‘The silliness levels have really topped out’: Britain’s funniest band blast into TV

Known for their riotous comedy from backwards congas to raps about vacuum cleaners, Alex Horne and the Horne Section now have their own musical sitcom ... about being given a sitcom by mistake

Alex Horne stands in front of a camera, arms hanging limply by his side and a worried look on his face. The barn he’s in has been converted into a talkshow set, complete with guest sofa, an audience made up of crew members and extras, and a five-piece band who hover expectantly behind him. Horne looks characteristically put-upon, the way we’re used to seeing him as Greg Davies’s assistant in Taskmaster, the way anyone would look if they were trying to host live TV from their own house.

Except this isn’t actually his house. It’s not a real chatshow either, but rather the premise for his new sitcom, The Horne Section TV Show. It is, however, his real band. The Horne Section have grown into one of the UK’s most popular musical comedy acts over the past decade, with national tours, a much-loved podcast and frequent light entertainment appearances, from 8 out of 10 Cats Do Countdown to Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer. Their creative silliness manifests in many ways, from lip-syncing a backwards conga, to performing the macarena as a high-stakes blindfolded tango, to a rapping Henry vacuum cleaner (“Force my little nose on your dirty carpet / I couldn’t give a toss it’s quite cathartic”). And if their songs have yet to reach the charts they remain ear worms par excellence, from an ode to everyone’s favourite former health secretary, Hat Mancock, to the catchy Chris Hoy Loves a Saveloy.

Now they are starring in their own Channel 4 comedy, scripted by Horne and based on the joyfully meta premise that they’ve only ended up with a show thanks to a mistake by a Channel 4 commissioning editor.

All that jazz … (from left) The Horne Section: Mark Brown, Ed Sheldrake, Ben Reynolds, Will Collier, Alex Horne and Joe Auckland.
All that jazz … (from left) The Horne Section: Mark Brown, Ed Sheldrake, Ben Reynolds, Will Collier, Alex Horne and Joe Auckland. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Guardian

The resultant homemade vibe – Horne booking guests in his kitchen and rehearsing the band in the basement – is the perfect fit for an act whose comedy riffs on its shambolic nature (their songs sometimes end abruptly after only a single pun). The scene being filmed is a musical collaboration between the band’s happy-go-lucky trumpeter, Joe Auckland, and guest Big Zuu, who is currently rapping about how much he hates donkeys. Big Zuu is improvising, because until a couple of hours ago he hadn’t realised he was supposed to be acting in a sitcom, and thought he was turning up to do some genuine TV chat. The confusion, very much in the spirit of the show, has demanded some hasty line learning.

Watching from the other side of the camera is bass player Will Collier, absent from this scene because, according to the script, he’s trapped elsewhere. On his phone is a video Auckland sent him the night before, practising dance moves in his pants. “We’ve been filming together for five weeks now,” says Collier, “so the silliness levels have really topped out. Plus we have to do so many takes we honestly can’t tell what’s funny any more.”

Acting has been daunting for five jazz musicians, who have never improvised away from their instruments before. After filming the pilot last year, they cringed so hard when they watched it they assumed Channel 4 would cancel it. Instead it provided acting lessons, which saxophonist Mark Brown describes as “awful”, and Collier as “terrifying”. “The teacher wanted us to ‘let go’, but I don’t let go, so I just pretended to, as much as I could.” Collier pauses. “That’s acting, right?”

This tale of how a bunch of session musicians became sitcom stars is four decades in the making. Horne has been friends with Auckland and drummer Ben Reynolds since primary school (their youthful indiscretions included setting fire to a disused train carriage). Brown, who plays guitar when he’s not on sax, was Auckland’s housemate at music college, and they performed in a band with Collier. When they were working at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and Horne was doing standup at the fringe, they would attend each other’s gigs.

Hand made… Alex Horne in The Horne Section TV Show.
Hand made… Alex Horne in The Horne Section TV Show. Photograph: Channel 4

To this day Horne claims to detest jazz. “But I liked Joe’s trumpet solos,” he says, “because I knew when to clap at the end of them.” “We’d get drunk and say we should do something with music and comedy,” says Brown. The idea was repeated fruitlessly for years until Horne finally beatboxed with them at a Ronnie Scott’s gig. The Horne Section debuted at the fringe in 2010; they had only written a couple of songs, but with special guests every night, from Tim Minchin to Sara Pascoe, their anarchic shows could run for more than two hours. Brown says it helped that by the time they went on stage, around midnight, “everyone was belted”.

The format of their live shows – daft songs the musicians write themselves (sea shanties about biscuits, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons rewritten as a pizza recipe) strung together with deadpan jokes by Horne – proved equally successful as a Radio 4 series and a long-running podcast. Horne has no musical qualifications beyond grade three in French horn, but that’s part of the joke; he fronts the band like a petty autocrat, and bluffs his way through the singing. The band provide the perfect comic foil, a bunch of sweet-natured, shambolic sidemen who seem genuinely happy just to be there.

Their chemistry is equally authentic off-stage. “We’ve just got closer over the years,” says keyboard player Ed Sheldrake. “Well, we’ve literally moved miles apart from each other,” counters Horne. The Horne Section is a sidehustle for them all – Taskmaster takes up most of Horne’s time, while the musicians back major acts from Robbie Williams to Madness to Noel Gallagher – but they do seem to miss each other when they’re apart.

Landing their own TV show has been an unrealised dream for years. They have appeared as the house band on panel shows, from Never Mind the Buzzcocks to The Last Leg, but even Horne’s rising star and the runaway success of Taskmaster struggled to secure them their own gig. In 2018 they filmed The Horne Section Television Programme at the London Palladium for Dave, and Horne was “pretty sure we would get a series out of that”. Brown says: “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

It didn’t help that the band used up all their songs in the two-hour special. “That was Dave’s idea,” says Auckland. “They thought: ‘If we get them to put all their material in this one, they won’t be able to do any more.’ And yet what has got commissioned,” says Collier, baffled, “is us acting.”

The sitcom script is studded with their experiences in the industry. When Horne tells the Channel 4 executive, played by Georgia Tennant, that there’s no music on TV, she responds that there’s Jools Holland and the theme tune to the news. Even their awkward pitch to the channel is true to form, though it’s safe to say that the real-life version didn’t have John Oliver adding unhelpful commentary via video call.

Cutting edge … Big Zuu in The Horne Section TV Show.
Cutting edge … Big Zuu in The Horne Section TV Show. Photograph: Channel 4

Oliver’s The Last Week Tonight host’s presence on the show is one the band members are still in disbelief about (at one pointhe even stands in for Collier on bass, and looks quite a natural). Persuading other people to appear was not so easy, and the sheer silliness of what they might be asked to do – think Anneka Rice having a mushroom flashback – put off a few. But those who ended up on the show have proved thoroughly game: you’ll never see Dr Ranj in the same light.

“He had the hardest job,” says Horne, who cast the affable daytime doctor in an unusually aggressive role. “He had to throw his microphone across the set,” says Sheldrake. “They put a mattress off-camera for him to throw it at, but he kept missing and smashing the scenery.” Another favourite cameo was Imogen Heap, who happens to own the property they were filming at. “In between shots she said: ‘Let’s have a little jam,’” says Reynolds. “Usually we got in trouble for messing around but this time they couldn’t stop us because it was her idea.” “And her house,” says Brown.

For the supporting cast, Horne unearthed lesser-known talent: “We didn’t want the same old faces,” he says. Having hit it off with US comic Desiree Burch when she competed in Taskmaster, Horne offered her a role as his reluctant producer; Tim Mahendran, who plays the show’s long-suffering runner, looks likely to be a breakout star in his first TV role. “When we auditioned for that part there was a different person who I initially wanted,” admits Horne. “Our executive producer said: ‘You’re completely wrong.’ He was right. Tim was so funny.”

Mahendran was appearing in the musical & Juliet while they filmed – at 5.30pm each day he had to be driven from the set in Essex to the West End – but it was only at the end of the shoot that his character got his own moment in front of the mic. “We were like: ‘There’s actually someone here who can sing,’” says Collier. “And we failed to use him till the very last second.” Should the sitcom get a second series, Mahendran can expect a bigger role.

The sitcom’s plot is interspersed with good-looking music videos that could easily pass for sincere if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics – the one about pea-farming reels you all the way in before knocking you out with its punchline chorus. Horne wrote the initial pilot in two and a half days, and says it’s easy to write for characters you already know. Each of the band plays an exaggerated version of themselves: Brown is grumpy and too cool to be involved, Auckland deems himself “the village idiot”. Horne objects: “I think you’re a savant, aren’t you?” “I don’t know what that is,” says Auckland.

The band’s WhatsApp group is already bursting with skits, song ideas and scenarios for another script – after all, they would like to make the most of their new acting skills. Sheldrake, for instance, has learned that if you write a funny song about being naked, you’ll end up having to perform it to camera in flesh-coloured pants. Auckland now knows that if a script calls for you to raise one eyebrow but you physically can’t, you should really tell someone before you get to set. “That was two days wasted, wasn’t it?” says Brown.

Brown says they miss the audience interaction of their live tour, not to mention the service station food, but Auckland has noticed one advantage to telly: “It’s over quicker,” he points out. “It’s been a learning curve,” says Horne, “but we got better.” He looks at Sheldrake. “Didn’t we?”

The Horne Section TV Show will be on All 4 from 3 November and will air on Channel 4 soon.


Emma John

The GuardianTramp

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