Sarah Kendall: Comedy should go to dark and light places

Merman Productions
Merman Productions

"I’ve been doing stand-up for 20 years, and generally speaking, unless you’re on television, most people think you’re living in a garbage bin,” Sarah Kendall says down the phone.

“It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing in stand-up, you can say, ‘My radio show won a bunch of awards, and they say, ‘Aww, that’s nice.’ And then if you say, ‘I’ve got a TV show coming out,” they’re like, ‘OH MY GOD.’ That’s the only barometer of success: it’s either that or you’re a crackhead living under a bridge.

"I think this is the first time in my mother’s life she’s gone, ‘Oh, it’s OK, you’re doing alright, this is wonderful.’”

The veteran Australian comedian is the writer and star of new six-part series Frayed, produced by Sharon Horgan’s company Merman, currently airing in weekly episodes on Sky 1 and featuring Robert Webb and Diane Morgan.

(Merman Productions)
(Merman Productions)

It is the 42-year-old’s first foray into TV writing. Her darkly funny show is set between London and New South Wales in the Eighties. Kendall plays Simone, a wealthy socialite with a mansion whose world falls apart when she discovers her husband, found dead in a hotel room following a drug-fuelled sexcapade, left nothing but debt. Simone (real name Sammy) has to take her two children out of public school and back to her dysfunctional childhood home in Newcastle, a depressed Australian seaside town.

“It turns out she’s from a stinking s***hole in Australia,” Kendall explains. “The children find out that she’s just put together this persona. It’s really a person who has just shut the door on their past, then all the ghosts come out of the woodwork and kick the door down. She’s a big comedy offer because she can’t stop lying.” The “only way” to make the deception-filled plotline work was to set the series pre-smartphone because “this level of lying would be unsustainable in the era of social media”.

Kendall, who herself was born in Newcastle NSW and now lives in Putney with her husband, playwright and ex-comedian Henry Naylor (he read over all the Frayed scripts) and their two children, says she “loved blending these two very different worlds in a fictional landscape, with a character that is so heightened”. But she insists the similarities with her character end there.

(Merman Productions)
(Merman Productions)

She was, however, heavily influenced by the recollections of her mother growing up with a former RAF officer for a father. “I sort of borrowed my grandparents’ landscape and made that my character’s parents. It’s something I’ve spoken a lot about with my mum.”

The first episode isn’t laugh-a-minute, but the following five lighten up — the comedian wanted her show to “be very comfortable passing through all emotional states ... You should be able to go to those sad places. In life you have light and dark moments alongside each other all the time, so I really wanted to do a show that reflected life”

Moving from stand-up into TV did pose challenges for the traditionally lone performer, who had trouble working with Diane Morgan, star of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, because the pair could not stop laughing when they made eye contact during filming. “You laugh so much you think you’re going to be sick, because you also know you’re aggravating everyone,” Kendall says, cringing. Adapting to the new form was also hard. “Stand-up is really mono, you’ve got a very specific skillset and a specific job for the hour that you’re on stage. Whereas with this it’s kind of like building a universe from the ground up.”

The series was shot over 10 weeks with “knackering” 5.30am to 7pm schedules, mainly around Sydney’s northern beaches. The family’s mansion — sadly repossessed — is “stunning” Ham House off Richmond Park. Though another set stayed with the comedian: “We did the hospital scene in Ealing in an ex-morgue. It reeked of formaldehyde and there were these ledgers of all the bodies that had been there since about 1965, so between takes I was reading them. I had a massive existential crisis. It all felt very poignant, you just had to block it out.”

The second episode aired last night and Kendall is not looking at reviews (“once you start manufacturing the response, that’s a K-hole you’ll never crawl out of”). She is already coming up with ideas for season two in the hope it is renewed. As we are about to leave, I mention I’m behind on a deadline, and Kendall reveals she shares more with Simone than she’d like to admit.

“I get it. I get motivated when my producer rings me and goes, ‘Where is the script?! Seriously, you are so late.’ That’s when I go, ‘Ahhh,’ and I do it. Up to that point I lie to everyone and say, ‘I’m finishing it, just putting the finishing touches to it’.

“What’s disgraceful is I’ve wanted this my whole life, and even when I get the thing that I’ve wanted my whole life, I still manage to procrastinate.”

Watch Frayed on Thursday at 10pm on Sky One and NOW TV.

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