Arts blog: ‘Equality and dignity are admirable qualities in life - less so in sitcoms’

Sue Perkins' 'Heading Out' is a little bit hit and miss. Picture: BBC
Sue Perkins' 'Heading Out' is a little bit hit and miss. Picture: BBC
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SUE Perkins’ heading out certainly avoids old gay stereotypes. It’s also a bit dull. Jay Richardson ponders the difficulty of getting the comedy balance right.

When the US sitcom Ellen’s title character came out as a lesbian in 1997, almost concurrently with Ellen DeGeneres doing the same in her personal life, it provoked a massive international reaction. With 42 million viewers in the States, the series’ highest ever rated episode attracted condemnation from conservative groups, yet paved the way for such successful gay-themed comedies as Will & Grace, Ugly Betty and Glee.

Beginning this week on BBC2, Heading Out, written by and starring Sue Perkins as Sara, a 40-year-old vet still struggling to tell her parents she’s gay, has been rather less seismic.

Perkins says of the show: “By making the gay character funny and sweet but above all normal, you make a far better, longer-lasting statement than you would if you had an entirely gay comedy. Society has moved beyond that, most of my friends are straight, this is my final sigh of ‘come on, we’re beyond this now’ and being gay is maybe the 47th most interesting thing in my life. I want the whole process of ‘coming out’ to one day not be a big deal or a great fanfare and if this piece contributes to that, then brilliant.”

When The Vicar of Dibley’s Frank came out after 40 years, scarcely anyone in Dibley or, indeed, among the viewing public batted an eyelid. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that when Michael told his parents he was gay in My Family, it was seen by some as an attempt to make the mainstream show more edgy.

Not only are sitcoms social barometers, and comedy recognised as one of the most effective genres for exploring progressive ideas, but commissioners would be remiss to not seize upon the interest stirred by the debate surrounding equal marriage.

After The Great British Bake-Off and with the clamour for her to be the first female lead in Doctor Who, Perkins is on the cusp of being declared a national treasure. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi are already: the wonder is not that ITV is currently filming the sitcom Vicious, written by Will & Grace’s Gary Janetti and starring the knights of the realm as a bickering pair of old queens, only that it hasn’t hit our screens earlier.

Unfortunately, set reports suggest that Vicious contains some of the most flouncing displays of high-camp ever witnessed on British television. Heading Out by contrast, is striving so hard to make its central character unremarkable, that Sara merely comes across as dull. Any lack of gay stereotyping is more than offset by her acquaintances, an overemotional French ex or her hippy life coach for example, whose methods combine fake internet qualifications with shamanism and hypnotism.

Respect, equality and dignity are admirable qualities in life. But slightly less welcome in sitcom. Sadly, the desperate, closeted cases in shows like Gavin & Stacey, The Smoking Room and The Book Group remain much more amusing at the moment.

• Heading Out is on Tuesday at 10pm on BBC2