Sharon Horgan: It gets boring saying: ‘I’m Irish, actually’

Stories of 2018: The writer and actor raised on a farm in Co Meath is now a vital chronicler of London life

Writer and actress Sharon Horgan: “London gets in your blood in a way that Ireland does.” Photograph:  Michael Rowe/Contour by Getty Images

Writer and actress Sharon Horgan: “London gets in your blood in a way that Ireland does.” Photograph: Michael Rowe/Contour by Getty Images

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Sharon Horgan gets to deliver an excellent recurring joke in the ripping new US comedy Game Night. Saddled with an idiot who seeks to exploit her character’s brainpower for Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit, Horgan finds herself repeatedly introduced as British. She explains she’s: “Irish, actually”. She’s told that’s the same thing. “It’s really not,” she keeps replying.

I’m betting she inserted that into John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s film for the amusement of the home audience.

“No, actually,” she laughs. “John and Jon, when they were rewriting, had worked out they wanted me to do it. So they then popped that in. They worked it out for themselves.”

Bright men. Does that happen a lot to her?

“It’s just about annoying enough that it’s worth correcting people,” she says. “It gets boring saying: ‘Irish, actually’. But we really shouldn’t let it go.”

Horgan uses her Irishness to interesting ends. Raised on a turkey farm in Co Meath, focused and businesslike beneath a brush of brown hair, the writer and actor could hardly sound more like a middle class Leinster woman. Over the last decade or so, she has, however, developed into a vital chronicler of contemporary London life. In her first TV series, Pulling, she played one of several young woman surviving in the commuter belt. Her much-adored mainstream breakthrough, Catastrophe, written with co-star Rob Delaney, dealt with the pressures of parenthood. I wonder if she feels Englishness seeping into her.

“No actually. I think it works the opposite way,” she says. “The longer you spend away from home the more you need a connection. Because your accent goes. You have kids who are 100 per cent British. They sound different. You lose a grip on it. I don’t know if it’s the same for all diasporas. But it is for us. There’s an intense cultural relevance being Irish. You battle to keep that. Even at the risk of being very obnoxious. But I call myself a Londoner.”

Yes. That’s an interesting phenomenon. It is possible for the Irish – and the Welsh and the Dutch and the Kenyans – to call themselves Londoners without becoming English.

“Yeah. I totally believe that,” she says.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being English.

“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with being English,” she laughs. “It’s just the opposite of being Irish. Being a Londoner is also a cultural thing. London gets in your blood in a way that Ireland does.”

Turkey farm

Horgan was, in fact, born in the English capital. She and her family moved back to the old sod when she was just four and set about raising their turkeys. She went to school in Drogheda. She had a crack at a foundation course in art. Eventually, as a young adult, she drifted back to London.

So, what can a person learn about life from working on a turkey farm.

“It teaches you that Christmas is shit,” she says. “My brothers and sisters and I are super-tight. We reflect on that time a lot. It was fun. You got taken out of school to pluck. But it was stressful seeing your parents work at that level at a point when other parents were chilling out.”

Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan in Game Night. Photograph: Hopper Stone/SMPSP © 2017 Warner Bros
Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan in Game Night. Photograph: Hopper Stone/SMPSP © 2017 Warner Bros

Ah yes, the Horgan family. She is one of five busy siblings. It’s been more than a decade when we last met and, at that point in her career, the interviewer felt obliged to bring up her brother, Shane Horgan. As she then promoted her under-appreciated series Angelo’s, she registered as the less famous of the two. Catastrophe is now a huge hit. She has written the acclaimed HBO series Divorce for Sarah Jessica Parker. She appears in Game Night with Rachel McAdams and Justin Bateman. I’d tentatively say she’s now more famous than the former rugby footballer.

“Aha! Shane is the most supportive brother you could ever have. He doesn’t give a shit.”

But she’s more famous. Come on.

“Not in Ireland. Well… I don’t know.”

The line of facetious prodding is shut down politely and diplomatically. Quite right too.

At any rate, it took a while for her career to kick into gear. She did the odd play. She sold bongs in a head shop. When she was 27, uncertain that the industry would ever take an interest, she started an undergraduate course in English and American studies at Brunel University. She graduated in 2000.

Endlessly articulate, more serious than you might expect (comic writers get this all the time, right?), Horgan does not strike me as the sort of person who would casually waste her time or anybody else’s.

“It was always fun,” she says. “It just wasn’t a very productive time. The only regrets would be that I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could do what I really wanted to do. A lot of young women have that. They feel they’re not quite good enough. But I wouldn’t have been able to write Pulling if I hadn’t had wilderness years.”

Pulling was first broadcast in 2006. That doesn’t sound like such a long time ago, but it was an era when women were criminally underserved by mainstream comedy. They were allowed to be funny, but they often found themselves scolding the men for their even funnier bad behaviour. I get the sense that Horgan and her contemporaries were making a positive effort to dismantle those patronising conventions. The women now had as good jokes as the men. They weren’t there as scolding choruses. They drove the action.

Painful honesty

“There are 100 per cent exceptions,” she says. “But narrative, straightforward sitcoms tended to be written by men and the female characters had a nagging quality. Or they were setting up better jokes for the men. So it was important to create funny female characters. Often their gender wasn’t a thing at all. The stories could have worked the other way around.”

Nobody should get complacent, but it feels as if the situation has improved. The agreeably different Derry Girls (working-class Irish women) and Fleabag (London Bohemian women) are the most acclaimed comedies of recent years. Few other movie stars can open a film like Melissa McCarthy. And so on.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney play a couple struggling with the trials of parenthood in Catastrophe. Photograph: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney play a couple struggling with the trials of parenthood in Catastrophe. Photograph: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

“Oh it’s hugely improved,” Horgan says. “With Pulling there was a sense that this is ‘our female comedy’. We have ticked that box. People now know that audiences are prepared to watch men and women be funny. The industry is a beast of a thing. Something that starts out so white and male isn’t going to change overnight. But it is changing.”

If Horgan has a trademark it is a painful honesty. Catastrophe trades in truths about its core relationship – some universal, others particular – that are often awkward to sit through. The equally wonderful Motherland, co-written by Horgan with a star team, is ruthless about the way urban mothers compete. She wouldn’t deny that much of this is plucked from personal experience. Married to businessman Jeremy Rainbird since 2005, she raises two children in a corner of newly fashionable Hackney. I suspect Rainbird must occasionally recognise himself on screen and wince.

“Ha ha! No. I have been doing it for years,” she says. “Sometimes I use friends’ stories. I lifted a story a friend told me for Motherland. I brought an early cut around to her and showed her. I genuinely took something very specific. I think I am very honest about that.”

Graham Greene famously said there should be “a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”.

Yes?

“Ah, you just have to make it look like you have the splinter of ice.”

Crafty.

Game Night opens on March 3rd

Sharon Horgan in the new US comedy Game Night. Photograph: Hopper Stone/SMPSP © New Line Cinema
Sharon Horgan in the new US comedy Game Night. Photograph: Hopper Stone/SMPSP © New Line Cinema

The extraordinary creations of Sharon Horgan

Pulling (2006)
Horgan’s breakthrough concerned the complex affairs of three single women living in unglamorous Penge in southeast London. Horgan won a British comedy award for playing the agreeably hassled Donna.

Angelo’s (2007)
Aired on Five for just one season, Angelo’s feels like the one that got away. Set in and around the eponymous London café, the show featured en ensemble cast including Alice Lowe, Miranda Hart and Horgan as a police officer. Undervalued.

Catastrophe (2015)
Edged Horgan beyond cult status to a comic ornament of her generation. Horgan and Rob Delaney play a couple struggling angrily with the trials of parenthood. Offered a great late role to Carrie Fisher.

Divorce (2016)
Confirmation that Horgan had gone international came with the commissioning of this dry comedy starring the slowly disengaging Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church. Horgan created the show, but does not appear.

Motherland (2017)
If you weren’t sure if Horgan was the comic laureate of harassed London parenthood then confirmation came with this wonderful, angular comedy set among rival mothers (and one dad). Co-written with Holly Walsh and Graham and Helen Linehan. Anna-Maxwell Martin is terrific as the most harassed mum of all.

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