‘I gave as good as I got’: AbFab actor Jane Horrocks on her fiery first love with Ian Dury

The actor remembered her time with the maverick singer as toxic. But finding his love letters made her see things differently – and propelled her to make a drama of their time together

Jane Horrocks is a tiny woman surrounded by vastness. There is the vastness of her Regency flat, with its towering ceilings and huge, open spaces. And then there’s the far greater vastness of the Channel across the road. We are sitting in her belvedere on a freakishly hot winter’s day, taking in the sea. Horrocks is barely a speck on her own landscape. And this is how she likes it. “Any issues I have are minor compared with what you see there. It’s so elemental. What am I in all this? Tiny. My little issues are tiny.”

Horrocks is wearing black trousers, black boots and an orange velveteen sweatshirt perfectly co-ordinated with her hair. “It would be totally grey now if I left it,” she says. Horrocks is a girlish 58 year old. In her 20s she was a girlish twenty-something. And on it went through the decades, though the reality was a little more complex. Now she’s at a new stage in life – living by herself in Brighton since May, after the 21-year relationship with the father of her two grown-up children, the TV writer Nick Vivian, finished in 2017; after the recent end of a relationship with the actor Danny Webb; and after the death of her mother last year.

From here, Horrocks has been looking back on her early adulthood, and the result is a Radio 4 drama about her combustible relationship with the singer-songwriter, actor and maverick extraordinaire Ian Dury.

In 1986, she and Dury were cast in Road, Jim Cartwright’s then new (now classic) play about life in a northern community eviscerated by Thatcherite politics. Horrocks was 23 years old and just starting out. Dury was 44, had enjoyed belated success as a pop star with hits such as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and What a Waste, and was reinventing himself as an actor. Horrocks was an innocent, Dury was notoriously scary. “It was my first real relationship,” she says. And your first love? “Yes.”


Horrocks offers me a cup of tea. “I’ve not got ordinary milk, just almond milk. Is that too hideous?” That’s fine, I say. She heads off to the fridge. " Do you mind if I eat a little bit of my shepherd’s pie?” she asks ever so politely. She’s starving after an early morning swim in the sea. She pauses. “But then I’m not offering you any shepherd’s pie,” she says anxiously. “I’ve only got one piece left. D’you want some hummus?”

No thanks, I say.

We know a lot about Ian’s tempestuous side, and I thought this also depicted a lovely soft side of Ian that maybe not many people were aware of

Her relationship with Dury lasted a tumultuous year; their friendship until he died in 2000. Horrocks says she had remembered the relationship as “toxic”. At times she was petrified of Dury (he broke down her glass door with the back of his head), at others she felt rubbished (he told her that she was empty). When she was moving house in 2020, she came across his old letters in the loft. She was astonished by the tone, which gave her a new insight into their relationship. Sure, there was the callousness, but there was also a profound, romantic love. She began to realise how much he had adored her. The letters reveal so much about Dury – by turns poetic, vulgar, bullying, impassioned and funny. They are as playful as they are soulful, as terrifying as they are tender.

She decided she wanted to do something with them. Horrocks has kept a diary throughout her life. So she went back to her entries from 1986 and 1987 and synchronised the dates with his letters. The result is Love Pants, a moving exploration of their dysfunctional relationship, with Horrocks playing herself and the actor Jud Charlton a convincing Dury. She admits she’s not sure how to refer to Love Pants. “I see it as a little art piece,” she says, before coming to a self-conscious stop. “Is that wanky? Okay. What it is then is a little reflection. Is that less wanky?” She smiles.

Why did Horrocks, who is famously private, want to make public something so personal? “I kept asking myself the same question. And I thought, actually they’re really beautiful letters. We know a lot about Ian’s tempestuous side, and I thought this also depicted a lovely soft side of Ian that maybe not many people were aware of. I thought it was a shame that nobody else could see them.” But Horrocks is also looking back on her own life as much as his, trying to make sense of the woman who went on to become a successful actor and the person she is now.

He was demanding. He did need somebody with him all the time

Her diary entries take us from first meeting Dury on set (“He’s lovely with lovely eyes’') in December 1986 to him declaring his love in February (”He said he wants to take me out for a meal on my own. Dodgy!”), their first snog in March (“We ended up kissing for about three hours. Lovely!) He calls her Janey Buttercups, tells her he wishes “my head was on your busters” and they enjoy more kissing sessions. But, by late March he has already shown his aggressive side, reducing a friend of hers to tears (“I got so upset I slapped his face”). After he smashes down the door with his head, she writes: “I was really scared and ran upstairs, went to bed, and said a long prayer.” A few days later, they are talking about having children. She writes: “Realised how much I liked being in Ian’s company. He’s so entertaining and exciting.”

While Dury is wholly uninhibited, Horrocks can come across as prudish and self-absorbed. After entering a rehearsal room that stank of dope, she writes: “Thought about my career and how I want to get on with it and not be wasted with Ian. Feel he might hold me down.”

When apologising for being possessive and trying to convince her that things could work out despite their differences, he writes: “Sexual jealousy is not in my nature, spiritual jealousy is what stirs my guts up. You enjoy me being a loony as much as I enjoy your airs and graces.”

Was that fair? “I did have airs and graces,” she says. Where did they come from? “My family. It was very lower middle class, the world I grew up in. My family did have a few airs and graces.” In what way? “It was an aspirational thing. My mum would go to fancy cooking classes. The circle they mixed in was aspirational.”

She impersonates her mother answering the phone in her best Hyacinth Bucket. “215180 – Barbara Horrocks of Rawtenstall speaking.” She giggles, and tells me how much she misses her. Barbara was a hospital worker, her father, John, a sales rep. Like Little Voice (the eponymous heroine of the play Cartwright wrote for her), the young Horrocks could mimic any number of singers. While her parents’ friends would encourage her to give them a bit of Shirley Bassey or Marilyn Monroe, Barbara thought it precocious and bratty. But when Horrocks left Lancashire for London to study drama at Rada, her parents couldn’t have been prouder.

It was only a year after graduating from Rada that she met Dury. In one letter, he tells her he can’t make his mind up whether he is a lovestruck teenager or a tough old grandad telling her she needs a rounded education and that he was the man to provide it. At other times he was plain abusive. In one devastating diary entry, Horrocks writes: “He said he didn’t want to make love to me any more. He said I was frigid and a lesbian and I couldn’t give him anything back in the way of love.”

I am sensitive. With the dark parts, I easily take all that on. I take it to bed with me, which is not healthy

How did that make her feel? “I was very upset about it. Very sad. Then he took back his words and said: ‘You’re not like that.’ But I think there is possibly an element of truth in there in that I couldn’t give him the 100 per cent that he wanted.”

I ask what she has learned about herself from looking back. “It struck me that I was actually a very mature 23-year-old. I took it all in my stride and I gave Ian as good as I got.” In her own way, she says, she was as cruel as he was. “I kept chucking him, and then kept revisiting it.” Did he ever chuck you? “No.” Dury wanted her to be successful, but he also wanted her there for him constantly. “He was demanding. He did need somebody with him all the time. He wanted to be loved and nurtured, and I just couldn’t do that at the time because I wanted to focus on my career.”

Horrocks tucks into her lunch. “Sorry to be so rude with my shepherd’s pie.”

That’s fine, I say – I’m eating a banana from her fruit bowl.

“D’you want a mince pie?”

No thanks.

“You can have a tangerine if you want.”

She looks at my banana. “Oooh, sorry it looks a bit bad in one bit of that banana. I hope you’re OK with bad.”

Horrocks has a gift for comedy, even when unintended. These days that is the genre she’s most readily associated with – wacky assistant Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous; knitting-loving hen Babs in the film Chicken Run; happy-go-lucky divorcee Wendy in the Sky sitcom Bloods.

In the past, Horrocks has said she thought she was dim because people told her she was. As a kid, her older brother said she was thick and she believed him. In Love Pants, Dury tells her he wished she was better educated. Two of her exes went to Cambridge university – Vivian and the director Sam Mendes. Perhaps you have spent too much time with over-educated men, I say. “That’s been a bit of a fixation for me over the years. But I’m getting over that. I’ve allowed them to make me feel thick. They haven’t done it deliberately.” She admits to it, like a Confession. “Since I’ve got older I realised I don’t have to allow that.” Did anything happen to make her realise she had allowed it? “Erm, therapy helps.” She giggles.

Rereading Dury’s letters and her diary soon after she left the family home made her realise another thing, she says. “I recognised that I was fearful of commitment then and still am now.” We’re in the livingroom, which looks more like a minimalist art gallery. There’s little to suggest anybody lives here, apart from a bikini and towel hanging in the belvedere. On the walls are two striking paintings – one of a teenage girl made on corrugated cardboard, the other of an attractive middle-aged woman. “That’s my daughter’s self-portrait, and a portrait of my mum.” Her daughter, Molly, lives in Bristol and plays in the band Try Me. Her son, Dylan, lives in Richmond and is a businessman.

The room is immaculate, I say. “In my thinking it’s quite dusty.” So you are obsessively tidy? “I suppose I am. I’m OCD. I think I’m very difficult to live with. Hence why I’m on my own. I think the kids and I have a much better relationship now we don’t live together.” Her mother used to describe her as “fiercely independent”, while Dylan calls her a “lone wolf”, she says.

“The OCD plays a big part in why I can’t live with people. It’s very annoying for other people.” And annoying for her? “Yes, because it’s a strain. It’s like: ‘Oh gosh, there’s people in the house and they’re using that now. And now they’re using that. My middle brother came to stay with me when I lived in Twickenham. And he’d be in the livingroom and have the television on and when he left the room I’d go into the room, turn the television off and line up all the remote controls. Then he’d come back in the room, turn the television on and leave the room and I’d go in and do the same. In the end he said: ‘Jane, have you got a poltergeist?’ I know it’s a kind of madness.”

When you lose both parents you go into a different place. You lose your roots

Back in the early 1990s it looked like Horrocks would be a huge star. Her career started with a bang – the stage play of Road was turned into a gut-wrenching film by Alan Clarke; she was brilliant as the snarling bulimic Nicola in Life Is Sweet; and then came Little Voice, in which she played a damaged teenager with a singing talent ripe for exploitation. Nowadays, she is regarded more as a comedic comfort blanket, partly because of the wacky Tesco commercials she made, playing the bossy daughter of Prunella Scales in the 90s and early 00s.

Did she stop being offered the heavier parts? No, she says, she turned them down. Is that because she was attracted to lighter stuff or fearful of the dark? “I don’t like to dwell on that side. I am sensitive. With the dark parts, I easily take all that on. I take it to bed with me, which is not healthy. I don’t do murder stories. Seeing half the dramas are about murder, that rules a lot out for me as well. And I’ve never felt comfortable doing sexy.” She grins. “Yeah, maybe I shot myself in the foot.”

But actually, she says, she’s more than happy with how her career has turned out. “It’s treated me extremely well, not only creatively but it’s kept me afloat. It’s given me a nice life.” As for the more challenging work, she says she’s still doing it, it’s just not watched by as many people. In 2017, she created Cotton Panic!, a multimedia show, with Vivian and Stephen Mallinder (formerly of Cabaret Voltaire) about Lancashire’s cotton crisis in the 1860s, performed as part of the Manchester International Festival. Last year, at the Brighton Festival, she premiered Yolk and Aliens, a video installation about memory (featuring footage of her daughter when she was young and her mother, who had Alzheimer’s), created with the artist Francesca Levi.

And, of course, there is Love Pants, which she made with the broadcaster Peter Curran. “I love these collaborations. These are pieces I’m proud of because they were made from scratch. They are things I did for me.”

Horrocks is looking at the horizon as she talks. “Isn’t that beautiful out there?” she says. It’s getting dark, and the sky is a magnificent flare of reds and oranges. She tells me that for now she is focused on making a new start in Brighton – the kids have their own lives, she is single, and she hasn’t a clue what her next job will be. But there is so much to occupy her, she says. “I had a lovely summer. I rode my bike, swam in the sea and played chess with a guy who hangs out by the beach. It was idyllic.”

Does she want a new partner? She shrugs, uncertainly. I ask if she’s happy. “I want to be happy. Definitely.” And are you? She doesn’t answer directly. “The times I’ve felt the happiest have been sat on the beach doing nothing.” She points to a lone figure on the shore. “Look, there’s somebody going in the sea. Oooh, that will be cold. That’s brave.”

She told me earlier that she doesn’t have a TV any more because she hardly ever watches it. So what does she do on winter nights like this? There’s so much, she says. “Tonight I’m going to my 5Rhythms dance class.” There’s a lovely pub in nearby Kemptown, she has joined the local table tennis club, and sometimes she goes to church. “I knew about two people when I came here and I’ve made loads of friends.”

Perhaps the toughest thing to have had to adapt to was her mother’s death last year, nine years after her father’s. “When you lose both parents you go into a different place. You lose your roots, and there’s something about me that feels very ungrounded. The foundations have gone, basically. It’s scary, but also quite liberating.” A tiny smile lights up her face in the gloam. “The possibilities are endless,” she says. – Guardian

Love Pants: Ian Dury & Jane Horrocks is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, December 21st, at 2.15pm, and on BBC Sounds