After three decades spent demonstrating a versatility almost beyond compare, flitting with ease from comedy to drama to singing, Jane Horrocks is now to be found hosting the podcast Queen Bees with her friend Esther Coles. Although she doesn’t own a beehive herself, there is still a very strong argument for calling Horrocks Britain’s pre-eminent beekeeping podcaster, or at least one of them.
Bees weren’t actually supposed to feature in this interview. We were meant to discussBloods, Sky’s new medical sitcom created by and co-starring Samson Kayo, in which the pair play a couple of mismatched paramedics. And yet, as you will soon discover, the conversation inexorably slid beeward.
Bloods is a big, broad comedy with a smattering of slapstick and a terrific cast that includes Julian Barratt and Lucy Punch, but the thing you’ll stay for is the easy, sparking chemistry between Horrocks and Kayo. There’s an almost 30-year age difference between them, with Horrocks in her late 50s and Kayo not yet 30, and they each came to the show from hugely different backgrounds, yet they pop so well it often feels like you’re watching a veteran double act.
As they chat to me over Zoom from their London homes, I ask how easily their chemistry came to life. “I can’t stand her,” sighs Kayo. “All she does is talk about bees.” “And he’s on his phone all the time,” Horrocks responds, “ignoring me.”
This seems to be the dynamic. Kayo, as the lead creative voice on Bloods, will often go first answering questions, with Horrocks acting as his gently mocking sidekick. When the tables are turned and the questions are aimed directly at Horrocks, she’ll stiffen slightly, suddenly much more aware of her answers. Kayo notices and teases her out of it. It’s charming to witness. Either they are extremely fond of each other, or they’re world champion fakers. I’d put money on the former.
Bloods began life as a Sky comedy short in 2018, with Kayo playing an overzealous paramedic-cum-YouTuber with Horrocks as his new partner. To hear Kayo describe it, you’d think the idea was never meant to extend past those initial 10 minutes. “I created the short and I was like, ‘Yeah, there you go – boom! There’s a short.’” He smiles. People liked it, he says, and then he ran into its producer, Ash Atalla, at an awards show. “He was like, ‘Hey yeah, we should be good for a series.’ I said, ‘Of what?’ He said, ‘Bloods.’ I was like, ‘Is it?’”
“Is it?” repeats Horrocks, teasing him with a wide-eyed millennial London drawl.
Kayo currently finds himself in the middle of the sort of career explosion that Horrocks enjoyed back in the 1990s. This has given them a sense of shared experience. Prior to Bloods, he had just come off a hot streak that saw him star in the BBC Three sketch show Famalam, the sitcoms Timewasters and Sliced, Nick Frost’s Amazon show Truth Seekers, as well as a Robert Downey Jr film. As I’m reeling off his filmography, Kayo interrupts. “Don’t start Jane off,” he says with a wince, having clearly been chided about his packed schedule before. “Just today,” says Horrocks, “he went off and made a short film during lunchtime.”
However, all this momentum gave Kayo no time to write Bloods himself. The writers’ room spent five weeks generating ideas, then the scripts were knocked out by two writers: Paul Doolan, co-creator of Horrocks’ last sitcom, Trollied; and Nathan Bryon, who co-wrote the short and also penned the award-winning Puffin book Look Up!, about a science-mad young black girl trying to distract her brother from his phone.
Nevertheless, Bloods is still undeniably Kayo’s show. In fact, he had just started training as a paramedic before his acting career took off. “I went to the Jobcentre and applied to become an ambulance support driver,” he says. “We started doing the training, just the basics. You have to do first aid, then study how to drive the ambulance.”
Filmed between lockdowns in London last summer, Bloods has a kind of deliberate cheeriness to it. It’s so sunny and good-natured that – and I admit that this probably says more about me than the show – I started to suspect an ulterior motive. Horrocks’ character, a recent divorcee named Wendy, seems almost too cheerful. At times, I say, her behaviour borders on pathological. “You said that with a level of hatred in your voice,” bristles Horrocks. I attempt to explain myself, but end up blurting out that I wouldn’t be surprised if her character turned out to be a serial killer. “All right,” she says, eyes narrowing. “OK.”
Kayo comes to the rescue with a nod to Horrocks’ Lancashire roots. “Do you know what? I think people from up north are much friendlier than Londoners. I feel like they have a much more inviting energy – and you see that with Wendy.” Then, just to be clear, he adds: “She’s not a serial killer.”
Bloods is being heralded as Horrocks’ big return to TV, which is only partly true, since she appeared in the ITV drama The Singapore Grip last year. But Trollied was her last regular TV job, and that ended five years ago. Still, it would be a mistake to call her idle. She took her musical show If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me to the Latitude festival in 2016. She recently reprised her role as Babs in the forthcoming Chicken Run 2. She starred in a production of Beckett’s Endgame with Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming. And she’s the voice of the telephone in the Teletubbies reboot.
“I like doing lots of different things,” she says, “dabbling in different art forms. I’m doing a piece for the Brighton festival next, actually – an installation I’ve made with an artist. My daughter is doing the music for it. I do like a variety.”
I had read that Horrocks now prefers to concentrate on comedy because, after a career of often intense dramatic roles – Mark Rylance once directed her to wet herself on stage every night during a run of Macbeth – it simply takes less out of her. “Yeah, that’s right,” she nods. “I just enjoy it more. I had such a good time on Bloods, maybe because I was so happy doing it.”
The role she remains best known for is Bubble, her scene-stealing character from Absolutely Fabulous. It seems as if, despite a career spent determinedly avoiding pigeonholes, that role is stuck in the public consciousness. Still, the Ab Fab film came out five years ago, and felt like a definitive ending. Does she feel she has finally left Bubble behind?
“Yes,” she says, but is hesitant. “I mean, yeah. I … that’s … yeah. I don’t know. I…”
“Look at her!” hoots Kayo. “Quick – let’s talk about bees!”
So we do. My dad’s birthday is nearing and he has always wanted a beehive. So I ask Horrocks what sort I should get him. And she instantly relaxes and becomes much more expansive. “OK,” she smiles. “Well, he needs to find out how much forage there is in his area, because a lot of people are keen on having beehives, but there’s not enough forage for the bees. It’s something you really need to take seriously. If you’re going to do it properly, you need to think about lots of different aspects.” She pauses, then says: “Have you fallen asleep yet, Samson?”
“I fell asleep,” he says. “But I’ve woken back up again.”
“This subject matter makes Samson fall asleep,” Horrocks explains. But why? Doesn’t he care about bees?
“Some of this stuff,” he says, “I’m just like, ‘Ugh!’ But when she told me about the solitary bee, I thought, ‘Well, that’s quite cool.’ If I was going to be a bee, I’d probably be a solitary bee.”
“You like partying too much,” says Horrocks with a frown. “You wouldn’t last long as a solitary bee. I would be a worker bee, definitely. A little busy bee.”
They’re warming to this now, having fun. I can’t bear to stop them. “I love bees, man,” says Kayo. “They’re cool.”
“Would you be able to determine the difference,” says Horrocks, “between a wasp and a bee?”
“Yeah, 100%. Bees are more fatter than wasps.”
“Wasps are bigger than bees,” corrects Horrocks.
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure wasps are bigger than bees. The honey bees anyway, which are the most common bees.”
“OK. Are wasps longer?”
“They are longer, yeah. But not longer than the queen bee, because she’s got to store all her eggs in there.”
“See what I’m saying?” grins Kayo. “This is what she does. And then I start dozing off.”