Jane Horrocks on starring in Sunshine On Leith

Jane Horrocks is the musical clout in the cast of Sunshine On Leith, and she won’t dance to anyone else’s tune
Jane Horrocks invades Hibs' Easter Road pitch. Picture: SNSJane Horrocks invades Hibs' Easter Road pitch. Picture: SNS
Jane Horrocks invades Hibs' Easter Road pitch. Picture: SNS

JANE Horrocks doesn’t like musicals. “I’m not a massive fan,” she says in her baby bird burr. “I prefer contemporary music.” This might seem a handicap when your current movie is, whichever way you turn it, a musical. “Oh but Sunshine On Leith is rooted in something,” she says. “The songs are like country and western music – and I like that they touch on politics. You don’t get that in most musicals. This is about a real world.”

Horrocks is small, blonde and honest in a way that may strike terror into any emollient publicity machine, especially now she’s the heart and pipes of Sunshine On Leith – but not the dancing feet.

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“They wouldn’t let me dance,” she says, with obvious relief. “I’m not a very good dancer because I’m not very co-ordinated. I can do disco dancing, but nothing structured. They have a big dance at the end of the film to 500 Miles, and I was glad I wasn’t there. I would have been hopeless, hopeless! They would have had to put me way at the back!”

Horrocks as Jean is serenaded by her on-screen husband Peter Mullen. Picture: CompHorrocks as Jean is serenaded by her on-screen husband Peter Mullen. Picture: Comp
Horrocks as Jean is serenaded by her on-screen husband Peter Mullen. Picture: Comp

Yet despite her unstructured shuffling, Horrocks is the only lead in Leith cast with much experience of musicals under her belt. In her comedy showcase Never Mind The Horrocks, she demonstrated an uncanny ear for female singers from Judy Garland to Gracie Fields, but she can also sing with sincerity: her version of Sunshine On Leith has a yearning quality that pushes the song into a new context.

In a career of many roles and accents, it’s surprising that this is her first Scot, and she boned up the accent by, amongst other things, getting her son’s Edinburgh-bred maths teacher to sing her way through the Proclaimers’ album. “She cried when she sang Sunshine On Leith, which just goes to show how people feel about these songs.” Then she gets a bit cross when I ask if she wanted to do it live, in one take, like the cast of Les Misérables.

“Oh I don’t see any point in doing it live,” she shrugs. “What if you’re doing a fantastic bit of singing and somebody drops a spoon? That piece of singing is ruined. It’s an unnecessary pressure when you can go to a studio and use a controlled environment where you can work to get it perfect. It’s a gimmick, and unless you’ve read about it, what’s the point?”

Horrocks understands the pressure of live work, having performed live nightly in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, written especially for her by Jim Cartwright. The showcase is still talked about by those who caught her singing and impressions on stage or in the 1998 movie version with Ewan McGregor, Brenda Blethyn and Sir Michael Caine. I tell Horrocks that McGregor has said he had signed up because he had enjoyed working on a short film with her some years earlier.

“Well, I did do a short film with him, but it’s more likely he thought ‘the money’s quite good, so I’ll do it,’ says Horrocks, and giggles. The play was her big break, she says, but the film was more of a boost for Caine. “He was at an odd period in his career, not getting quite the same work – and then the film turned him into a character actor overnight. He was brilliant in it.”

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Horrocks has had her own brilliant turns – as Bubble in Ab Fab for instance, she took a dizzy secretary with a retina-scarring wardrobe and made her as vital to Jennifer Saunders’ fashionista show as Saffy or Patsy. After the three Christmas specials she says she’s not averse to a return because Saunders never lets the scenarios date; but coming back to the part at 50, after an eight-year break was “very odd. We were so much older, and I didn’t feel that comfortable in some of the costumes.”

Despite being famously private about her personal life, she enjoyed her recent stint on Who Do You Think You Are?, tracing the black sheep of the Horrocks family, who went off to Australia and mysteriously sent back an opal. “Well I did that because it meant a lot for my family, and it was a bit like being Miss Marple, although it was quite hard delivering news to the family that was contrary to what they hoped. I read a review of recently which said: ‘Of course, there’s tears because Who Do You Think You Are? wouldn’t be Who Do You Think You Are? without tears.’ And I thought ‘I’m not going to cry.’” She smiles thinly. “And of course, I did cry. It’s strangely evocative in that way, even though it’s hundreds and hundreds of years ago. They should show it in schools, because it’s social history and it’s something that isn’t taught enough.”

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That programme also marked a rare return to what Horrocks calls “the terrestrial channels”. Her supermarket comedy Trollied is on Sky at the moment, and there’s another project on the same channel later on this year.

I don’t have Sky, so I haven’t seen Trollied. “Sky is expensive,” she agrees. “But they do invest in quite a lot of original stuff. When I started doing Trollied, they commissioned seven original comedies, and I think that’s great, especially because they are using new talent.”

The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are rather obsessed with finding vehicles for the small coterie of dramatic talent, she says. “You always see the same people popping up in everything. On Sky they let other people have a bit of a chance. I find it really exciting to see somebody new on the screen. I feel like I’ve discovered them. I think, ‘Oh goodness, they’re marvellous and have to tell everybody, but then I don’t want them to do anything else after that.’”

So has Sky’s policy of promoting new faces changed hearts and minds and prompted the terrestrials to take more risks? Horrocks shoots me a shrewd “are you daft” look. “Haven’t seen any. The dramas are all about murder, aren’t they? Unless you’re doing a murder programme, it’s not going to get put out. I don’t watch television any more because I got so bored with it.” Then she checks herself. “Well I watch a bit of reality TV now and again.”

Our interview is at an end, so Horrocks gathers up her drink so that no-one will have to tidy up after her and clacks out the door towards freedom. Outside, there’s a lurking Peter Mullan, who lights up on spotting Horrocks and immediately barrels in for a hug from his Sunshine wife.

“Peter’s very musical” says Horrocks affectionately as she disappears into the people’s Tom Waits. “He can hold a tune, and he did his big number Oh Jean in one take, with no second goes needed. So he could have done Les Mis!”

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

• Sunshine On Leith is in cinemas from Friday.