“I always want to go darker”: Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag, slutty pizza and guinea pig murder

“What’s so useful about the British culture of politeness is the level of passive aggression is really fun to write.”

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In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new series, Fleabag, the laughs land hard – but sadness hits harder. Following the disastrous exploits of a nameless young woman trying her best to deal with a failing business, tumultuous love life, and the loss of two of the most important women in her life, the show crackles with triumphant jokes about anal sex and “TwatNav”, while trauma simmers away beneath. When she asks me about one scene in particular, towards the end of the series, I tell her I found it almost too painful to watch.

“Oh, great!” she laughs. “Good! I’m so glad I gave you a short, horrible experience in your life.”

Waller-Bridge naturally gravitates towards finding the joke in life’s saddest moments, and the pain in the funniest. Our conversation is peppered with groans and laughter in equal measure, which is perhaps the only way to discuss a BBC Three comedy about a woman lost in the throes of grief.

“I’m obsessed with that line between crying and laughing. I’m always feeling that temptation to twist the knife. When an audience is laughing with a character, they make themselves so vulnerable and they open up. They expose their heart the moment they’re laughing, because they’re relaxed and they’re disarmed. When you’ve got a disarmed audience, I’m like, ‘Get them! Get them in the heart!’ So it’s something that’s fascinated me for ages.”

She grew up with her mother, father and sister, and after an “idyllic” childhood in leafy west London  – “everyone knew everyone, and we’d play 40/40 with the other kids on the street” – she landed a place at RADA. “I always knew I wanted to be all over and in every possible orifice of this industry.”

With a critically acclaimed one-woman stage show (Fleabag, the basis for the TV show), roles in Broadchurch and The Iron Lady, and two TV shows she both wrote and starred in (Fleabag and Channel 4’s Crashing), Waller-Bridge has succeeded in that aim, even if there were times when she felt like it would be an impossibility. She recalls graduating from drama school with “a mixture of received confidence – because you’ve gone to RADA and people are like, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine,’ – and horrible, rattling insecurity”, for her career to be met with a period of terrifying silence. “No one would touch me with a barge pole as an actress. It hit hard. I thought, ‘What am I doing?! This is a stupid idea!’ It’s like throwing yourself into a massive pond, and you feel like you’re going to drown so quickly.”

It was around this time that Waller-Bridge met her best friend and long-time collaborator Vicky Jones, when she was cast by her in a theatre project that ended in disaster when Jones was humiliated and fired from the set by a particularly harsh director. Waller-Bridge walked out alongside her in solidarity. Together, they started a theatre company, DryWrite, running nights for new writing (one of which was called Funny/Not Funny, challenging writers to explore that line Waller-Bridge knows so well) and contributing to them themselves. “It was the only time I could really flex my muscles as an actor anyway, and that’s when I started getting my teeth into the writing as well.”

But it was at a night for stand-up that Fleabag was born. “I thought, ‘I’ve just got to go completely my sense of humour for the first time ever. I’m going to try ten minutes of just outrageous naughtiness.’” The ten-minute routine is largely preserved in the opening of the play, beginning with musings on Zac Efron (“fit”), Barack Obama (“also attractive”), a “horrible wank” and “a very slutty pizza”: “I mean, the bitch was dripping. That dirty little stuffed-crust wanted to be in me so bad, I just ate the little tart like she meant nothing to me, and she loved it.”

“It sounds really corny, but it was actually just very practical – I just thought, ‘I’ll invite Vicky, and it’s basically going to be an exercise in cracking her up. Even if it’s just me and her laughing in that room, it will be a hilarious experience for the two of us.’ So I just did it! And Vicky was laughing, but so was everyone else. I had made something just for Vicky and my girlfriends, but in doing that, and being so curious about that, I think that’s what gave it its edge.” Jones then went on to direct the stage version of Fleabag that won Waller-Bridge the 2013 Critics’ Circle Award for most promising playwright.

The transition from stage to screen had its difficulties, not least because of some of the content of the play itself. The original script climaxes in a bizarre moment of guinea pig assault and murder that left audiences audibly gasping in horror, and Waller-Bridge struggling to hold in her laughter. “When they commissioned the pilot, the one thing they said was, ‘You can do anything you want, but you can’t kill the guinea pig.’ I wanted to kill it! But they just said, ‘We just don’t think that you strangling a guinea pig to death…’” She trails off, collapsing into giggles. “Oh, it was so funny.”

“I always want to go darker, and I’m always being advised to stay on the lighter side. But I do think they were right in the end, it might have become ‘the guinea pig murdering show.’”

Instead, Fleabag has received comparisons to Girls and Bridget Jones (even, bizarrely, Miranda) – it’s a rude series, with discussions of feminism (Waller-Bridge’s mother cameos as a feminist lecturer), and Fleabag herself – played by Waller-Bridge – frequently breaking the forth wall to make naughty jokes to camera. Many commentators have discussed Fleabag’s honesty, comparing her to “oversharers” like Girls’ Hannah Horvath – but as a character, she is also largely emotionally unavailable.  

“She uses language and humour and that kind of ‘oversharing’ very deliberately. She’s a massive control freak, and she’s trying to control the audience’s experience of everything.

“You know when someone says something overtly sexual to you, and you don’t necessarily know them very well? They immediately control the energy in that conversation, because you’re like ‘Woah! Okay.’ It’s a real statement of existence in that social situation or in that conversation. Similarly, somebody making it clear to you that they are sexually confident, that they are also insecure, they can list all these things about themselves to your face, even the really personal things – it can be an act of control and power.”

Fleabag chips away at its central characters’ bravado over time. “I really wanted that feeling of somebody slowly opening up to you. The beginning of the first episode is basically her giving her best jokes to the audience – ‘Isn’t my life hilarious? Come on in.’ And then over the course of the series she becomes less and less comfortable with the audience being there.”

Much of the act of stripping back Fleabag’s character happens in tense conversations with her uptight sister Claire (played by a wonderfully brittle Sian Clifford), emotionally hopeless father (Bill Paterson), and stepmother, an artist given unending depths of bile by a fantastic performance from Olivia Colman.

“That part basically came about because I wanted Olivia Colman to slap me,” Waller-Bridge laughs gleefully. She and Colman became friends after they worked on a play together for a few months (“It sealed the deal – I got her! She can’t get away!”), and Colman was an enthusiastic audience member of early performances of Fleabag. “She said, if I ever thought of anything she could do, to ask her. And I thought Olivia might relish this naughty role.”

It’s excellent casting – Colman’s cuddly exterior allows her to bring a start level of veiled hostility to the role, as if Penelope Wilton played Snow White’s evil queen. “What’s so useful about the British culture of politeness is the level of passive aggression is really fun to write. No one wants there to be any kind of conflict. So these characters can say these sorts of things without being pulled up on them.”

Another of the show’s best performances comes from Hugh Dennis, who plays a bank manager (also nameless) recently disciplined for sexual harassment. Like Fleabag, his role begins as mostly light relief – calling Fleabag a slut when she accidentally exposes her bra in his office – but develops into something more.

“Those two characters were really important to me. In so many ways they shouldn’t connect: they’re from completely different worlds, completely different age groups, they’re different sexes, they’re so separate from each other. But in the end, for some weird reason, he feels like he can open up to her and she feels like she can open up to him.”

Is there any hope for the endlessly fucked-up characters she has created? “I really, really hope so. The thing that was going through my head and my heart the whole way through was people desperately trying to connect with each other. My hope is what they learn to do as they go on is open up a bit. It’s the courage to be vulnerable that can get us there.”

Now listen to a discussion of Fleabag on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.