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At age 13, she was hired for her first professional acting job in the Channel 4 drama serial G. In 1992, she was added to the cast on the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside, where she increased her exposure in the role of Beth Jordache. Friel's on-air lesbian kiss with Nicola Stephenson was the first in British soap history, In 1996, Friel gained even greater exposure when she appeared in the television film The Tribe by Stephen Poliakoff, which included nudity and a much discussed ménage à trois sex scene between characters played by Friel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jeremy Northam.