Heading Out is something of a departure for Sue Perkins, best known as one half of comedy duo Mel & Sue and presenter of BBC2 hit The Great British Bake Off.

Produced by Perkins’ indie Square Peg TV and drama outfit Red Production Company, Heading Out is her first venture into scripted comedy.

It’s the story of a successful vet, Sara (Perkins), who is too scared to tell her parents she’s gay.  So on the night of her 40th birthday, Sara’s friends give her an ultimatum – either tell her parents when they come to visit in six weeks time, or they will.

It’s an idea that Perkins says she harboured for a long time. But, originally, she envisaged it as a road trip, with the lead character hijacked and bundled into a car by her friends and then forced to tell her parents.
“It showed up my naivety about production costs and logistics,” says Perkins in hindsight.

She first pitched the idea to then BBC comedy controller Cheryl Taylor. Her key feedback was that the idea would work better as a sitcom, rather than a road trip. “Initially I was furious,” jokes Perkins. “But within 15 minutes, I had bowed to her knowledge.”

So Perkins had to envisage a precinct in which to set the show. “I tried to think of a place I could write about from experience,” she recalls. The traditional sitcom precinct, the family home, was clearly off limits as the lead character had no kids. A dog owner herself, Perkins came up with the idea of a vet’s surgery, which seemed perfect because a vet “has every demographic and kind of people passing through.”

She wrote a script in late 2011 for a table-read, attended by BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow. “It’s quite a sterile process, but luckily they laughed,” says Perkins.

When the show was commissioned for a full series, she teamed up with Red to produce it. “I’d always had a high regard for the shows that Red makes and for (md) Nicola (Shindler) personally…The cleverest business decisions are often when you realise you don’t have the skills do something by yourself. I want to write – but I don’t necessarily know who the best boom operator in Manchester is. And Red does.”

Perkins worked with Red’s Richard Fee and Shindler on the scripts, while executive editor of comedy Kristian Smith steered the project for the BBC.

Working to a tight budget (£1.4m for 6×30-min episodes), Heading Out was shot in a disused NHS health clinic in Wilmslow. Downstairs was remodelled as a vet’s surgery, while upstairs was converted in to the home of Sara. This one building was used for more than half of the locations, helping to limit the costs.

Shot on the Alexa camera, the entire show was filmed in just five weeks – with the crew working long days to cover 6-12 pages a day.

The result, says Perkins, is an ensemble piece –featuring Dawn French, Shelly Conn, Joanna Scanlan and Mark Heap –where each character has proper jokes. “I’m old fashioned enough to think that a good comedy needs jokes.”

Heading Out airs on 26 February on BBC2

Tim Dams

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