Writing is, as I tell my nieces when explaining verbs, “a doing word” – by which I mean, to qualify as a writer, you really need to be engaged in the process of actually writing. Sadly, sitting in a coffee shop ordering endless skinny lattes and wondering how to spend your Booker Prize money doesn’t count. I know this now. Wafting a biro while looking, mournfully, out of the window also doesn’t cut it.
Greater minds than mine have ruminated on what it takes to be a consummate wordsmith. I can only go on what I see, on the model of my penwielding friends – in which case, you know you’re a proper writer if your constant desk-based travails mean you have to attend weekly sessions with an osteopath, simultaneously worrying how on earth you’re going to afford to pay for the treatment.
Over the years I’ve allowed myself to be called a writer in on-screen credits and the like. In truth, I’d penned a few articles and sketches and helped out on established comedy shows. It’s like saying you’re an astronaut when you’ve only done a few shorthaul flights to Tenerife. What I hadn’t done was author something long-form; something with my name on – something truly me.
I’d had a fragment of an idea for nearly a decade. This fragment revolved around a “benign kidnap” or an intervention. I knew that I wanted to write about someone who was stuck and whose friends decided to take drastic action to save her from her own inertia.
I did nothing about this idea. Why? Well, it was so much easier to earn a living doing pieces to camera in stately homes. (Most of my television career has involved opining while walking along lavish corridors…) “It was here, in 1867, that the Coalminer’s Sponge was invented. One part flour, one part sugar and butter and one part anthracite. If you can’t find anthracite, any ground metamorphic rock will do…”
You get the gist. But something strange happened. Slowly the idea took shape. I didn’t will it into being; it just metamorphosed behind my back – out of view. When I actively came to look at it again, the story had evolved a little. It had become the narrative of a woman who couldn’t deal with telling her parents she was gay. On her birthday her exasperated mates bundle her into a car, and, with the help of a security guard, drive her north to her parents’ house so she can come out to them. It was both a literal and existential journey, I told myself – in a vain attempt to appear clever.
It’s here I should point out that NOTHING about this story is autobiographical. Here is how I came out to my parents over 15 years ago…
Susan (on phone, strained voice): “Mum. Can I come home tomorrow?”
Mum: “Yes. Why? Are you all right?”
Susan: “Yes. I just… I just want to talk to you about something.”
Mum (matter of factly, while eating what sounds like toast): “Is it about you being gay?”
Susan (long, long pause): “Yes, it might be that.” (Another long pause.) “You really know how to steal someone’s moment, don’t you?”
(Click of a receiver.)
Sometime in 2011, in an unguarded moment when possibly drunk, I told my agent, Debi Allen, the idea. Now, Debi is the opposite of me. Where I’m reticent, she’s cavalier. Where I’m awkward, she has ladyballs of the shiniest steel. Suddenly I find myself in a grey BBC meeting room with a comedy commissioner who’s charming, supportive and wants to take the idea further.
There has been a terrible mistake. No one has ever taken a Perkins idea further. Perkins ideas are meant to lie, unformed and undiscovered in the darkness of my imagination.
There was a suggestion from the Head Honchos – they make us call them that – that this idea should be worked into a six-part sitcom and for a while, I resisted. I’d conceived it as a comedy drama. (“Comedy drama” is a technical term for something that has too few jokes to be a comedy, while lacking the profundity of a more serious piece.)
If I were to turn this conceit into a sitcom, the road-trip idea had to fall by the wayside. After all sitcoms, by definition, need a “sit”, or precinct. For Porridge it was a prison, for Fawlty Towers a hotel, for The Office… (you get the idea). I thought long and hard about where to locate the show, and the only place that resonated with me was a veterinary surgery. First, I have a pack of dogs, so the vet’s is a familiar environment. Secondly, it’s a space inhabited by people from all walks of life, irrespective of class, religion and nationality. I became convinced.
So, a first episode was commissioned. Now, it’s my natural inclination to dive straight into everything with the gayest of abandon, but I learnt, with the help of my brilliant script editor Richard Fee, to take my time. I put aside my lust to write jokes and instead I learned to go through the excruciatingly painful process of detailed plotting and storylining, And when it was time to write the jokes, I recognised that those jokes were better than they would have been, because they came from the mouths of characters that I’d created and inhabited and knew inside and out.
Next came a table-read just before Christmas. This is an opportunity for very hard-pressed television executives to sit on uncomfortable chairs first thing in the morning and listen to actors sightreading early drafts of comedy scripts. It’s an awkward experience. There was laughter. I clung on to that. People laughed.
I was standing by an elephant in Laos (filming World’s Most Dangerous Roads) last April when I heard the news the series had been commissioned. It had been a hard, emotional shoot and I hadn’t slept for days. I hadn’t had mobile reception since entering the country. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my phone rang. An electronic chirp in the heart of the jungle. I’m not ashamed to say I cried a tear. Just the one. (I reserve two for the breakup of relationships that have lasted more than a decade.)
From April to July, I wrote the remaining four episodes. It felt freeing to be on a roll – and although some moments felt impossibly, brain-achingly hard, thanks to the gang of beloveds corralling alongside me, I felt buoyed along. That’s another thing I learnt about writing – it’s so much easier to do when others have faith in you.
By early September, I was sitting in a freezing church hall, rehearsing and fine-tuning the script. For the first time, I heard the lines in the mouths of those they were meant for. I was so awe-struck by the cast, I completely forgot that I was actually in the show and that I too was required to give a performance. A few weeks later, I was in a make-up chair starting the most enjoyable five weeks of my working life. I can only hope that when people see it, my weird, eccentric baby, they feel the love that went into making her and can take joy from her palpable oddness.
But I can’t dwell too much on that. For now, I feel absorbed, preoccupied, fulfilled. I have a terrible ongoing issue with my neck for which I am seeing an osteopath. I am happy. I think I feel like a writer.
Heading Out begins tonight at 10pm on BBC2