Pulling power | Sharon  Horgan and Dennis Kelly on their new BBC3 sitcom © BBC

Pulling power

Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly on their new BBC3 sitcom

The cancer patient lies in his hospital, a tube in his arm giving him a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, his condition has been exacerbated by scurvy.

Were this a hospital drama, he’d be surrounded by worried relatives, looking intensely serious and talking in hushed tones.

But when the patient is legendary comedy producer Harry Thompson, the real-life scene is rather different. He’s too busy for all that, taking phone calls about his latest TV projects and discussing script ideas with his visitors, a couple of writers who keep cracking stupid jokes about pirates to mock his vitamin deficiency.

‘He just didn’t want to stop,’ says one of those writers, Sharon Horgan. ‘He wasn’t going to let things get the better of him, so we had a script meeting with him in hospital.’

The show they were working on, Pulling, was one of his last. It comes to BBC Three this week, a year after Thompson died at just 45, with Horgan in the starring role.

‘When he found out we had the commission, he was really happy,’ she says, ‘I’ve never heard him sound so excited.’

Thompson had been something of a mentor for Horgan, who won the BBC new comedy award for sketch writing in 2001 with co-writer Dennis Kelly. But it was her work on The Pilot Show – in which minor celebrities were duped into thinking they would be fronting bizarre new series – that brought her to Thompson’s attention, and he swiftly gave her acting and writing work on his animated show, Monkey Dust.

‘He was really supportive,’ she says. ‘Rather than looking for the next hot thing around he’d stick with you and find you work wherever he could.’

So when he had a concept for a female-led sitcom, it was Horgan and Kelly he turned to. ‘We weren’t sure about it,’ says Kelly. But they came back to him with the idea of Pulling, about a thirtysomething woman who, on the eve of her wedding to a dependable but dull boyfriend, gets cold feet, calls off the ceremony and starts seeking more fun in life. ‘We said “what about this?” and he really went for it,’ says Kelly.

Not everyone grasped the concept of the essentially selfish central character Donna and her friends Karen (drunken, sex-mad) and Louise (naïve dreamer): three flawed, suburban women prone to doing the wrong thing.

Kelly said: ‘When we told people this was about three women, immediately their minds went to Bridget Jones – there was a lot of that kind of shorthand in TV.

‘But there’s only one mention of shoes in the whole series.’ Instead, he says the show is ‘for anyone who’s woken up and thought, “fuck, I wish I hadn’t done that.” And we’ve all been there.’

Horgan expands: ‘We’ve all been in long-term relationships that we’ve maybe stayed in two or three years too long. At the end of that you go, “what do I do now” and have to start again. You find yourself at home on Friday night and thinking there’s a party going on somewhere – and you’re not invited. It’s that thing of living in London, and finding it quite a scary, lonely place.’

The series does feel at times frighteningly true-to-life, with aimless characters and awkward situations that it’s very easy to identify with. The duo deny the show is strictly autobiographical, although Horgan does grass up her co-writer: ‘There’s a lot of Dennis in Karen.’

And she admits not everything has entirely been drawn from fiction: ‘There is one friend I’ve got to have a chat with before one of the episodes goes out…’

‘There are lots of bits of our wild lives before we decided to settle down,’ she adds, ‘But when you hit 30 you’ve got to get all your shit together really quickly’. For the record, Horgan – who’s previous credits include The Friday Night Project and Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive – is married with a two-year-old daughter, Sadhbh.

The friends in Pulling aren’t exactly like those who hang around Central Perk giving each other mutual, dependable support. ‘The myth is that friends will always be there to look out for you,’ said Kelly. ‘It’s true – but only up to a point. Don’t forget you’re more likely to murder the people you’ve known for a long time.’

‘Where did you get that statistic?’ Horgan queries

‘I made it up.’

Maybe she’s right to check, as she and Kelly fall into that old friends category, having met several years ago when they belonged to a theatre group, and having written together for around six years.

Both write independently, too. Kelly is a playwright whose Love And Money opened at the Young Vic on Friday; while Horgan’s next sitcom has already been commissioned by Five. Called Angelo’s, it’s set in a café where all sorts of larger-than-life eccentrics pass through – and is more of a character comedy piece than the reality feel of Pulling.

‘I’m not really interested in co-writing,’ admits Kelly. ‘I’d only co-write with Sharon.

Horgan agrees: ‘It’s pretty hard to write with other people. You’ve got to find out where your boundaries are and get to the point where you’re happy to say something really shit and unfunny. But it is more fun writing with someone else, it feels less like a job.’

The pair do share a belief that they wanted to write ‘about ‘something and ‘get funny on the way’ rather than trying to simply string gags together.

Horgan said: ‘We had a screening the other day. It was great to hear the laughs but it was amazing when you can feel the audience getting involved in the storyline.

‘I do love stupid comedy but I like good stories, too. One of my favourite comedies was Roseanne because not only is it really funny, but you really cared about that family and that relationships.

‘But then I could watch Alan Partridge all night, too. And Team America, that’s great - brilliant satire but also extremely stupid. I watch way too much comedy now. Once you get into that wormhole of comedy, you get sucked into wanting to know what else is on.

Kelly feels the same: ‘The only TV I watch is comedy. Those big dramas, I haven’t got time for. I think you can get anything from comedy you can get from drama – plus it will make you laugh. You believe comedy more as well.’

And that from a serious playwright; Harry Thompson would be proud.

Pulling starts on BBC Three at 10.30pm on Thursday. Or episodes one and two are online here

Published: 19 Nov 2006

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