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I became invisible when I hit 40

Jane Horrocks on how even she has struggled to keep her career on track


‘I went out with Ian Dury but he was too crazy for me’

There’s no mistaking Jane Horrocks. You hear her voice travelling up the stairs long before she walks in, a native Lancastria­n accent you could cut with a knife that’s undimmed by the three decades she’s spent living down south. Nor does she look so very different from when she shot to stardom as a bulimic feminist with a weird fetish for chocolate in Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film Life Is Sweet in 1990. She’s a bit more groomed, the blonde hair cut in a flattering bob. But, two children later – Dylan is now 16, Molly 14 – she appears not to have gained a single ounce in the intervenin­g years.

She’s also instantly recognisab­le from the two characters that have given her lasting fame: Jennifer Saunders’ ditsy secretary Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous (they’d wanted her to play Saffy, the daughter, but she felt she was too old so the part went to Julia Sawalha); and a dotty Prunella Scales’s sensible daughter in the Tesco TV ads. Fellow actors thought she was selling her soul by appearing in a commercial but, ever the pragmatist, she took the same view as the Tesco catchphras­e: Every little helps.

Now she’s landed the starring role in an uplifting new film, Sunshine On Leith, based on a stage musical and the songs of The Proclaimer­s. She plays the wife of Peter Mullan, most recently seen as the brutish paterfamil­ias in Jane Campion’s creepy TV series Top Of The Lake. The film – a cross between Mamma Mia! and The Full Monty – follows three love stories, with the characters bursting into song at the smallest provocatio­n, whether it’s two squaddies walking down the road or Jane’s character emoting a love song as her hus b a nd l ie s stricken in a hospital bed. She has nothing but praise for director Dexter Fletcher. ‘He’s done a fantastic job of making the songs seem an organic part of the storyline. In most musicals, you stop for a song. In this one they flow naturally from the dialogue.’

Sitting with her today, it’s hard to believe she’ll be 50 in January, though she says she’s well aware of the milestone – in more ways than one. ‘I’m not keen on the fact my body is starting to fail me: I feel like an old car where things are starting to go wrong. I get breathless walking upstairs, for example. But I hate exercise – I find it really, really boring – so I’m lucky I have a quick metabolism, which is why I stay reasonably trim. I’m not particular­ly bothered, though, about my age starting with a new number. But a girlfriend of mine once said that, once a woman reaches 40, nobody looks at you any more. You become completely invisible. And she’s absolutely right.

‘It’s also harder for an actress. There are more parts for men than women anyway, but it begins to tail off even more if you’re fema le when you reach your middle years. Throughout my 20s and 30s I was constantly in work.’ By her own admission, though, she turns down quite a few job offers. ‘I’m choosy about the work I accept and have become more so as time’s gone on. The truth is I’m not as satisfied by work as I used to be.’

One project she has enjoyed is Trollied, the supermarke­t comedy-drama in which she plays uptight manageress Julie, the third series of which is cur-

rently being shown on Sky1. ‘I like Julie,’ she says. ‘She’s not married. She doesn’t have children. She’s an unpopular character with no social skills. I’m certainly not the funny one in the cast, something my children complain about. But it makes a change, which is why I enjoy it. I always loved playing Bubble in Ab Fab, but I didn’t want to be cast as her type over and over again.’

In the small Lancashire town of Rawtenstal­l, where she was raised, there was no theatrical tradition in her family. ‘But my mother’s side were all Methodists so there was lots of singing. My nan, Doris, was a singer.’ Jane’s brothers, Clyde and Allister, are an accountant and a mechanic respective­ly. She’s the baby of the family and the only girl. Spoilt, then? ‘Inevitably, yes.’

At school breaktimes she’d perform songs for the other pupils, taking off Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black and Barbra Streisand. ‘I was incredibly shy but had a good friend called Patsy who was very popular and who would urge me on. We were a great double act. I did all the voices and the stupid stuff and she was like the compere. But I never thought it might be something I’d do profession­ally, though I did think I’d like to be an actor. Later on my mother Barbara found out about acting courses, but not in a showbiz mother kind of way.’

Jane applied to a raft of drama schools and was rejected by every single one except RADA. Rather than feeling like a fish out of water, she settled in quickly. ‘They were such an eclectic mix – and talented, too. Imogen Stubbs, Ralph Fiennes, Neil Dudgeon, Iain Glen and Jason Watkins, who’s in Trollied with me, were all contempora­ries. We were a famous year, an exceptiona­l collection of people.’

One Easter holiday, she earned extra cash by dressing up as Snoopy and parading around the linen department of Harrods. ‘It was incredibly hot inside the costume and I ended up getting glandular fever and then had to take half a term off. So boo to Snoopy!’

On graduation she was taken on by the Royal Shakespear­e Company. ‘I had a lovely time there. I learnt to cook and I learnt to drive,’ she says, a little mischievou­sly. She left after a year to work on a film with Mike Leigh that never made it to the screen. As it turned out, they collaborat­ed again, and highly successful­ly, on Life Is Sweet with Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. ‘Working with Mike on a character is a collaborat­ion between actor and director, creating the character from scratch, which is a huge luxury and a joy.’

As her career progressed, so did her love life. She’s been with her partner, writer Nick Vivian, for 17 years now. He wrote the sitcom Ted And Alice (with Stephen Tompkinson as an alien trying to win Dawn French’s love), the

screenplay for the TV biopic of Gracie Fields written specifical­ly for Jane, and is currently working on a film, the subject of which she’s not allowed to divulge. The couple have never married, and it looks like they’ll stay that way. ‘Once I asked him to marry me and he said, “Oh, bog off!” Then he asked me on another occasion but I wasn’t interested. Last year, though, I got down on bended knee in front of the kids and asked him to marry me. Dylan and Molly were appalled. They said it was the grossest thing they’d ever seen. The idea of us marrying seemed to make them feel insecure. “What if you then split up and got divorced?” they asked. If they’d been excited by the idea, I think we’d have taken the plunge.’

Her taste in men, she says, has always veered between the posh and the rough and ready. Nick is a Cambridge graduate. The late singer Ian Dury, with whom she stepped out for one tempestuou­s year, was from the other side of the tracks. They’d appeared together in a Royal Court production of writer Jim Cartwright’s play Road. She’s been quoted as saying of him, ‘I’ve always chosen men who, apart from being bright, were also untameable. Ian was the most unpredicta­ble of them all.’ Now she says, ‘Ian was funny and original, but it was an on-off relationsh­ip, mainly off. He was a little bit too crazy for me.’

One of Jane’s greatest successes was The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, a musical play written specially for her by Jim Cartwright, who heard her singing some of her spot-on impersonat­ions of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and the like when he was sitting in her back garden one day. Two years later, Jim’s script landed on her mat. ‘At the time, I rather wished it hadn’t because I honestly didn’t know if my musical impersonat­ions were good enough for public consumptio­n. In rehearsals I was so nervous I sang behind a pillar.’ Little Voice was first staged to huge acclaim at the National Theatre in 1993 where it was directed by Sam Mendes, prior to winning his Oscar for American Beauty and then marrying (and divorcing) Kate Winslet. He and Jane enjoyed a threeyear romance. ‘We had a lovely time together but eventually the relationsh­ip ran its course.’

The musical transferre­d to the West End and was later made into a film with Michael Caine and Brenda Blethyn. There was talk of Gwyneth Paltrow playing the title role but it went to Jane and, again, it was a big success. So much so, in fact, that she subsequent­ly made an album, The Further Adventures Of Little Voice, on which she duetted in a variety of famous vocal guises with the likes of Ewan McGregor (he’d also been in the film of Little Voice), the late Dean Martin (with her voice added to one of his songs) and Robbie Williams. When Robbie then did a swing album of his own, Jane and he sang their version of Bobby Darin’s Things.

Hers has been a varied and distinctiv­e career as she’s veered between comedy, drama and singing. So is she contented? ‘With my family life, yes. But career-wise, I feel I’m at stalemate. I do like being in a studio and making music. I’m doing some of that at the moment but I’m not sure in which direction I’m going to go with it. And I’d like to do another theatre play but it’s finding the right one.’ Oddly, she doesn’t watch TV. ‘I’m not interested. I must be the only person in Britain who didn’t follow Broadchurc­h. I don’t go to the theatre much, or the cinema. I’d sooner read a good book.’

If she could choose the words on her headstone, what would they be? She doesn’t hesitate. ‘There was an actor I worked with when I was at RADA who referred to me as uncommonly common. I was furious at the time but I gradually came to realise he was absolutely right. It was, and is, a big compliment.’ Sunshine On Leith is in cinemas from Friday. Trollied is on Thursdays at 9pm on Sky1.

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 ??  ?? As Bubble in Ab Fab With Peter Mullan in Sunshine On Leith
As Bubble in Ab Fab With Peter Mullan in Sunshine On Leith
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