Hoping it bakes off

Pictured: Sara (SUE PERKINS).
Pictured: Sara (SUE PERKINS).

Sue Perkins is nervous.

“Do you think it’s going to be all right?” she asks at the beginning of the interview.

It’s customary for the interviewer to ask the questions, not the interviewee, but Perkins isn’t a stickler for rules. And neither is Sara, the central character in her new BBC sitcom Heading Out.

With Sara, Perkins is taking on her first acting role in a decade and perhaps her biggest writing project ever, hence the nerves.

‘Intellectually insecure’ with a tendency to dress like a 12-year-old boy or ‘post-breakdown Britney’, Sara runs a small vets practice and the opening scene of episode one sees her explaining to a client that their cat needs to be put to sleep, only for the distraught pet-owner to change her mind halfway through the process.

Sara promises the lady she’ll have the beloved moggy cremated, and bring her the ashes later on. However, she ends up lugging the dead animal around in a hold-all all day, only for it to end up making a horrifying re-appearance at a party later on, now rigid with rigor mortis.

It’s the first of many laugh-out-loud moments in the six-part series, not to mention the cameos further in with Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap, and Dawn French and EastEnder June Brown making a hilarious appearance in episode five.

The actress, writer and presenter’s roots sit firmly in comedy - after making a splash at the Edinburgh Festival winning Best Newcomers in 1993, Mel and Sue (Perkins and her comedy partner Mel Giedroyc) success followed with appearances in French & Saunders, for which they also wrote sketches, before landing their own show on Channel 4 called Light Lunch, which saw them quizzing celebrity guests as chefs cooked them lunch.

Since 2010, however, Perkins and Giedroyc have been busy presenting the now much-loved Great British Bake Off, and it’s this which has made them household names.

The Bafta-winning series is set to continue, with Perkins still on board.

She describes how a “very well known” comedy producer recently asked her why she’s “doing this to herself”, putting herself through the slog and angst of writing a sitcom at this stage of her career.

“He said, ‘You’re at a point where you can just cruise now’,” Perkins explains.

“It’s really hard to write a sitcom people like.

“People are really personal and nasty about them and all kinds of inflammatory - why am I doing it? I just thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to coast actually’. If you want to write you should. People might not like it but at least I tried and I’d have always had the regret otherwise.”

So is she pleased with the outcome?

“I don’t know, I mean, I am pretty pleased with the writing and I know the cast is solid gold. I can’t speak for my own performance because I’m a novice, but they’re just great, really funny.”

It may sound like she’s digging for compliments, but self-deprecation just seems a natural part of Perkins’s personality, along with her snappy dry wit and chronic awkwardness.

Sara shares similar traits plus, like Perkins, she’s a lesbian.

At the beginning of the series, Sara turns 40. A phone conversation with her parents reveals she hasn’t yet told them about her sexuality, inventing a fictional French fake limb-salesman boyfriend when her mother asks whether she’s seeing anybody yet.

However, her friends - Jamie (Dominic Coleman) and Justine (Nicola Walker) - think it’s time that changed and as a surprise birthday gift club together to pay for Sara to have five weeks’ therapy with a life coach called Toria (Joanna Scanlan).

The aim is that afterwards, Sara will finally be able to tell her parents that she’s a ‘big, old gay’, and if she doesn’t, they’ll tell them for her!

Perkins points out that Sara isn’t based on herself, however.

“People will think the main character is me but it isn’t at all. I am shy and a bit awkward like her but that isn’t my story about coming out and that’s not my parents,” says the 43 year-old, though her own experiences did inspire parts of the story.

“There are a few little relationships I’ve had that I’ve blown up and twisted around a bit, and there are quite a lot of exes of mine in there.

“They won’t be able to recognise themselves, I’ve 
really changed them.

“But I never felt like I should really root it to my own experience, because my own experience wasn’t funny enough.”

Perkins was in her late 20s when she came out to her own parents, and admits she “was scared”.

“It’s not very fun, but it went pretty well,” she says. “They just dealt with it 
pretty quickly and it was all cool.

“Maybe where the idea came from is my friend Sarah said, ‘Look, you just get over it. If you don’t do it I am going to tell them’. Maybe that stuck in my head and made me think OK, all right, maybe I will write about this one day.”

The challenge of ‘coming out’ to her parents may be central to the plot, but Perkins absolutely does not want people to see it as ‘gay TV’.

“I’ll be sad if people refer to it as a gay sitcom because it so isn’t,” she says. “It’s a sitcom and it’s got a gay character in it. If there was something political behind it, it was just the fact that everyone is the same. I wanted it very firmly in the normal world, and to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day people didn’t have to go through that?’

“And equally with the love story to ask - why label it? We all feel the same. 
We all feel pain at unrequited love, we all feel awkward when it’s a possibility, we all feel shy when push comes to shove.”

We don’t all undertake mild 
hypnosis and drum therapy with our netball rival (Toria also happens to play in Sara’s league) to be able to navigate the rocky path to personal and romantic confidence, but that’s the joy of comedy for you.”