Interview: Jane Horrocks

The actress talks Tesco and new sitcom Trollied

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No one knows better than Jane Horrocks that “every little helps”. As the star of a ten-year run of ads for Tesco, she’s become one of Britain’s best-known faces.

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And while advertising is the “little helper” most A-listers prefer not to talk about, the Lancashire-born actress is refreshingly, unequivocally proud of her performance as Prunella Scales’s long- suffering daughter in the retail mini-dramas.

On being the face of Tesco…

“When Tesco first approached me and Prunella, they said, ‘You choose the characters you want to play.’ Neither of us wanted it to be ‘us’ advertising the supermarket; we wanted it to be an acting piece, and we really enjoyed doing it.”

Nor is there the usual, actorly demurral about fumbling in the greasy till of commerce. In an increasingly compromised business where the best roles are often the worst paid, Horrocks takes a pragmatic line. “Tesco Towers”, the home she shares in south-west London with her part- ner of 15 years, screenwriter Nick Vivian and their children Dylan, 14, and Molly, 12, was bought on the proceeds of the ad contract and, as she points out, there are impeccable artistic reasons for turning a fast buck.

“Tesco commercials have given me licence to avoid c**p, and I’m eternally grateful to them. I see friends having to do shows on television, which ten or 15 years ago they wouldn’t have considered. Now they have to do them for financial reasons, because TV just isn’t investing in drama in the same way.”

On new sitcom Trollied

Now, as fate would have it, Horrocks is returning to the aisles in Trollied, Sky 1’s new sitcom set in a supermarket. The fictitious Valco is a budget chain in the north west of England and she plays uptight “deputy interim manager” Julie. “She’s one of the unfortunate people whose life hasn’t worked out quite how they wanted. She desperately wants to be liked but goes about it all the wrong way. She’s the kind of person that others will find either ludicrous or a pain in the arse.”

On Tesco’s clientele…

It’s a role she can research during her weekly shop at – yes – Tesco. “There’s always a set type of people doing their shopping according to the time or the day, whether it’s pensioners holding everyone up, or screeching kids. Or sometimes you can have rather a lot of chavs in, and that gets a bit scary.” Horrocks says “chavs” with just enough irony to draw the sting – she’s not one of TV’s most expressive voices for nothing.

On the quality of today’s TV…

She’s immensely stimulating company, spooling out passionate opinion at teleprinter speed, and is much in demand as a voiceover artist for reality shows – a genre on which she holds sharp views. “It’s not just that there’s less work around these days. The quality of the work has gone downhill as well. And that’s purely because of the ‘reality’ situation. I never put the TV on these days because I don’t want to watch another show about a house being done up.”

The ravening appetite for reality TV, she argues, is partly a function of restricted budgets and partly to do with the prevailing mania for spoon-feeding viewers. “I do voiceovers for reality-type shows – and I’m not complaining, it’s work – but it’s a very odd situation. I mean, you can see something happening on screen. So why do you need me to tell you about it as well?”

On her life off-screen…

Horrocks, who grew up in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, where her father was a sales rep and her mother worked in a hospital, is, you gather, a hands-on parent to her children. “When I had nannies, I couldn’t stop interfering.” Childcare these days is shared with their dad Nick (“a very good chap”). While in the past she enjoyed high-profile romances with rock star Ian Dury and director Sam Mendes (who later wed Kate Winslet), Horrocks increasingly values her privacy; her publicist made it a condition of this interview that she won’t answer “personal questions”.

To be fair, most women would prefer to be defined by their work than by the men they’ve dated and it’s precisely this discriminating edge that makes Horrocks such a highly original performer. At Rada, where she studied with Imogen Stubbs and Ralph Fiennes, she refused to ditch her Lancashire accent (just to press the point home, she channelled Gracie Fields for her graduation show) but has consistently avoided what she terms “chip-butty” roles. She was lauded in landmark films such as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet and Little Voice.

On trying to tackle Shakespeare…

Her eclectic stage career – it’s hard to imagine any other actress going straight from Annie Get Your Gun to Bertolt Brecht’s Good Soul of Szechuan – has been tinged with controversy. Playing Lady Macbeth in Mark Rylance’s 1995 production, she was required, nightly, to urinate on the stage of the Greenwich Theatre. She won’t do Shakespeare again. It wasn’t the peeing that got to her, it was the pentameter: “It’s not for me. I think for an awful lot of folk, Shakespeare is very inaccessible still. I might sound like a total pleb, but basically it’s another language and unless you’ve studied it, it’s difficult to grasp. I know people get outraged at me saying it, but it’s only my opinion. I’m not telling people who adore Shakespeare to stop adoring it this minute.”

On the return of Ab Fab…

The firm and fearless delivery is a million miles from ditsy Bubble, a role Horrocks hopes to reprise in the eagerly anticipated return of Absolutely Fabulous. “It might be happening again,” she says, “but I can’t tell you anything about it because I don’t know yet what the role will be this time. I don’t know enough about the fashion world to guess what happens to gormless girls when they hit their 40s.”

On preventing the signs of ageing…

At 47, Horrocks could easily play younger, but it’s not something that interests her greatly. “I think you can pull it off more easily on stage than on film, but I don’t want to go down that road.” Neither, at an age and in an industry where actors routinely freeze their faces in a simulacrum of youth, is she tempted to join the queue for cosmetic procedures.

“There are a lot of long-running shows, like Casualty or Holby or whatever, and you look at some of the actresses and they seem Botoxed up to the hilt. They can’t move any of their facial muscles and all look exactly the same because they’ve obviously gone to the same surgeon. And to be honest, I think when you take that route, you start to look a bit like a freak. You meet these women and you’re not thinking, ‘You look great.’ You’re thinking, ‘Oh, you had your lips done.’ Or, ‘You’ve had your neck done. Can I just have a look behind your ears to see if there’s any stitching going on there?’ What’s so wrong with ageing? I look at my mum, who looks bloomin’ good for 75, and I think, ‘Well, if I’m looking that good at her age, I’d rather avoid surgery.’ ”

It’s another of those vicious circles. If no actress ever admits to being over 40, credible, complex roles for over-40s will accordingly dwindle. Before we know it, we’ll be back to gags about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy.

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It needn’t be like this, says Horrocks. “Trollied is a case in point. I’d very much like to take the character of Julie further because I can relate to her as a woman in her 40s and there’s something to progress with. Which in turn means the comedy can be character-led rather than just a string of gags. There’s scope there.” She’s lit up with possibilities. “I relish that.”