the human psyche for the sake of a laugh. It’s more common to see on TV now – the intimate dissection of body fluids, farts, craggy toenails et al – but Horgan was a pioneer. It’s also why she and Rob Delaney, aficionado of the gross and disgusting, her co-star and writer of Catastrophe, work so well together. But the talent for smutty punchlines almost does her a disservice, because what she really seems to be a master of is bleak, funny truth, and the dramatic set-up.

By the time Horgan was 34, she was pregnant with her first child, six months after meeting her now-husband. The experience ended up forming the basis of Catastrophe, except Sharon and Rob in the show got pregnant and shacked up just six days after they first met in a bar. Where the first series mined that early relationship, the second went knee-deep into the grind of marriage and family. The third opened with the couple dealing with the fall-out of Rob’s sexual harassment case at work (result: he’s secretly off the wagon) while Sharon tried to hide her drunken fumble with a 22-year-old student.

“It’s no fun watching two people argue and have a shit time together,” says Horgan. “It’s not’s fun in real life, it’s not fun to write and it’s not fun to watch. So even that first episode, we went back and forth on how to do it. When [Rob] says: ‘Well, I’m just going to have to suck it up.’ I mean, that’s what would happen. We didn’t want to blow it out of proportion, we wanted to say that you’re not going to just blow your family apart, you’re probably going to swallow a lot of crap along the way and hopefully it will be worth it.” It’s an honest and realistic depiction of marriage; you can’t help but wonder how their respective real-life spouses respond to the show.

Horgan is quieter now, and she straightens up on the sofa with a skittish energy. “The only one that was tricky [to watch with her husband] was Divorce. That would be the only time where it’s been a bit uncomfortable because those two characters, certainly at that point, fucking hate each other. It’s the realisation of that. Passionate hate.” The thing with splitting up is, as she has said before, that “neither one of you ever wants to do it at the same time and that’s what brings the relationship back from the brink”.

Horgan’s husband, Jeremy Rainbird, is at home and passes through the front room a couple of times. Tall, silver-haired and handsome, he left his advertising career in 2013 to set up a design and property development agency. They have been together for 13 years and their home is tastefully busy with the paraphernalia of family life: bikes in the hall; Valentine’s flowers on their last breath; jars of snacks on the kitchen counter; racks of booze. In the downstairs loo, the couple have housed their awards and shared in-jokes for one another – pride of place is reserved for a letter from Rainbird’s old boss, bollocking him for being too drunk at work after a lunch meeting. It’s a sweet, if tiny, insight into their relationship.

“I think I was more ambitious when I was younger,” Horgan says when I ask how much she has changed. “At least in ways where I thought there was no ceiling with that youthful optimism thing. But I’m more confident about what I do now. Not so confident that I would ever sit back and think, ‘This is easy’ or ‘You’re going to love this.’ But confident with what I’m capable of. Realising your limitations cuts out a lot of bullshit.” She still sounds angsty, though. “Yeah, I find it very hard to let opportunities pass by – that keeps me awake at night. I guess I should feel more comfortable and relaxed, but the good news is that I don’t.”

It is symptomatic of our culture that a woman so very much at the top of her game is still, to a degree, jittery with it. But then that nervous energy powers Horgan, and women like her, to keep going – even if it means she can’t sit back and enjoy everything just yet. “You think you’ll spend so much time basking in it and enjoying the fruits of it,” she says. She tells me that she and Delaney have been trying to sit down since the first series of Catastrophe and have a burger and “just talk about it all”, to give themselves a small window to revel in what they have achieved. They have yet to find time to do it. If anything, it was hanging out with Carrie Fisher, with whom she became close friends after casting her in Catastrophe, that reminded Horgan of what a brilliant time it is possible to have in her position.

“When I heard she died, I had a house full of people, my kid came running down with her friends sad and upset for me but also screaming it in my face in front of 20 people. I just went upstairs and stayed upstairs.” Horgan wrote a moving piece for the Guardian on her last night out with Fisher, one involving Salman Rushdie and a pair of chocolate tits.

Horgan, Delaney and Carrie Fisher in Catastrophe
Horgan, Delaney and Carrie Fisher in Catastrophe, filmed shortly before the latter died. Photograph: Ed Miller/Channel 4

“I started writing there and then, but also because I dropped my fucking phone down the toilet and I had all these gorgeous funny texts from her. I was really upset. What if I forgot all that stuff? What if I forgot that night, what if I forget all the stuff she said to me? I had to write it down.”

Hollywood, and Fisher’s stories, haven’t changed her perspective on fame and celebrity, a certain type of which she now feels is too much effort, too damaging. Did she ever crave it?

“Years ago, way back in the day when I was an eejit, of course I did. I think one of the benefits of having started relatively late compared with a lot of people on screen is that you have all that life experience behind you, you see the nonsense and hear the bullshit. I used to have anxiety because I used to think that [parties] is what I should be doing, going to meet Harvey Weinstein. That is a huge pressure off. Now I only go to something if I really, really want to or think there’s going to be nice food.”

Plus, she worries about the impact of the shallowness of showbiz on her daughters. “I don’t know, I think I’m learning all the time despite the fact that I have a teenager. I’m still making mistakes, having to apologise and backtracking stuff. I’m lucky in that she’s quite a young teen, she certainly isn’t trying to act out over her years and I thought that would be a bit of a thing growing up in London, but she likes being a little girl. She sees how hard we work and, hopefully, that’s a good example for her.” How does she deal with the obsession around body image? She sighs. “It’s really hard, really hard having young girls.” True to form, Horgan feels guilty about how much brain space wanting to be thin or beautiful occupies for her, too.

“I think it doesn’t stop. Maybe it does as you get older, but it certainly hasn’t stopped for me and it’s one of the things I dislike the most about myself – that I give a shit, or give way too much of a shit, and that my girls see me giving too much of a shit. The great thing is I’m always one of those people who looks a bit messy. I put makeup on and then my face goes red, or I brush my hair and it’s immediately oosh. I wear clothes and spill things on them, I fall over all the time. Luckily, it looks like I don’t even try.”


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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