Laughing in the face of tragedy: Sharon Horgan

Dark comedy is Sharon Horgan’s comfort zone, as fans of her universally beloved TV dramedy Catastrophe know. Her new show This Way Up, a collaboration with Aisling Bea, is a bleakly funny story of two sisters, mental illness and loneliness

4th August, 2019
Laughing in the face of tragedy: Sharon Horgan
A rocky relationship: Sharon Horgan with Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

When Catastrophe – Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s ‘dramedy’ about two individuals who enter the three-legged race of being partners and parents – ended in February, the only silver lining was that they stepped away from their four-series run never, not once, dipping in quality. “From first to last Catastrophe has been an unremitting triumph,” gushed The Guardian. “It’s so brilliant,” fawned Phoebe Waller-Bridge aka Fleabag.

It’s hard to disagree. The Channel 4 show did plenty in broadening Rob Delaney’s reach; he was already a renowned stand-up comic when the series began airing in 2015, with a strong live following and the title of Comedy Central’s Funniest Person on Twitter. But coming out the other side, it arguably had more of an effect on Horgan’s profile. It’s not only because her character, also called Sharon, was the ballsy anti-hero given ample killer lines (Sample comment: “The scrotum’s a design flaw. You ask ten women what the worst thing they ever saw in their life was, for eight of them it will be scrotum-related”). It’s also because she focused almost exclusively on all things TV, setting up Merman Productions, testing the lay of the land in the States with HBO’s Divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker (though sadly Horgan’s magic touch was not quite visible), and penning Motherland, the lauded parenting comedy co-written with Father Ted’s Graham Linehan.

So, with her stock at an all-time high and alert to the crest of this golden era on the small screen, the question on every fan’s lips was what next for Sharon Horgan, the Meath-raised talent turned queen of television?

The answer, it transpires, is that she appears in This Way Up, a series written by, and starring, fellow funny femme Aisling Bea – a dream pairing if ever there was.

It’s far from a guest role too; Horgan plays Shona, the older sister charged with looking after Aine (Bea) once she’s released from residential care after a nervous breakdown. This Way Up continues in Catastrophe’s path in finding humour in the bleakest of situations, whilst simultaneously shining a light on realistic modern-day woes; the themes of big city loneliness, the relationship between siblings, and mental health are entwined quite marvellously with silliness and send-ups. On paper it might be hard to imagine how it works, but it does. And how.

The premiere of the show, at the British Film Institute in London, is packed with an audience of notables including Nicola Coughlan and Siobhan McSweeney from Derry Girls, Laura Whitmore, comedian Nish Kumar and The Guilty Feminist herself Deborah Frances-White. It’s in this setting that Horgan and 35-year-old Bea give a rare joint interview.

“Ais made me laugh a lot,” begins Horgan, explaining the first time they met on the set of their short-lived comedy Dead Boss. “From that point, we were trying to write something. We tried a film together, and another project that we spent years on and it didn’t go anywhere.”

“It was about paedophiles,” jokes Bea, before retracting it.

“By that point, we had set Merman up, but it was in the very early stages,” continues Horgan. “We had our first meetings in a corridor in someone else’s building pretending it was an office. The other show got knocked back but she bounced with this - she wrote it within a working week.

“We brought it to Channel 4 and you could just see there was something there. It started off as about sisters, but it’s become about something bigger - there’s such a big message in there. Loneliness is a part of it, but Ais’s whole thing is there was a positive message in it. The working title was Happy because that’s what she wanted you to feel at the end of it.”

That’s uncovered with the progression of the six-parter. We meet the bickering sisters as Aine checks out of the facility, and from this lowest ebb, we watch her progress through domesticity, work and romantic relationships in the unforgiving city of London. Certainly, in the midst of Dublin’s accommodation crisis, Aine’s experience of sharing a council flat with a couple will be familiar to any average-earning city-dweller.

“If you’re sharing a small space, you’re often backed into your own bedroom,” Bea says. “Your bedroom has to be your whole ecosystem. [There’s a] loneliness to living somewhere where if someone hangs out their washing suddenly, or someone’s on the couch watching TV, you’re left with a laptop in your room on your own. That affects a lot of people living in cities, when your world is x amount of metres by x amount of metres.”

If it all seems quite morose, the miracle of the show is its tone. We see laugh-out-loud highs like the sisters’ unaccompanied rendition of The Cranberries’ Zombie, and lows like Aine’s tears when she’s on her own. But it’s balanced enough that the jokes are sensitive to the subject matter, and nor does it feel too heavy.

“I remember there was an episode of Pulling that deals with suicide in a really funny way,” says Bea, referring to Horgan’s breakthrough writing/acting series. “Tonally, I don’t see it as an interesting mix - it’s where I would sit naturally, and maybe culturally, where Irish people sit naturally.

“[For example] there is something in Irish sentiment that goes into death and finds hilarity in it. We celebrate our dead by laying them out on a table and eating sandwiches around them. There was a scene in that series that didn’t get made, which mimics a scene in Derry Girls - and that whole show is a comedy about the Troubles in the North. We see in Derry Girls, they’re trying to get the earrings off the corpse. And in our piece, we were trying to re-dress our mammy [in her coffin]. We were getting make-up wipes to wipe off the make-up because it was a bit too much.

“I don’t find [mental health issues and comedy] being polar opposites. It’s there in Catastrophe and Pulling, it’s there in a lot of what Sharon does.”

Indeed, while TV’s other shining star Waller-Bridge delivers her dark humour with a stylised air, 49-year-old Horgan’s hallmark is realism and relatability; she’s been finding the funny in universal experiences from the get-go.

Born in London, her illustrious family - also featuring rugby star Shane Horgan and Second Captains’ Mark Horgan - returned to Ireland to become turkey farmers in Co Meath when she was still a nipper. She had the almost-obligatory stint in a convent school, and spent her twenties finding her place in life: she studied art, then drama, while taking on odd jobs to make ends meet. Things took a turn once she secured a place studying English at Brunel University in London and met the writer Dennis Kelly. In the early 2000s, around the same time that she met husband Jeremy Rainbird – they now have two daughters – she and Kelly created Pulling, the zeitgeist-capturing sitcom about three twentysomethings grappling with relationships.

While writing furiously – Angelo’s for Channel 5, Dead Boss for BBC Three, a turkey farm-based Christmas special for Sky – and starring in shows like the cult favourite (I say, euphemistically) The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, it was the Bafta-winning Catastrophe that launched her to the highest echelons.

As Catastrophe wound down, it was a shrewd business move to lend her name and talents to Merman Productions - only to be expected from a high-functioning creator whose talent and smarts extend to the industry itself.

Needless to say, This Way Up is a Merman release, and the company is set to continue the thread of the bleak comedy that runs throughout Horgan’s work. Their most recent success was There She Goes, which shines a realistic light on the trials of raising a learning-disabled child; the show recently won mum Jessica Hynes the Bafta for best comedy actress.

A passion project in the early stages of development tackles the subject of domestic abuse, one of the last comedic taboos. The tricky part is finding a broadcaster willing to support this potentially contentious show.

“I’m not saying it’s not a hard sell - it is a fucking hard sell for all the obvious reasons,” Horgan says. “But sometimes when you’re dealing with difficult subjects, you are desperately in need of finding a laugh within it, because people don’t stop having a sense of humour. Stupid things don’t stop happening. I think comedy is a really valuable way to tell any story that’s difficult.”

As a guiding principle, it hasn’t steered her wrong yet.

This Way Up begins on Channel 4 on Thursday, August 8 at 10pm, with the full series streaming on All4 straight afterwards

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