It may alarm you to learn that TV’s latest vet describes her knowledge of animal physiology as “seriously limited”. Sue Perkins is the doting owner of two beagles, Pickle and Parker, “so I’m used to dealing with vomit and faeces. But could I perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on a choking cat? God, no!”
Just as well that Heading Out—her self-penned new BBC2 sitcom in which she plays 40-year-old animal doctor Sara—will be judged on the jokes rather than her ability to, say, take a hamster’s temperature with a rectal thermometer.
“I set the show in a vet’s surgery because it’s got to be somewhere, and you do get a big range of believable characters using vets—anyone can own a gerbil. But it was mooted that I do some research, and I sort of forgot about that bit. We did have a veterinary nurse in attendance when we filmed the opening scene where Sara puts a cat to sleep, though. She talked me through exactly how it’s done. “If I’m honest, killing a cat is quite a brave way to start a sitcom, don’t you think? Although, of course, no animals were actually hurt in the making of Heading Out.”
But they were a little bit humiliated at times, Sue admits. Sara’s own cute but hapless terrier, Popsy, is decked out as a French onion seller by the vet’s visiting Gallic ex-lover. “That dog wears a stripy tee shirt and a beret like you wouldn’t believe!” Sue laughs.
here’s also the episode in which Queer As Man —Sue’s presenting partner on BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off— appears as the wife of a Russian oligarch. “She has a pedigree borzoi that she wants to put out to stud, but it’s impotent. So she offers me a huge amount of money to somehow get it ‘excited’. It’s difficult because borzois are very timid, dignified dogs. So when this poor thing came on set I felt really sorry for it.”
Sue raises an expressive eyebrow above her trademark specs in sympathy or irony, or both. In the early days of her TV career—presenting Channel 4’s late-Nineties series Light Lunch with Mel— her slightly unconventional looks could occasionally be an issue.
“I can remember a two-hour meeting about what should be done with my unibrow,” she says. “But times have moved on and for every stunning Tess Daley on the screen, there’s now room for a speccy weirdo like me. I’m also more confident, so these days if someone brought up [my appearance] I’d be likely to say, ‘Isn’t there something a bit more interesting we could be talking about?’ ” Meeting her today at her publicist’s London office, she does indeed seem beautifully at ease with herself. She’s dressed super-casually in jeans and black jumper—the outfit she wore, no doubt, while walking the dogs on Hampstead Heath the same morning.
“There’s not one ounce of me that cares about the way I look,” she says, though she’s actually much prettier than she knows, with glowing skin and eyes that sparkle with intelligence. But she has every reason to feel confident. The 43-year-old’s stock has risen like a veritable soufflé with the phenomenal success of Bake Off over the last three years. And, in Heading Out, she’s now persuaded the BBC to commission a fairly mainstream comedy with a very different twist. One of the main sources of humour in the show is that Sara is a lesbian who’s pathologically afraid of coming out to her parents.
“I didn’t set out to write something zeitgeisty,” says Sue, referring in part to the recent influx of fellow gay women, such as Mary Portas and Clare Balding, into high-profile TV. “In fact, I’ve been brewing the idea for the last ten years. But maybe the timing was right because we’re getting to that stage where, culturally, it doesn’t matter whether someone is gay or not, and maybe we should have programmes that reflect that.
“When you look at other gay dramas like, say, [Channel 4’s 1999 series] Queer As Folk, they were set in entirely gay communities. But I wanted to write something where the central character was part of society at large, and where being gay is the same as being heterosexual. We’re all dealing with the same things—money problems, relationships, ageing. If you’re in love and it’s unrequited, that’s painful. Full stop. I also wanted Sara to be the only person in the comedy who had a problem with her sexuality. Everyone else is saying, ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake. Just get over it.’ ”
Indeed, Sue would fade out the gay issue if Heading Out gets another series. “I think the fact that I’m gay is about the 47th most interesting thing about me, and I’d like Sara to have the same trajectory. I d didn’t really intend to make a political statement with the show, but if there is one, that would be it.” Viewers, Sue accepts, will probably assume that the show is autobiographical, but it isn’t really.“I do have a lot of sympathy for the character because I’ve known people who’ve been in her situation. But I told my parents a long time ago and they’re very supportive. Although the thing about coming out to your mum and dad is having to admit to them that you’re having sex, which is kind of mortifying and not something you have to do if you’re not gay. Ideally, we’ll get to a point where a person doesn’t feel they have to make a statement about their sexuality at all.”
Sue’s parents haven’t yet seen Heading Out, and there’s part of her that dreads them watching anything she does. “I come from a deeply normal family, and I’m a sort of aberrant black sheep,” she laughs, before adding. “No, no, that makes me seem much more interesting than I actually am. What I hope is that they’ll enjoy it. They’ll know the character I’m playing isn’t me. But I hope it makes them laugh and I hope it makes them proud.”
Sue was raised in Croydon, one of three children. Her mum was a secretary, while her dad worked for a car dealership in Peckham. It was a solid lower-middle-class family, although the prodigiously bright Sue went to the independent Old Palace School for girls, then New Hall, Cambridge. She met Mel Giedroyc through the Footlights, and their friendship morphed into a comedy partnership that saw them writing for French and Saunders, then hosting Light Lunch and its early-evening version Late Lunch.
Mel then ducked out of TV for a while to have her two babies, while Sue made her name as a comedy-panel-show favourite, Man Booker judge, and one half of BBC2’s The Supersizers…, in which she and food critic Giles Coren ate their way through various historical diets. She also showed her prowess as a conductor, winning the BBC2 Maestro competition, and brushed up her childhood piano skills to perform Beethoven’s Sonata Pathé-tique at the Cheltenham Music Festival as part of Sky Arts’ First Love series. She seems to be something of a polymath, although the suggestion amuses her. “Who, me?” she says. “Not at all. Da Vinci was a polymath—an inventor, an artist, a philosopher. A proper Renaissance man. If I invented something like, say, a naval helicopter, I’d come back and claim the term for myself. But until then, I’m someone who loves conducting orchestras, opining about books and art, and clowning about a bit.”
There’s a lot of clowning about, she says, on The Great British Bake Off, thanks to her chemistry with Mel. “ We’ve known each other since we were 18, although we often act as though we’re about 12,” she says. There are some large plastic “prop” baguettes on the set, for example, that they like to whack each other with at unsuspecting moments, or they’ll look up “fart noises” on their iPhones and play them while the other is doing a link.
“We can be very, very silly,” says Sue. “But the truth is that my friendship with Mel is indescribably deep. It goes beyond friendship really, even beyond family. I can never imagine not having her in my life. I suppose the secret of such a long-standing friendship is that no matter what’s been happening in our lives, we’ve always seen each other frequently, given each other time. So we now have an emotional shorthand where each of us knows how the other feels without really having to refer to it. I love Mel very dearly.”
It’s a platonic love, of course. Sue’s longest relationship was with the artist Kate Williams, which ended early in 2012 after eight years. “It was quite seismic and unpleasant,” she says. “I left our home in Cornwall and was renting in London, and it all felt very transitory.” But the pair remain friendly, and Kate’s parting shot to Sue was that, whatever she did, she must continue writing. “I spent a lot of my thirties wastefully locked into thinking I wasn’t good enough. It was easier to say other people’s words or to improvise, because if it went wrong you could say, ‘Well, I did it on the spur of the moment.’ ”
The tide turned at 40, she says, just as it does, appropriately, for her character in Heading Out. “Once you’ve come through the shock and depression, you think, Hang on a minute, I don’t want to waste any more time with my head down feeling ashamed. Of what? I’m going to stop wasting time and start writing. And I’m very glad that I did. “Besides,” she laughs. “Forty-three is the new 25, I’ve decided!”
For the full interview see March Reader’s Digest, out now.
by Daphne Lockyer