‘We were always trying to push boundaries’: Jim Howick on breaking taboos, coping with life and the joy of dogs

·11 min read

Jim Howick is sitting on a bench in Primrose Hill in London, drinking tea from a cardboard cup and minding his own business, when a dad on a bicycle zooms by on the asphalt path. Brakes squeal and the dad shouts breathless thank-yous at the bemused actor, before cycling on. This sort of thing has been happening to Howick quite a bit, he says, ever since Covid closed the schools. When parents were struggling to find ways to entertain their kids at home, the BBC’s Horrible Histories was much in rotation on iPlayer. “Essentially, we became childcare,” says Howick, who was a part of the original Horrible Histories cast from 2009 to 2014. Some of his sketch performances (as King John, as Napoleon) are up there with the show’s most beloved. Howick admits he revisits them himself from time to time, to be reminded with what gleeful absurdity he spent his late 20s, dressed in wigs, false noses and stuck-on Napoleonic sideburns.

He is 43 now, an actor and screenwriter in steady employ, 10 years married to a costume supervisor called Lauren and the owner of two schnauzers that the couple refer to as their children. He is a lifelong Star Wars fan, once describing himself as more Ewok than Skywalker in appearance. (Howick, richly bearded, is 5ft 5in.) Although he grew up on the south coast, in Bognor Regis, he has been a season-ticket holder at Spurs ever since he graduated from a London drama school in 2000. Howick’s humour is flavoured by the “ah well” befuddlement one associates with that deeply frustrating football club. As he reflects on an interesting career to date, Howick tells a story about his only job in a Hollywood movie, 2004’s Hellboy. He contracted hypothermia on set – too long under a rain machine – and ended up in hospital, on a drip.

Still in self-deprecation mode, he tells another story against himself, pointing out that he’s never acted for an audience as big as the one he had at age 21. He was in a Burger King ad that played during the final of Pop Idol in 2002: “14 million people!” he marvels, “and I was wearing a giant foam Stetson hat, trying to sell something called a Big Texan Burger. We had a premiere round my mum and dad’s house. I think it was barbecue sauce – maybe jalapeños? – that made the burger Texan.”

‘When I read the scripts for Sex Education, I learned loads. About problems. Hopes. Issues. All of it was dealt with so deftly, never flinching’: in Netflix’s Sex Education with Rakhee Thakrar.
‘When I read the scripts for Sex Education, I learned loads. About problems. Hopes. Issues. All of it was dealt with so deftly, never flinching’: in Netflix’s Sex Education with Rakhee Thakrar. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

He’s doing himself down a good deal with these actorly anecdotes. If Howick’s is not quite a household name, he certainly has a household face – as evidenced by the dad who screeched to a halt on his bike. Howick is one of those roving everywhere-people of contemporary British comedy, spending years in Peep Show as David Mitchell’s romantic nemesis Gerard, later playing a teacher of horny teenagers in that taboo-smashing Netflix comedy Sex Education. Currently, he can be seen as a father-of-two in the BBC comedy Here We Go. Since 2019, Howick has been a part of another triumphant sitcom, Ghosts.

The latter wasn’t only an acting job for him, rather a labour of love, a show he co-created with castmates once met and befriended on Horrible Histories. For Howick and his collaborators, Ghosts has been one of those dreamy success projects, a show that found an appreciative audience right away, soon running to four series, then enjoying a lucrative franchising-out to America, where it’s become one of the most watched comedies on network TV over there. This Star Wars lifer had the experience of waking up one day this January to see that Mark Hamill – Luke Skywalker himself – had tweeted about his love for Ghosts. The British version, too!

“We got together in a room with laptops,” Howick remembers of the show’s conception. “We had mountains of ideas because we’d all spent our youths riffing together in dungeons or the woods or wherever we happened to be filming Horrible. We were constantly trying to make each other laugh back then.” He starts to add an unguarded thought, stops himself, then (to hell with it) speaks anyway. “We often reminisce, now, about what we tried to get away with in those early days,” Howick shrugs. They were young. They’d mess about, he says. Try to push boundaries. “Sneak sex noises into sketches…”

Excuse me?

Howick holds up his hands. He doesn’t want to alarm parents. Anything untoward would have been caught and censored in some edit room, years ago. “But somewhere out there,” he says, “Horrible Histories has an X-rated cut.”

It fascinates him, he says, this line between what a mainstream comedy can and cannot get away with. As he summarises Ghosts, “the ‘sit’ in the ‘com’ is that we have these nine ghosts stuck in a house”. The ghost-characters are all styled and to an extent characterised by the circumstances in which they perished. Howick, for instance, plays a scoutmaster with an arrow stuck through his neck. His co-star and co-creator Simon Farnaby plays a Tory politician who only ever appears in his pants. (He died during an orgy.) “But in our original pitch,” says Howick, “we wanted him to be wearing full S&M. Studded leather pants. We were talking about him having a ball gag in his mouth.”

Yeah, they had to row back from that idea. Ghosts broadcasts at dinnertime on BBC One. But through his work on Sex Education, which started in 2019, Howick got a clearer idea of what’s possible when there are minimal creative constraints on funny people. He’s quick to point out he was only ever an actor-for-hire on that show, having nothing whatsoever to do with scripts. But in a way, he says, he’s prouder of Sex Education than anything else on his CV. Every week, some tangled subject to do with sex or sexual health, untangled. Howick wishes there was something like it on TV when he was young.

“I don’t know if it was the same with you, but where I went to school, in Bognor in the 1980s and 90s, sex education had a shoved-in feeling. Sex ed was the home economics teacher saying, ‘When the man and woman get aroused they interconnect with their organs.’ It was scientific. Emotionless.” Howick recalls one lesson when the teacher brought out a large plastic phallus to demonstrate condom use. The other pupils immediately nicknamed this the Monolith; and at that point any possible sexual education went out the window, lost to sniggering. “When I read the scripts for Sex Education, I learned loads. About problems. Hopes. Issues. All of it was dealt with so deftly, never flinching.”

In their own scripts for Ghosts, Howick and his collaborators attempted something similar, in this case, trying to write without flinching about death. “It’s certainly provided me with a starker view of mortality,” he says. “I don’t think any of us realised the depth of the subject matter we’d taken on until we got to episode three.” In this one, Howick’s ghost-character, Pat, has to prepare for the annual graveside visit of his still living family. In a scene much quoted online since it broadcast, an older ghost reminds Pat that one day his relatives will die, too. Howick summarises: “You pass. People mourn. Then they pass. And all of a sudden there’s nothing. That idea of layered death, that void! It’s terrifying, isn’t it?”

He shudders. “To be honest, when we started writing the show, we were a little concerned about being too maudlin, prompting existential crises, giving younger viewers nightmares. I was worried we were not so much dipping a toe into the taboo subject of death as dive bombing right into it. But we decided that we should try to be candid. Open. Who knows? If we can be more candid in our discussion of death, maybe we’ll all lead happier lives?”

Taboos interest Howick, and for an interesting reason. He first met his wife, Lauren, in a place he calls Sitcom Land, “Teddington Studios, where so many TV comedies are filmed”. They were both employed on a reboot of Reggie Perrin at the time, Howick acting, Lauren in the costume department. They married in London in 2012, “McCartney-style,” he recalls, “at Marylebone town hall. The do afterwards was at the Globe. A red bus affair!” The couple recently celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Lake Como.

Sitting on our bench in the park, I ask Howick what lessons he has learned over a decade of marriage. He answers frankly. “What do you learn? You learn about grownup stuff. You either have kids or you don’t. My wife and I struggled, actually. So we got dogs instead. The dogs are essentially our children.” Howick continues, still speaking matter-of-factly. “Kids were going to be important to us. We tried for a long time. When we realised we couldn’t have them, it was almost a relief, because by then we’d gotten to the point where we could imagine a life without them. And, actually, not a bad life, not bad at all. So. Yeah. That’s been a massive part of our emotional landscape. That’s one of the things I’ve learned about.”

We sit on the bench a moment, doing what we can with takeaway teas that long ago went cold. I ask Howick, is he OK for me to write about all this in a newspaper? He says he’ll double-check with Lauren (later confirming, there’s no reluctance there). He says he would like it to be written about, in fact, because the subject of people’s childlessness can be such a strained one, such a taboo one. “Everyone who’s important to me knows already. But I’m happy to be candid with you, because I think it would be good for people to know, it isn’t this depressing thing, worthy of pity. It isn’t sad. It doesn’t define us.”

Howick tells a story about the week he and Lauren got final word from their doctor. He was writing series two of Ghosts with the gang from Horrible Histories. “Simon, Matt [Baynton], Larry [Rickard], they’d all just had kids. There were seminal moments happening for them – and for me, because I was sharing in those moments. Their kids’ first steps. Their Christmas nativity plays at school. I wanted to keep on sharing in that. I didn’t want any of them to feel strange or reluctant talking about that stuff with me.” Howick explained to his friends: it hurt a bit, finding out that he and Lauren couldn’t have children, but avoidance of the whole subject of children would hurt more.

“Now it’s no longer an emotional thing,” he says, “it’s just a fact of our lives. Our time is our own. A life without children is a roomier one. We have nieces and nephews. We have our dogs. We really enjoy our work.” His “ah well” sense of humour kicks in again as he adds that he can afford all the expensive Dungeons & Dragons-like toys that were out of reach when he was a child in Bognor. “Oh, I went to town in the last lockdown, spent a lot of money on the paints, the brushes, the figurines for a game called Hero Quest. As a kid I used to use tea leaves to represent grass on the bases [of the little men]. This time I bought gravel. Real gravel! Games Workshop didn’t know what had hit them.”

His latest sitcom, Here We Go, makes funny and intelligent use of the way people’s expectations for their lives rarely pan out. Howick plays Paul Jessop, part of an ensemble that also includes Katherine Parkinson as his wife, Alison Steadman as his mum and Tom Basden as his brother-in-law. In scripts written by Basden, there are frequent time jumps, this jagged chronology teasing laughter and poignancy from the way families make plans for themselves that are constantly undermined. Howick calls it, “Having goals, and those goals going to shit.”

It’s a subject he knows something about. You might get an early break in a Hollywood blockbuster, only to come away with hypothermia. You might envisage a life with children and end up slightly relieved to get one with schnauzers. Howick says: “I’ve spent a lot of my life perpetually looking up. Recently, I’ve been trying to remind myself to take stock, look left and right instead. Like that guy who rode past us on the bike…” He gestures away along the asphalt path, in the direction of the vanished dad. “A spontaneous expression of approval. In 2022! How cool was that?”

The full series of Here We Go is now on BBC iPlayer

Styling Hope Lawrie; photographer’s assistant Sofi Adams; work experience Eleanor Shorey; grooming Chad Maxwell at One Represents using Benny Hancock

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