“Small Parts in Big Shows and Big Parts in Small Shows”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Sharon Horgan

First published November 2007

Sharon Horgan’s new sitcom, Angelo’s, starts on five in November. On the eve of its transmission, I was loaded up with four preview episodes of the show. I then met the writer and star (who also co-created and appeared in BBC3 comedy Pulling, plus scored a regular role in Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive) for a chat in London’s Convent Garden Hotel. Here’s what happened …

OTT: The obvious thing to compare Angelo’s to is Pulling – but that was quite acerbic and in your face. Were you setting out to write something warmer, gentler?

SHARON HORGAN: No, no. But I was really aware that it was completely different and so I suppose that made me a little bit nervous. I thought, well, if viewers liked Pulling – because generally it was critically well received – they’re not going to be expecting this. I couldn’t work out if that was a good thing or not. But, enough people convinced me it was good to do something completely different. In fact Angelo’s was created before Pulling, believe it or not.

OTT: It’s been three years in the making hasn’t it?

SHARON HORGAN: It’s been about four years. When I initially had the idea, I just found out I was pregnant, and she’s three and a half now! When we made our first pilot, I’d only just had her. We made two mini pilots before the series.

OTT: Why did it take so long? Is that normal?

SHARON HORGAN: It’s not normal. Well, maybe it’s normal for some things … I mean, Pulling was quite quick, because they commissioned it just from one script. Although, obviously, it takes a long time to write it. With Angelo’s, it started off as something completely different. We were at Ealing Studios, and then they shut down. I travelled the project to [production company] Bwark, who had just started up. The show began as a kind of spoof docusoap thing. But by the time we were pitching it, I think everyone was just a bit bored with those kind of parodies. When we came to five, they were saying the same thing, but added, “Look, we love the characters, turn it into a sitcom”. Part of the docusoap was this café, this café owner. And they liked him, so I set it there.

That kind of thing takes time. Two mini pilots. Two scripts before they eventually commissioned the series. And then it takes eight months to write it. And it’s going to take you another three months to film it.

OTT: When they said they wanted to change it to a sitcom, were you resistant?

SHARON HORGAN: I was initially very resistant. There’s just something extremely fun about going out with a single camera and having the actors talk directly into it. And, it just felt more organic and easy. Easy!

OTT: Easy is the key word!

SHARON HORGAN: [Laughs] So when they said turn it into a sitcom, I thought, “Fuck, that’s really hard!”.

OTT: Why?

SHARON HORGAN: Because I thought …

OTT: Structurally it was difficult?

SHARON HORGAN: Well, yeah, that. But more because I really liked it the way it was, and I really liked the fact it didn’t look like anything else. With sitcom I thought, “They want me to set it in a café. That’s just going to look unbelievably traditional. That’s taken sitcom back by 20 years!”. So I was just so scared of that. When I talked to the director and the producer, we said, “We’ll keep the look and filming of it. We’ll keep the character and the tone”. It was that thing where you’ve got to go with it and trust it, because it would work.

We’d done a few workshops with the actors and when I started writing the first episodes, I thought, “No, it’s fine, it’s fine. It doesn’t feel old school”. I just wanted to make something trendy! [Laughs]

OTT: Would you have junked it if you weren’t happy?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah, I nearly did actually.

OTT: Because you do have to compromise to a certain extent to a show made, right?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah, but in the end there wasn’t a compromise. I stuck with it, because I was able to keep all our cast – everyone who was originally with the project. Amazingly they all remained on board. We were able to keep our documentary director. We were just able to do things on our own terms entirely. And so, it didn’t really feel like … I dunno. I don’t know what happens when things start going wrong. Do people bale out? I don’t know. Or do they think, “Well, I’m in it now, I’m just going to make the best of it”. But it never … I’m not saying it got to that stage. I’m just hypothesising …

OTT: There must be a temptation to think, “Well, if I do that, it’s going to be on telly”. You must have to guard against that.

SHARON HORGAN: You do. Yeah.

OTT: And not sell it down the river.

SHARON HORGAN: That’s totally it. And I have that whole thing, actually … it’s so weird remembering it now. I was just thinking, “You know, this isn’t just some kind of decision where I’ll go, ‘Ah, I’ll do it, it’s going to be on the telly’. If this isn’t the right thing to do, I’ll just not do it”. But it soon became apparent that it was the right thing to do.

OTT: Where were you at when you first came up with the idea of Angelo’s? And did it seem a realistic prospect that it would end up on screen?

SHARON HORGAN: Oh, no, not really. I hadn’t been in comedy for that long, but I’d just done a series for Channel 4 called The Pilot Show. And that was about it – apart from a couple of pilots and stuff. You know, a Comedy Lab. That was about the height of my career.

OTT: Was that appearing in or writing for?

SHARON HORGAN: That was appearing in. I was writing for sketch shows, writing bits and pieces here and there. I was trying to get a pilot for my own programme. Getting little breaks. But, I don’t know, they were quite good at Ealing. The people they had there were quite committed. They sort of wanted to give you a chance. They were loyal. So I was writing, but I was thinking, “It’ll never get made”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You still go for it. And it might make you a bit more adventurous. You come up with a million characters if you don’t think it’ll get made. So I wasn’t surprised when, initially, people weren’t going for it.

OTT: What keeps you motivated to do something when you’re not sure there’s going to be an end product? Was it people saying they liked it?

SHARON HORGAN: People always said positive things about it. I think I knew it was funny. When we first did our mini pilot – which was like a taster tape – I really liked it. I kind of trust what I like, really. I brought it over to Ireland and showed my brothers and sisters, and they really enjoyed it. I know what they like, and we all have quite similar tastes. They didn’t watch it and then go, at the end, “Yeah, that’s good”. They were laughing at it and enjoying it. So I thought it was worth sticking with. And I thought the characters were funny. Whatever happened, I wanted to hold on to them.

I actually did a lecture at Nottingham University to some MA students. It was after I’d done a couple of shows, like Annually Retentive. So it was some creative writing students, and I played them the Angelo’s pilot – because you can’t talk for an hour! It got an amazing reaction. Little things like that cheer you on. In the meantime, Pulling had got its own steam going. It had been commissioned. That makes you a bit more confident.

OTT: Did Annually Retentive help?

SHARON HORGAN: It didn’t help getting Pulling commissioned, because I hadn’t done it by then, but it did keep the channel interested, as it came out before that show. I suppose any kind of screen presence – especially in something that is quite well received – helps.

OTT: It often seems the case when people work on lots of projects, they all make it to the screen at the same time. That seems to have happened with you – almost as though you’re launching an offensive!

SHARON HORGAN: [Laughs] Really? Oh-kay!

OTT: Do you feel that’s the way it looks?

SHARON HORGAN: You know what it is? A lot of the channels were quite supportive of me. Within the industry I was kind of … people knew I was knocking around. They knew I was going, “Do you want a look at this?”. They were never saying, “Go away”. They were always saying, “We like you and we like what you do – it’s just not the right time”. And really just one person has to give you a break, and then suddenly everyone goes, “We’ve always liked you!”.

OTT: So was there a point when this did happen? Because by this stage you had writing credits on The Catherine Tate Show, didn’t you?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah. She didn’t use any of my stuff though! [Laughs]. I was commissioned by Tiger Aspect. (Actually I wish they’d take that off my fucking CV!). [Laughs] I don’t know. Some stuff makes it in, some stuff doesn’t. I think she’s got a very specific kind of tone and rhythm and there’s a whole kind of style or writing that she performs. I don’t think I was coming up with that.

But, anyway, I was getting small parts in big shows and big parts in small shows. That kind of thing. When it comes to writing, you can have a career and never get anything on the telly, basically. You’ll have scripts and pilots commissioned but they don’t actually make it. So that’s why I knew people knew about me in the industry, but not outside.

OTT: But you felt it had been a lot of plugging away …

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah, a lot of that.

OTT: Is that still what life is like?

SHARON HORGAN: No, it’s much easier now. With Pulling, the thing that got me that break was writing for a show called Monkey Dust. And I was also writing another pilot, for Harry Thompson. He just liked what I did and he’s good at getting things commissioned. I suppose you need a couple of people along the way to take a chance on you, and that helps.

OTT: So, with Angelo’s, you’ve talked about how it started off as a docusoap thing, and that’s, in part because you wrote it three years ago. So how do you not get bored with ideas you thought up three years ago? Because you have to keep it fresh …

SHARON HORGAN: Well, you need massive, massive rewrites – although I ended up using a lot of what I wrote originally. I was very busy then, but nothing was getting picked up, so I had this massive canon of sketch and sitcom stuff. Tons of stuff! I look at them now, and occasionally I’ll find something I can recycle and it just needs a lick of paint. Other stuff is just, you know, you think, “I can see where that idea came from – but that is appalling!”. You get better at it, don’t you? The more you do it, the more you know how to do it.

OTT: With Pulling, you wrote that with Dennis Kelly. What’s it been like working alone on Angelo’s, and is it odd not having a writing partner?

SHARON HORGAN: Well, I prefer having a writing partner, especially Dennis who is brilliant. With Angelo’s, because it started as a spoof doc – so there was all this talking to the camera – I would do this sort of skeleton scene as it were, and then write the joke and the storyline, but let the actors just come up with the dialogue in between. When we eventually got our series commissioned, we thought we wanted it to have that feel. So we did workshops with the actors, that made things a lot easier! [Laughs] They were coming up with brilliant stuff. Most of them are writer-performers. That’s why they’re so good, I think. Even though I was on my own, and all those rewrites …

The tricky thing with this was having so many characters in 24 minutes. And just having to really tie-up lots of storylines within that short period of time. That was the hard bit. And just worrying if it was as structurally as good as Pulling, because Dennis is really good at that sort of stuff. But I never really felt like I was on my own – I’d got a very good, hands on producer and script editor.

OTT: The stories in Angelo’s do work quite hard, don’t they? Because there are continuing threads. Is the plotting the bit you hate?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah. You come up with your ideas first, and then you … You can’t hold onto those ideas too much, otherwise when you’re writing it, it’s a real pain. Things have got to happen along the way. And these are the things that make you look really clever, because you kind of go, “Oh my God! That could have happened for that reason!”. And suddenly it’s like you’ve had it all thought out before, but didn’t. It’s just coming as you write.

OTT: Serendipity.

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s what makes it fun, but I think, having the overall story arc, that’s kind of tricky, because you don’t want it to seem tagged on. You want people to believe in it and enjoy it. Sometimes with these things, you think, “Do you need it at all?” – but you kind of do. Otherwise it’s so episodic. I think if you want viewers to commit to it, you’ve got to give them a bit of pay-off. This is the reason to stick with it, to follow the story.

OTT: Was it important to you that we like the characters?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah. I was talking about it to Dennis actually. One of the characters in Angelo’s [mime artist Kris] walks around in gold all the time. They are all more cartoon than Pulling. But I really wanted people to still recognise in them themselves, or their loved ones. And to feel moved by the story. There’s a thing that happens in episode five where you find out a bit more about Kris. When we were filming it, it was really important you believed he was really moved and touched by this thing. Even though he’s quite a ridiculous character, you can’t ham the emotion in it. You can’t pretend to cry. You’ve just got to really cry, you know. I think that’s what keeps the real thing there. Even if you’ve got these big characters, you can still care about them.

OTT: I wonder, then, if you’re writing a sitcom – are the bits which are about the emotions and characters the bits you feel most vulnerable about?

SHARON HORGAN: Someone’s always tapping you on the shoulder, talking about the gag quota. And you are worried about that. No matter how much pathos you want to put in, it’s a comedy. But, like Dennis used to say when we were writing about Pulling, worry about the stories and the comedy will come as you write it. You’re a comedy writer! And if it doesn’t, you’re in big trouble! So, I think occasionally … I mean, that’s what your script editor is for [Laughs]! But for me, it’s very, very important for it to be funny. I think you can have single scenes that are just moving without a laugh, but over a whole episode, you want to have a couple of big belly laughs and lots of smiles.

OTT: Unrequited love seems to be a theme in the show. Were you conscious of that? Or is this something you’ve noticed retrospectively?

SHARON HORGAN: I suppose it is a retrospective thing, because I’ve realised as I’ve been going through my older stuff that everything is about … not necessarily unrequited love, but having broken up with someone and how those relationships develop after that. I don’t know, I was just in a lot of relationships! [Laughs] And, you know, that’s kind of what I know about! I do like a love story. I think from my own experience of watching telly, and the enjoyment you get from a romance, they generally tend to be the ones that aren’t fulfilled. Like Dawn and Tim. That was my favourite thing in The Office. Daphne and Niles in Frasier

OTT: The other thing is the infertility storyline [Karen, a police officer, is desperate for a baby - she's married to fellow constable Dave]. Does that come from anywhere in particular, or did you just think it was something good to get into?

SHARON HORGAN: Well, I really liked the idea of policewoman who took far too much of an interest in any lost children, because she’s obviously pining for one. I don’t know. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Some of it was based on friends’ stories, but it’s also based on that over-exaggerated image of a woman at a certain age. I mean, infertility is a big, big part of it, but first and foremost I think their relationship was more important to me. It just seemed she would be the queen of all nags, wanting a baby when your husband is a slacker. I made them police, I think, because I liked the idea that Dave is quite an impotent character. He feels he just ended up there because he never applied himself. I wanted to capture that thing of someone who’s been surrounded by his mates for years, and they’ve all gone off and had families. He’s never succeeded in his life, or his career, his relationship – or anything. Putting him in a police officer’s uniform as well just amused me.

OTT: In some shows, where the women are strong characters, the blokes are useless. But he’s not, is he?

SHARON HORGAN: Oh, no. He’s really good at giving it back. But a lot of the time he can’t be bothered. That’s real life, isn’t it? I don’t like that cliché of the hen-pecked male. But I did want to capture someone’s really shitty relationship!

OTT: A couple of quotes, then, which made me wonder where you think you’re at in your career. There was a big piece in The Guardian earlier in the year which called you “The funniest woman you’ve never heard of”. What do you think of that? Do you want to be the funniest woman that people have never heard of, or do you want to be the one they have?

SHARON HORGAN: God, that’s tricky. I don’t know. I mean, I have ambition for this show. If you’re trying to get things on telly, obviously you want to be heard of, because that’s the only way you can progress your career, I suppose. I tell you what, I quite liked it. Obviously I liked it because it said “funniest woman” which was ridiculous, but a nice thing to say. And my dad really liked it as well. I don’t really like doing too much press and anything like that – so part of it really appealed to me. You can just be a bit behind-the-scenes, doing your job and having a certain amount of success, but no-one knows who the fuck you are. If it were possible to keep that going, that would be fantastic.

OTT: Do you feel you have to become a figurehead for your own work if you want to progress?

SHARON HORGAN: I don’t know really. I mean, I suppose time will tell. Lots of people seem to be able to do it without having to flog themselves. So if some people can do it, it’s got to be possible.

OTT: Do you want recognition?

SHARON HORGAN: Well, you know, with Pulling we got recognition because we were nominated for quite a few awards. We had recognition because we had some very nice reviews. I kind of felt that was enough … It would have been nice to win something! [Laughs] Recognition wouldn’t be like opening a magazine and saying, “Oh brilliant! Look at me! They’ve written all this stuff about me!”.

OTT: Do you cringe to see yourself in something?

SHARON HORGAN: It depends, I suppose, on the article. I don’t know. I’m giving really bad answers. It’s hard to know when you haven’t been there. I’m still quite a newbie, even though I feel like I’ve been around for a bit.

OTT: Another quote that caught my eye is in the press pack for Angelo’s. Miranda Hart says, “I think she’s the mainstream Julia Davies”.

SHARON HORGAN: [Laughs] That’s so funny! She was all proud when she came up with that quote. I mean I can kind of see where she’s coming from. I’m a huge Julia Davies fan. I think she’s one of the best actresses on British TV. But I suppose Nighty Night was more offbeat and crazy than Pulling. So I know what she means, but obviously I’m nowhere near what she’s doing. She’s been around. She’s been in some of my favourite comedies – Big Train, Human Remains, Nighty Night, Blue Jam – all that.

OTT: But you’re the mainstream her.

SHARON HORGAN: Well, Miranda’s nuts! [Laughs]

OTT: We’ve talked about your public persona. But in terms of the comedy firmament, are you keen to make further inroads. Because is Pulling coming to BBC2?

SHARON HORGAN: Yeah, it is. They’re putting it out before it goes on BBC3.

OTT: Is that important to you?

SHARON HORGAN: It is actually. I had an opportunity to write something for BBC1 – Dennis and I were asked. And we just didn’t because we thought we wouldn’t know how, really, and we’d be writing it for someone else’s agenda. You’d get a much bigger audience, but in a way it’s so much nicer to write for a smaller one and to have so much scope. With our scripts, we’re just kind of left to do what we want.

The BBC2 thing was different, because I think you get a different audience. If you’re proud of your show, you want as many people as possible to see it. For me, going to BBC2 is a big thing, because it feels like it’s been given the stamp of approval. I just want people to be able to see it. Because we like it and we’re quite proud of it.

OTT: Do you think you’re ambitious?

SHARON HORGAN: Er, yes. Yes. Definitely. In terms of the fact I started writing really late. I fannied around for years trying to have a go – and never really committing to it. Not really getting the breaks. I didn’t really start working in my chosen profession properly – ie. getting paid – until I was in my early 30s. I’m in a bit of a hurry, you know?

OTT: When you look back, do you think you wasted a lot of time?

SHARON HORGAN: Oh! Don’t say that! … Yeah, probably. The thing is, I wasn’t as good a writer then, either. I look back at what I was writing then – it’s really appalling.

OTT: You’re glad you didn’t make it.

SHARON HORGAN: Really glad! It would have been bad. So a bit of time-wasting, but we wouldn’t have been able to write Pulling if we hadn’t spent most of our 20s being brats. All of the material is experience … well, some of it is imagination. But I’m ambitious in that I’m in a hurry to get as much done and made as possible. I’ve been given an opportunity and it’s really lucky to get a break. I just want to make the most of it.