Frayed, episode one, review: a pungent Eighties-set comedy that doesn’t know how far to take the joke

Sarah Kendall (centre) stars as Sammy - © Sky UK Limited.
Sarah Kendall (centre) stars as Sammy - © Sky UK Limited.

Is Frayed (Sky One) supposed to be a comedy, or a comedy-drama? An entitled woman called Simone (Sarah Kendall, in a grim Eighties power-perm) sped in a Ferrari from her vast London mansion to a hospital where her husband, she discovered, was no more. The apologetic doctor listed the cocktail of substances and insertions that caused his coronary.

So far so funny, and it got funnier. A tearful sex worker (Kerry Godliman) went into further detail about the deceased’s last lubricious moments. Then a nasty lawyer (Robert Webb) sadistically announced that the legacy consisted entirely of debt.

But here Frayed got on a plane and went somewhere subtly different. Simone extracted her squabbling brats Leonard (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) from their posh public school and retreated to the Australia she’d escaped 20 years before. There, the back-story she’d fed to the children was exposed as a tottering jenga of lies. “Simone” was really Sammy; her hometown was not Sydney but New South Wales’s post-industrial backwater Newcastle. The past she had put behind her snuck around the front and stared her in the face.

Sarah Kendall is a stand-up who, like Sammy, hails from Newcastle but has settled in London. Her script probes this upheaval for laughs, which may help explain why she doesn’t know quite how funny to be. Sammy’s frosty mother Jean (Kerry Armstrong), a former alcoholic who has found God, seem not to be in a comedy at all, while her slobby manchild brother Jim (Ben Mingay) behaves like a blow-in from Viz. Falling somewhere in between is Diane Morgan as an emigrée who, like Sammy, has a low opinion of her birthplace. (Manchester, she says, is “a stinking pisshole”.)

At a guess, it’s for autobiographical reasons that the setting is 1988. So far there have only been a couple of period jokes. A running gag about the Thompson Twins would fly over the heads of anyone under 40. Jim kept likening Sammy to hoity-toity women from Dynasty, which will have been funniest for anoraks who remember Kerry Armstrong’s stint among the Carringtons and Colbys as Elena, Duchess of Branagh.

A bit like Sammy, Frayed doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Somewhere among the sibling squalls and pungent punchlines, there’s an almost-touching comedy – or comedy-drama? – about the limits of self-reinvention.