September 2006 Scotland on Sunday
BREAKFAST at BBC HQ in London. Mathew Horne is enjoying the warm morning air, poring over a script at an outdoor table. Ahead of him is a big day in the studio: several hours of technical rehearsals followed by an evening recording for series three of the Catherine Tate Show. It’s 8am now and it’ll be nearly midnight before he gets out again.
And the stakes are high. The first series in 2004, slipped out quietly without fanfare. But by series two, its cult appeal was translating into mainstream success. “Am I bovvered?” was becoming a playground catchphrase. “What a f***ing liberty” was not far behind.
By the time of last year’s Christmas special, audiences couldn’t get enough of the character-comedy sketch show. No fewer than 8000 people applied to be in the studio audience for the recording. Only 200 were successful. When it was broadcast on December 20, it earned BBC2’s highest ever viewing figures: 5.3 million. It's fitting that Tate is starring in that other runaway success, Dr Who, this Christmas as The Runaway Bride.
No wonder the BBC corridors are lined with posters of Tate in juvenile delinquent pose. When Horne – who plays the mild-mannered grandson of Tate’s foul-mouthed OAP, Nan Taylor, and the on-off boyfriend of Lauren the Teenager – realised the show’s star hadn’t been given her own copy of the poster, he unscrewed a frame and grabbed one for her. He's clearly as sweet natured as the grandson he plays.
Despite the long hours, Horne is thrilled about the day ahead. He loves watching their ideas reach fruition in front of an audience. Today, this youthful 27 year old with angular jaw and glacial blue eyes is wearing a camouflage T-shirt with a provocative anti-Iraq slogan emblazoned across his chest. The shirt is actually a bit of an in-joke. "I just wanted a camo T-shirt," he deadpans. "It's slightly ironic because I'm not that bright and I don't know much about politics, so I'm sending myself up. Although I don't think we should be in Iraq. I don't want to change the world, I just want to save it."
At a certain point before this evening's recording begins, Tate will have to spend two hours with the make-up artists getting the prosthetic treatment to transform her into the duplicitous old biddy, Nan Taylor. Fortunately, it comes off a lot faster than it goes on.
The pressure is on for this series, which goes out this month. Horne, who has become an increasingly significant writer on the show, knows there’s an eager audience ready to hear their favourite catchphrases. Their support is gratifying, but he senses the danger of taking the Little Britain route and allowing their once fresh and innovative ideas to become tired and formulaic by repetition.
“It's tricky,” he says. "It feels a bit like a difficult second album, even though it's the third series. The first series was a ripple, the second series was a medium-sized wave and then the Christmas special was like a tidal wave. We have to make sure we don't get accused of being repetitious. We didn’t realise it was going to be a mainstream show. We thought it'd be a cool, little culty thing. I thought it was going to be a bit like Big Train, but suddenly it turned into this mainstream monster and we've got the whole catchphrase thing which is a bit of an albatross. People enjoy the catchphrases and you have to do them, but in terms of pushing it, you have to look for a way that isn't obvious."
As a result, they’re introducing new characters, adding more visual gags and changing the tone, although they won’t deny us the pleasure of hearing a few old favourites as well. The plan is to get out while the going is good -– like The Office and Fawlty Towers before them -– and make this series the last, perhaps with a live tour on the back of it.
"It's great because we're hiring comedy actors who I have a huge amount of respect for and who I used to watch when I was a teenager, and they're performing in sketches I've written. I used to be a huge fan of Game-On, for example, and now Neil Stuke is reading my lines – and he's really brilliant at it. It's ace."
In the meantime, Horne, who played Ben, the hypochondriac RE master, in Channel 4's Teachers and is one half of Edinburgh favourites Mat and MacKinnon, has the best of both worlds. He can enjoy being recognised in the street, but doesn’t have to worry about being besieged like the show’s star.
“I get recognised a lot, particularly when the show's out,” he says. "Teachers raised my profile a bit, but nothing like this. It's cool: it's nice to know that what you're doing is good and a lot of people like it."
And if he plays second fiddle to Tate, whose meticulously observed characters dominate the show, that’s a role he’s happy with – at least for the present. “We first worked together in Edinburgh when she was doing the live show that preceded the series,” he says. "Four out of the five characters from the live show are in the TV show now, so I've been with Nan from a very early stage.
"Catherine is very good to work with. She knows what she wants and she's very meticulous. I'm a Virgo so I enjoy that, picking things apart. It's all about the detail. You can say, 'Am I bovvered?' as many times as you want, but if it hasn't got the details, it'll die.
"As one of the supporting actors, I've got one of the best deals because I'm in the two most popular sketches. Catherine is very talented and she's worked damn hard for quite a while. It takes time in this business and my time to be her might come, but it won't be now – I'm too young. I'm happy to get the recognition for being in it."
The only drawback is he rarely gets the chance to enjoy Tate’s shape-shifting talents in the same way the audience does. “She came on the Paul O'Grady Show recently as a guest and I was in the studio audience,” he says. "I was watching her performing with the audience around me and it was just fantastic. She is phenomenal. It was brilliant to get to do that."
Fuelled by his love of comedy, Horne is happy to have found himself in a hit sketch show so early in his career, but if he has an ambition it would be to take on a leading character role, especially if there was one that championed his love of silent comedy. “I'd really like to play Buster Keaton," says Horne. “I like to look at old stuff, like Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, and work out why they were so good and why they have longevity. They were modern for their time and they were always pushing things – and it's very important to keep pushing.”
© Mark Fisher 2006/2009
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