There’s no denying that in the past six months, BBC Three have produced some of their best work to date; Thirteen, Murder In Successville, Witless and now Fleabag which I’ve seen three episodes of and think it’s some of the best work they have done.
Written and created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Broadchurch), Fleabag began as an Edinburgh Fringe show and follows then life of a twenty-something year-old woman who we only know by the name Fleabag.
Hurling herself headlong at modern living she is thrown roughly up against the walls of contemporary London, she sleeps with anyone who dares to stand too close, squeezes money from wherever she can, rejects anyone who tries to help her, but manages to keep up her bravado throughout.
Fleabag started off as an Edinburgh Fringe show, how does the TV series differ?
Well, in many more ways than I thought it would actually. I guess it’s the different between a one-woman show and a big multi-cast... so it was a big leap! In the play I act out all the characters so having to hand them over was half a relief but also a strange divorcing from the characters, so in this I only play one character.
Also, fundamentally the Fringe show was a confessional so the audience were guessing about the world I was describing through Fleabag’s eyes. I had total control over what the audience saw and experienced and heard about.
I suppose when you translate that onto TV, I lose some of that control as the narrator because the pictures tell their own story. Those were the main differences, but it is still quite confessional.
Yes, I was about to say is that why you chose to talk to the camera in the series?
Yes definitely. That was really really important, because she’s got a real control freak side to her, and so much of that is about how she wants to convey a story and I think that was the best way to give her control in the TV realm.
She’s still complicit with you that she is your friend, that you are there because of her. So overtime she turns to look at you she still has some kind of control speaking to you privately.
Absolutely. It felt very intimate watching it and you do feel very much part of her world...
Oh good! I’m SO glad you said that, because that feeling of it forcing complicity with the audience is really exciting to me a writer. I really really wanted it to have that sense that you get drawn in by the idea that it’s personal to her and that you’re watching. Hopefully that will come back to bite you in the end! (Laughs)
Where did the name Fleabag come from?
It’s actually my real name! (Laughs) It’s my family nickname... as affectionate as that is.
When I was developing the play and we were thinking of titles I threw it out as an idea and it just seemed to fit, because there is something flea baggy about the corners of this woman’s brain and her psychology, so I hope everybody else has the flea baggy corners of their own!
She looks and seems like everybody else. She turns herself out well, she gets on with her life well but we liked that it showed her subtext, the name was her subtext, it’s not her exterior.
Where did the idea first come from for Fleabag?
It was an amalgamation of loads of things. It started as a sort of stand-up/storytelling ten-minute thing at this night a friend was running and the brief for that night that I wrote the first ten minutes for, was “Chancing your arm”.
I had to write based on that brief and I kind of thought about what that meant, and I then characterised it and it’s just her going through her days constantly attempting to risk herself emotionally and trying to connect with people... and failing endlessly! So the first ten minutes came from that kind of idea and then when we found out that we had space in Edinburgh, I had to expand the piece.
I guess it came from a rage that I was feeling in myself at the time about all the contradictions tied up with feminism and being a young woman, your sexuality and your sexual freedom. Also the deep irony of it all, and how many women and men I knew were so confused by the idea of feminism and frightened by the idea of really sexually voracious women. So I guess I just put that all into a play! (Laughs)
Do you think it’s fair to say that Fleabag has quite the sexual appetite?
Oh yes, I think that’s definitely fair to say. But I don’t think that’s driven from a labido, I think it’s driven from needing validation and that’s where her hunger comes from.
She’s also lost her best friend Boo. How did that relationship come about?
The passage in the play, which is also in the TV series at the end when she talks about how her friend died, that came out before I’d written the idea of a best friend.
I suddenly wrote this little paragraph of a death, a brutal death which was delivered in a kind of dismissive, slightly funny way, and then I realised that all I really want to write about is friendship I think most of the time, because it’s the thing that moves me the most.
And the idea of losing my best friend is just the most frightening thing I think. So I just looked right into the eye of my own fear, having written that passage and thought oh no, now I have to write about losing my best friend. I have to sit here and think about that for hours now.
But I think friendships are so important, to everyone really but women articulate it more.
Another relationship in Fleabag which is interesting, is her relationship with her sister...
Yeah, it’s that line between I guess, in the most basic way - love and hate. But it’s loving somebody so much that there are no real consequences to your actions, so you can just irritate her and annoy her and prove her as much as you like and she’ll still love you.
How much say did you have in the casting?
Loads of say! We all really collaborated closely on it and I think quite a lot of the people, especially in the pilot that you saw (episode one), like Olivia Colman who plays my godmother/stepmother, are actors that I’d worked with before and then had become friends. Or people that had seen a bunch of my short plays over the years at the Fringe and stuff so they had a really strong idea of my taste and tone in the stuff I was trying to do.
So when I was writing, I was really thinking of those people anyway. I knew I could completely trust them to come in and just get it and they just really did.
Some of them are completely new to me, like Jenny Rainsford, I mean I’d heard of her and seen her in stuff, but I’d never met her. But the moment she walked in to the audition room, it was one of those moments you hear about where you go “Oh my God it’s them. It can only be them and I would do anything to make sure she does it."
Hugh Skinner I just knew from the very beginning that he had to be Harry, and they let me put my ideal list together and then we just went out and auditioned the ideal cast.
Fleabag is quite crude, quite rude in places. Did you have to hold anything back because of the BBC?
No I didn’t actually. There’s stuff that happens at the end of the play which they said I wasn’t allowed to do. (Laughs) I don’t want to say what that is because it’s kind of mixed up in the climax to the end of the show, so just in case, I don’t want it to be a spoiler.
But it’s not a sexual thing. They were completely open minded with all of that, as long as it was truthful and funny, they were really great. They didn’t really have any barriers up about prudishness or censorship or anything. I think there’s an appetite at the moment for shows about female sexuality, so I think they were keen to get as much of that as they could.
It was actually the other elements, the darker elements that came later in the play which they said I couldn’t do. But I think in hindsight it’s probably for the best actually.
There’s a touch of Catastrophe about it. What were your influences for Fleabag?
I’m massively influenced by Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe, but the play when it started, and even the pilot, was actually before all of that came out. So I’ve been really really inspired by Louis CK’s comedy Louie. I’m a crazy hardcore fan of that.
I knew in the play that I’d written a series of anecdotes that built, and that worked quite well. It's very similar to how he structures his stuff as well I think, it’s quite anecdotal and sketchy. And even though the series doesn’t go on in quite the same way, that style really appealed to me and definitely had an influence.
This series is for BBC Three which has now moved online. Does that even matter anymore? I mean a lot of their programmes get repeated on BBC One or Two now.
Yes, that is the rumour... which I’m clinging to! (Laughs)
I guess it’s still an unknown really. I know that Thirteen did really well, and I hope that the audience that would go to BBC Three anyway have still followed the channel online - I mean, they probably watched it there anyway.
A friend of my mum’s the other day said that she feels like because BBC Three isn’t on the TV anymore in the kitchen, with her kids watching it, that suddenly she’s not around what her kids are watching, and what her teenagers are watching. So she suddenly feels very distant to what they’re watching because now they’re just up in their bedrooms watching it on their laptops.
So I do feel in some way that it will lose an audience that might have been there on the sidelines anyway, but I think overall if you’re making good stuff, which BBC Three are, all the time, then it will find its audience, or the audience will find it. Everything will go online eventually!
Talking of online, Fleabag will be shown in the US on Amazon Prime right?
Yes, so it will go out on Amazon Prime all at once, I think in September, once it’s all gone out here. We go out weekly and then I think depending on a repeat on BBC Two, they’re going to put it out in one big chunk so it will land as a boxset on Amazon Prime later this year.
I’d made the pilot with Two Brothers Pictures who had a relationship with some of the American channels and networks, so they took it to a few different places and Amazon just seemed to really really get it and were so open minded and excited about experimenting and gave us a really long lead and just said go for it! Surprise us! Shock us!
Sometimes I’m nervous about how a US audience will take to it, but then I think on the whole, the character will hopefully appeal to them because I think there’s a darkness in so many of the Amazon-like shows. So I can understand why they were attracted to it.
There are certain aspects that to me are so so British, there’s a lot of real British humour in there that already we’ve had to kind of explain! (Laughs) There’s one episode where the Englishness of it is very prominent and I wonder if that will either appeal or alienate an American audience. I don’t know... we’ll find out! (Laughs)
What’s next for you?
Crossing everything for series two, and then I’m going to take a massive holiday and then I’m going to come back and start auditioning again as an actor to see if anyone will have me in anything else.
Then I’ve got to write a film by the end of the year, which hopefully I’ll direct, with Vicky Jones who runs a theatre company. And I’m developing a drama at the moment as well... So I’m trying to write as much as I can!