She may be comfortably cruising as a co-presenter on The Great British Bake Off, but Sue Perkins has cooked up a treat with new sitcom Heading Out. She tells Abi Jackson about returning to her comedy roots
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, 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.
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 and it makes a horrifying re-appearance at a party later on.
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.
The actress, writer and presenter’s roots sit firmly in comedy – after winning Best Newcomers at the Edinburgh Festival in 1993 with comedy partner Mel Giedroyc, success followed and they landed their own show on Channel 4 called Light Lunch.
Since 2010, however, Perkins and Giedroyc have been busy presenting the 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 of writing a sitcom.
“He said, ‘You’re at a point where you can just cruise now’,” Perkins explains.
“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.”
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.
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.
However, her friends – Jamie (Dominic Coleman) and Justine (Nicola Walker) – think it’s time that changed and as a birthday gift, pay for Sara to have therapy with Toria (Joanna Scanlan). The aim is that afterwards, Sara will be able to tell her parents that she’s a ‘big, old gay’.
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,” says the 43 year-old.
Perkins was in her late 20s when she came out to her own parents, and admits she “was scared”.
“It’s not fun, but it went pretty well,” she says. “They dealt with it pretty quickly.”
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.”
Heading Out starts on BBC Two on Tuesday, February 26