There is a scene in Frayed where Sammy Burbeck (Sarah Kendall), having reluctantly moved back to her childhood home in small-town Australia, goes wandering after dark by the water. Running her hands along the wall, she finds an old hiding-hole and digs out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. She is deep in thought. But then she hears a grunt – and right next to her is a bloke, pooping.
“Oh!” she says, horrified, in an upper-class English accent. “I mean, there are toilets literally just there!”
“The toilets are filthy,” the man informs her, straining to evacuate his bowels as he crouches by the kerb and positions his bare bum over the gutter.
Kendall is both the star and the writer of this new Sky comedy, most of which is set in her own hometown of Newcastle in Australia. It also draws on some of her own experiences in life. “I have seen someone s**t in public, yes,” she confirms to RadioTimes.com. “So that did happen.”
I’m taking to Kendall on the phone and she is happily tucked up in bed, having just returned from a breakfast radio appearance. “It’s just the most delicious treat, going back to bed when the kids are at school. There’s nothing like it,” she says. “It’s like crack cocaine for the soul.”
Her excellent new comedy follows Simone Burbeck, a London housewife in 1989 whose respectable life is shattered when her massively-wealthy husband dies in a particularly embarrassing way during a session with a sex worker. It’s not that she actually liked him all that much; it’s just that he’s left the family utterly and unexpectedly penniless.
With nowhere to turn, Simone and her two kids fly to Australia and move in with her mum – returning to the life Simone (whose real name is Sammy) has tried so hard to escape.
When they arrive in this unfamiliar land, Sammy’s two teenage children are surprised to learn that their mother has a brother: their Uncle Jim, who lives at home and wears a t-shirt with the slogan “freelance gynecologist” and sleeps with women whose names he can’t remember. Jim (played by Ben Mingay) jealously hoards his Choco Bombs cereal, sings songs about blow jobs, and immediately begins fighting and bickering with his sister.
“Jim is not that far removed from my brother,” Kendall reveals. “It’s not going to be a huge leap for anyone to know that that is just very much my brother.”
That’s surely an insult to your brother, I suggest. But apparently not: “Jim is actually one of the best characters. Over the series and as you get to know him more, you actually get a much better handle [on him] – like, Jim is pretty much my favourite character. It sounds like a horrible thing to say about my brother, at first glance, but actually the more the series wears on and the more you get a handle on Jim as a person, he’s a really beautiful guy.”
Sammy’s kids Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) are also constantly at each other’s throats.
“Yeah, I don’t like TV shows where family members love each other,” Kendall says, deadpan. “I find it very difficult. Very difficult to watch.
“And certainly in my own family, the greatest expression of intimacy is just, the awful things that you’ll say to each other. So I think that there has to be a level of trust and love to say disgusting things to a person.”
Kendall was born in Newcastle, but moved to London in her twenties, finding success as a stand-up comedian. She has previously written for the TV show Beehive, and appeared in shows like The Unbelievable Truth and Motherland. But the ideas behind Frayed really began to emerge when she created a Radio 4 series of “fictional stories and semi-autobiographical stories” set in her hometown in the late ’80s.
“I know southwest London really well – I’ve lived here for 20 years, but also it’s so different from where I came from in Australia, so I sort of wanted to do something that even in a fictional way bridged those two worlds,” she explains.
As for Newcastle, “It’s a really strange mix of very beautiful and absolute s**thole. People don’t quite know how to feel about Newcastle, because there’s stunning beaches, glorious beaches, the skeletons of industry, big drug problem. It’s sort of paradise, but it’s got this really seedy underbelly. It’s very rough at night.
“And I suppose tonally that really fed into how I saw the show, that the show was going to be a real mix of light and dark. I wanted it to be, it was the perfect external world for the internal worlds of my characters. I hope I don’t sound like a dips**t saying that.”
Midway through our discussion about the faff of maintaining her voluminous ’80s hairdo, Kendall gets another call.
“The hair was hilarious for the first day, and then after the first day I realised that this was my life,” she’s saying. “That I was getting it blow dried for an hour every morning and after lunch, another hour after lunch – do you know who’s calling me right now? Diane Morgan’s on the other line. She’s trying to muscle in on our interview. No. F**k her. F**k her! – I mean, I sort of said to them, I don’t think I should get a wig…”
Philomena Cunk and After Life actress Morgan stars as Fiona, a local MP’s receptionist who immediately takes a shine to Sammy when she turns up for a job interview dressed in a foul-smelling summer dress from her childhood wardrobe. “She’s a nightmare, she’s lazy, she’s a diva, lazy, needs a lot of direction. A lot of direction,” Kendall tells me. “No, she’s just the best.” Then there’s appearances from Peep Show‘s Robert Webb, and Home‘s Rufus Jones who all bring their particular brands of humour to the show.
So is this a one-and-done thing, or is there room for a second season?
“Oh yeah. I mean I’d do it, because I have children who need to eat,” Kendall says. “Also I loved doing it so much. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, but when you sit there and you watch the assembly and you watch the show from start to finish, there’s this amazing feeling – it is like painting at close range for a year and then you stand back and you realise you’ve actually painted a portrait. It’s a very strange feeling.”
Frayed airs on Sky1 and NOW TV from 26th September 2019, with new episodes weekly at 10pm