Her sitcoms brilliantly skewer the dilemmas of modern women. But Horgan feels a change is coming, she tells Louis Wise.
The night before we met, Sharon Horgan was in a quandary. The writer and actress best known for the comedy-dramas Pulling, Catastrophe and Divorce (the titles say it all) was at an event, trying to make connections. Then her elder daughter texted to say she wasn't well. Horgan wasn't sure what to do. Should she leave? Could anyone give her a hand? In the end, she did go, but she didn't speak to people she wanted to speak to, and her daughter was narked with her for being late.
"And that's just an exact snapshot of what it's like," says the 49-year-old, her Irish accent intact despite nearly 30 years in Britain. She lives in Hackney, east London, with her husband and two daughters, aged 15 and 11. "You're f****** up on both counts, but, you know," she laughs ruefully, "you're trying, you're having a go."
This is a situation millions know. What makes it special is that it's also Horgan's professional bread and butter, or maybe crisps and wine. Over the course of her signature shows (mostly co-written, sometimes starring her), she has laid out graphically the dilemmas of many 21st-century women — the ones who like a drink and a shag, anyway. From the smutty, grubby single years of her breakthrough show, Pulling, a cult hit more than a decade ago, to the stomach-churning ups and downs of marriage in Catastrophe, which just wrapped up after four series, she has made us laugh a lot, and cry a fair bit, too. Add to that co-writing credits on hits such as the BBC's Motherland, or producing shows for Sarah Jessica Parker, Aisling Bea and Jessica Hynes, and Horgan's oeuvre is perhaps best summed up as her keeping all the plates spinning even as she smashes one after another, to grimly hilarious effect.
"No one is getting it right," she says when we meet at a London members' club — although, quite beautiful and stylish in a strappy top and modish jeans, she doesn't look like someone getting it wrong. "And if they're saying they are, they're lying, you know?"
Whenever Horgan acts, you can see her eyes fluttering left to right, a slight fidget before she says the next awful thing; in real life, this is there, but more muted. She apologises for being jetlagged — she has just returned from the Toronto film festival — but that doesn't quite explain her. She is sharp, attentive, but also wary and often bemused. I'd compare our chat to a game of cat and mouse, only I'd have to admit that really she's the cat, languid yet ready to pounce. But then there is also a surprising fragility. She freely admits she's in a bit of a funk.
"I'm definitely in some sort of phase," she says with a weird high laugh. "I just haven't been able to label it yet." Whatever "headspace" she's in now, "I wouldn't say it's 100% healthy", although she follows that up with a laugh. A small part of it is wondering what her next big project is, but another part is that "it's a tough, tough time of life — you get to this age and everything starts changing, people start growing up..." She peters out. What it does mean, definitely, is that she is "quietly watching, and I'm realising something is changing in me a little bit. I'm thinking — what bit of that do I document?"
This hovers over us the whole time, as Horgan moves around in an absurdly low chair, adjusting her posture, her hair and her thoughts. Still, the second series of Motherland, which, after all, she is here to promote, is a suitable place to start. A sitcom about a group of harried parents who bond (and feud) over the school run, it is a co-creation with Graham and Helen Linehan, and Holly Walsh. Anna Maxwell Martin's Julia is very Horgan, a short-fused mum always one babycino away from a breakdown. Certainly, Horgan says she was "much more Julia" back in the early days, "just breaking my bollocks running around the place"; she has proper childcare now. Like everyone, she'd rather have been Julia's bezzie, Liz, played with deadpan brilliance by Diane Morgan.
"She's not judging herself," Horgan sighs, "and she's not really judging anyone else. That's the true superpower — to forget what everyone else is doing and just find a way through it." She thinks it's "impossible" to have it all and says we should "be at peace with that", although her poor characters aren't. "We knew we wanted to make their lives worse," she says with a big grin.
Every show Horgan is involved in gets a dollop of her life. What Motherland mainly borrows is that she met two of her closest mates on the mum-and-baby circuit. "One spotted me at a group and could see I was dead behind the eyes." Liz is closely based on a friend. But there is obviously a slight time-lapse between life and writing. Pulling chronicled much of Horgan's twenties, spent being a wastrel in Camden, but by the time she made it, she was with her future husband and soon accidentally pregnant, material that would feed Catastrophe a few years on.
Has her comedy ever worked as therapy? "Completely. I mean, not necessarily in as healthy a way as therapy. Because... you say on the page what you probably should have said in real life, or play out on the page what you probably should have done in real life." Has she ever had therapy to compare it with? "Yes." And how was that? A small inhalation.
"I kind of have a love-hate relationship with it. It used to just be hate-hate, and now... I find it really useful." She started in her late teens, "and I was quick to give up. Then I started again in my early forties and still gave it up quickly. Then, sort of recently." What changed this time? "Oh! I realised I needed it, and not that I should do it." There is by now a distinct sound of teeth being pulled. Why did she go in her teens? "Er, I think because I was deeply unhappy. And I probably didn't know how to deal with it."
Horgan is the second of five children. She was born in Hackney, but the family soon decamped to Ireland, and her parents ran a turkey farm. She went to convent school, which she didn't like, and it doesn't sound stimulating: the highlight was doing Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. (She was Pooh-Bah.) She has said it was her job to make her mother laugh. Why? Did her mum need it?
"No!" she insists. "She's adorable. I think it's just my favourite thing, I don't know why." Her father, meanwhile, "is really funny, very dry. Great on text." Her parents have always liked her material, which is "quite a surprise for me as well". As for her siblings, she roughly subscribes to the idea that your order in the group affects how you turn out, saying that "your second kid's a bit more laid-back, or a bit crazier". She loves them all. One brother, Shane, was an international rugby star (and now writes for the sports pages of The Sunday Times). So you're just the second most successful sibling? She gives a huge honk, as though it's something that hasn't dared to be said in a while.
"Forty-two was rough," she says, looking back, which correlates, of course, with one of her attempts at therapy. She sounds frankly knackered by all her work commitments across Britain, America and elsewhere, although she doesn't want to sound ungracious. Then again, isn't she someone who has to keep busy to keep afloat? "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," she nods. "Definitely."
One thorny issue is that she'd love to write about having a teen and a preteen in the house, but she can't. "It's really difficult, because I find my 15-year-old fascinating, and her friends and her whole world, but I know I'll never write about it." At school, already, other kids ask them why their mum "has written herself having sex, like, five times in the first minutes of that show". Her daughters have laughed it off, but still, she says: "That's enough. That's plenty." Yet, for a writer who mines her life, it's a rather large mine to avoid.
There's also the hangover from Catastrophe. She misses her colleagues, her characters, and feels the pressure to do it all over again. "You always feel like you have to up your game," she says. "So you sit down with your laptop and you go, 'Right, I need to write a beloved sitcom!'" But that is, of course, death to the whole enterprise.
"Everyone tells you the smart thing to do is to do nothing," she explains, and she starts banging the table with her hands. "Like, just open your mind up a bit. Go for walks. Take a holiday, let stuff come in. Which was the plan, but sometimes when you do that" — another rueful chuckle — "other stuff creeps in." What is eating her? You can only guess. One thing's for sure, though: I very much look forward to the show.
Written by: Louis Wise
© The Times of London