Actress and writerSharon Horgan is behind some of the best recent comedy TV shows, including Catastrophe, Motherland and new Apple TV+ series Bad Sisters.
She was born in London, moving to Ireland when she was four and growing up on a turkey farm in County Meath. After struggling as a young actor, she studied for a degree in English and American Studies, and around the time of her graduation in 2000 she met the writer Dennis Kelly, the pair winning a BBC New Comedy Award in 2001.
Horgan’s writing breakthrough came in 2006 when her comedy Pulling was commissioned. The show, which she co-wrote with Kelly and also starred in, was cancelled in 2009, but Horgan’s career went from strength to strength, and has included the creation of Divorce, Motherland and Catastrophe, the last of which she co-wrote and co-starred in with US comic Rob Delaney. Her latest creation is the black comedy Bad Sisters.
In her Letter To My Younger Self, she reflects on his early breaks on her comedy breakthrough, the pain of being cancelled and the unfettered joy of motherhood.
At 16 I was at the Sacred Heart convent school [in Drogheda, on the east coast of Ireland] just finishing my exams. I was a mixture of outgoing and really shy. I liked to party, but I hid behind my more outgoing friends. I don’t think I was academic. I was in the top class but nearer the bottom than the top. I wanted to leave, it was stifling. The head nun was terrifying. She was a monster. But you could also have a kind of fun that you can only have in a confined environment like that. If you’re a bit naughty in a convent school, that has its own kind of excitement. I was both rebellious and terrified. I was constantly getting caught just because I’m an idiot, you know? Sometimes I did my best to conform, but quite often, sort of by accident, I ended up breaking the rules. So yes, I was looking forward to leaving for sure.
It was a big thing for me to be funny at school. I had that weird thing of being in the top set, but not able to shine academically. I had to use my wit to stand out. I sort of felt it was my role, my job, to make people laugh. Everyone in my family is funny; my dad, my brother, my kids constantly make me laugh. We’re an instant party.
I already had literary pretensions as a teenager. I was trying to write poetry. I was into art when I was at school, so I was aiming for art college. That was my main pursuit. I knew I’d never be stacking shelves for a living, I thought I was gonna do something exciting and fun. And I did have slightly fantastical delusions of what my future might hold. I thought about drama school and acting – I don’t know where that came from, maybe it was that performative thing, trying to be funny all the time.
I was quite an angsty teenager, I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence, despite having this weird idea that something exciting was ahead. I had experienced anxiety when I was a younger kid, and I carried a little bit of that into my teens. I was prone to feeling quite low. I had a sort of mixed-up brain I suppose, and it’s hard to calm your brain when part of you feels completely incapable and the other part is really pushing you along for some reason.
I don’t think I ever thought I was a pioneer, I’m not sure it ever feels like that. But when I got Pulling [a 2006-2009 BBC Three comedy drama] commissioned I definitely knew I was getting an opportunity that not many young female comedy actors got. It was very unusual to have a show with just three female leads for a start. I can’t really think of anything else like that. I loved watching comedians like French and Saunders and Roseanne, they really fuelled me, but I do think Pulling was a bit of a breakthrough.
We thought, let’s just be really honest. We weren’t really tapping into female issues, more into the general human condition; not having the kind of career you wanted, not having any money, living in shared accommodation, being in an unsatisfying relationship with an unsatisfying work life. It wasn’t specific to being a woman. We wanted it to really hit home and be tough on those characters, not sugarcoat anything or give them any sort of leeway. There were no female writers of dramas at the time except Kay Mellor. It was all men writing the female parts.
Dennis [her co-writer Dennis Kelly] and I were surprised we got an opportunity to do Pulling in the first place but when it suddenly got cancelled, we were absolutely gutted. We’d worked out season three, we were ready to go. And then we found out it wasn’t getting picked up. We just kind of felt like, well what are you going to put on your station instead? Because it won’t be as good as this. I never gave up, I was always pushing. But if I could go back I’d be a bit more feisty. I was more likely to focus on the negatives then. I wish I had said to them, come on, let’s keep going. We were angry but we got over it, partly due to the arrogance of youth. We just thought, it will happen again, we’ll find that thing. But it’s really, really hard to find that thing, something you love that’s good, that captures a moment and people appreciate. We had a sense of there being something just around the corner that was bigger and better. But, actually, there wasn’t.
My work is completely fictional, but it does reflect where I am in my life at the same time. Pulling was pretty much about my life as a single young woman. Catastrophe was very reflective of a period of my life. Even Motherland came from my thoughts about my kids starting school. Divorce… well, I wasn’t going through a divorce at the time, but I was in a long-term relationship with slightly older kids, and anyone who’s been in that situation has probably thought about getting a divorce at some point. So everything connects to me, but it’s all fictional too.
I’d tell my younger self that sometimes it’s a really positive thing to move on from a relationship. It can mean your life suddenly just opens up and feels much more suited to your personality. I feel like, especially if you come from a religious background – I was brought up Catholic – divorce is kind of a dirty word. But it shouldn’t be. Divorce can be a really helpful, handy thing that can change your life. There’s a lot of shame attached to the failure of a relationship, and that shouldn’t be the case. Especially if you’ve given it a good go and you’ve got a loving family. For sure I was embarrassed, but I got over that pretty quickly and found it a very positive thing to move on. For many years though, I would have felt the opposite. I think if I could go back, and my ex would say exactly the same, we’d just call it a day a bit sooner.
I’m still working out the whole work/life balance thing. It took me years to figure out that I’m happiest when I’m on holiday with my kids, just making moments. My work makes me really happy for sure. And it gives me sparks of adrenaline and excitement. But it doesn’t make those kinds of big memories. The times I’m away with my kids, that’s when I feel really calm, and I feel that real love, where you’re suddenly just like, filled with it. It rushes through your body. Work doesn’t give me that.
There are different ways of looking at your legacy, aren’t there? Having a body of work that is talked about is a great ego thing, but so is being remembered as a great mother. I love making my kids feel excited about work and the possibilities of it. But even more, I don’t want them to say “she was never there”. The only time I’m really unhappy in my current situation is when I’m filming and I have an early start so I can’t have breakfast with my daughter. That just depresses the fuck out of me, and nothing feels worse. I mean, she’s not gonna want to have breakfast with me for that much longer, is she?
If I could re-live one moment it would be… two moments. The first night after both of my daughters were born, and it was just me and them. That was the most amazing thing. I can’t explain it, it’s so intimate, and you just immediately feel… everything makes sense. And it’s so trippy and insane, to have just made a person. And when they’re tiny babies, it feels like being crazy in love. Every time you see them – it’s like when you have a new lover, and you’re getting off the bus for a date full of excitement, thinking, Oh, I’m gonna see you! Those early days with my daughters were the best, best, best ever times of my life.
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