FLEABAG AND THE RAPE LAWYER
Towards the end of Series 2 of the 2016-2019 hit BBC comedy drama, Fleabag, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (born 1985), the lead character, a beautiful and mischievous London café owner aged 30, is sat in a shambling community hall where a lunchtime Quaker meeting is taking place. Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) has been invited there by a young Catholic priest, played by Dubliner Andrew Scott (born 1976) famous as Moriarty in the acclaimed Sherlock Holmes TV series. The priest is soon to solemnize the marriage of Fleabag’s widowed Dad to her appalling godmother, and the Man of God is liberal by any standards with his boozing and uninhibited use of four-letter words. Before long Fleabag will declare her love for him and they will sleep together, after which he decides to stick to his vocation, and abruptly ends their affair. For the moment though, he is giving her some spiritual training, for as everyone knows in Quaker meetings you sit in total silence until someone is moved by the Spirit and stands up and says something. There are only about 4 people in the place, and at length one of them, an old hairy, bearded and melancholy man, gets up and with a great effort mournfully declares:
“I think… I will go home …in November.”
A few minutes later Fleabag follows his lead, takes to her feet, and pertly announces: “I think I would be less of a feminist… if I had bigger tits.”
The first declaration is funny because of the old man’s comical hopelessness and because of the severe anti-climax. The second confession is not even half funny (made even less so by the priest restraining an overdone mirth), but not because of the arguable irreverence at a religious meeting. It is not funny, because if you have been watching the series thus far, you will note that the last thing Fleabag is is a feminist in anyone’s broadest terms, unless conceivably they are Waller-Bridge’s, and no one else’s. In short summary, in Series 1 Fleabag bumps into commuting Bus Rodent (Jamie Demetriou) a toothy babbling caricature of a young middle-class chap, and they fix a dinner date where she soon tells him to his face he is an idiot. However later, when lonely, she arranges another date with Mr Teeth, and it is unarguably funny that as he furiously copulates with her, he keeps babbling, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done, I’m nearly done…as if instead of sex he has been hogging her only toilet. Add to this, that all through the series, Fleabag addresses the camera with a smiling ironical commentary, usually a sort of repetitive rhythmical denial of some hypocritical assertion from her current sexual partner, or antagonistic godmother. This is often very well timed and funny, but her pivotal feminism along with much of the comic potential, flies out of the window, as she also meets up with her peevish and infantile regular boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner, born 1985). Harry keeps breaking it off with her, but always leaves a toy dinosaur that he has to come back for, and he also attempts relationship catharsis by cleaning her house from top to bottom. He whines in a little boy voice, and is in every way an embarrassment, yet Fleabag keeps going back to him, and is genuinely grieved when he finds a permanent partner. Finally, there is the aptly named Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldridge, born 1985) whose good looks, like more than one character in this show, are repetitively overemphasised. He loves anal sex and grows quite moist-eyed about its significance (ditto he symbolically loses his erection when he thinks he is in love with her) whereas Fleabag after the vigorous rear entry experience rhetorically addresses the world with:
“Does that mean I’ve got a huge arsehole?”
As you can see, the series is full of entertaining one-liners, which are unarguably heightened by Fleabag’s remarkably mobile and handsome face. Much of the dramatic force of the show, and I would hazard its massive commercial success, are down to the charisma of Waller-Bridge’s infinitely expressive, teasing, by turns ingenuous and disingenuous face. However, Fleabag’s essential vision of herself as an instinctive feminist (she and her sister Claire attend a lecture on Successful Women early in Series 1) gets even more worryingly lost in the script, when Hot Misogynist comes on the scene. Played by Ray Fearon, who is of West Indian origin, and is best known as a car mechanic in Coronation Street, he too keeps getting repetitively referred to as ‘good looking’, whereas the fact is he has a homely and friendly face and no one apart from Fleabag/Phoebe would make a meal out of his notional sex appeal. Hot Misogynist is a very expensive London lawyer, recommended by sister Claire as Fleabag had violently punched Claire’s American husband, the antique dealer Martin, on the nose at a dinner party, and the litigious Martin is taking her to court. So far so good, but in a couple of worrying lines that might get overlooked, Claire tells Fleabag that this stinking rich lawyer specialises in defending rapists, and he has never lost a case. So let us pull those lines out into the fresh air, and offer the indisputable assertion that Fleabag is turned on by a guy who always gets men accused of raping women, willy-nilly out of court, and thus out of prison…but who in a Quaker meeting declares herself a feminist, albeit only as long as she has small breasts.
The diagnosis is that both the script writer and her rapacious character Fleabag, and for that matter a sizeable proportion of the rapturous TV audience, are all considerably confused (according to a UK friend of mine the Guardian arts pages for ages now have been talking about little else but brilliant Fleabag and the prodigy Phoebe). It is simply not enough to jokily exculpate the arm and a leg rape lawyer, who boasts that he is great in bed, by Fleabag wisely telling the camera that, if he brags he is so hot, he can’t possibly be so, then shaking her head once in bed with him, and saying, oh yes he is, yes he is, oh yes he is…!
Before I mention some other debatable conflations of character and comic register, and the question of basic inner credibility, let me give Waller-Bridge her deserved credit for those things in Fleabag which are original and at times outstanding.
Part of the programme’s appeal and especially for women, is that it bravely takes on those hitherto taboo subjects that you might say are bawdy and scatological, and which have normally been the province of male scriptwriters and their characters. Fleabag has a good deal of graphic simulated sex, much of it of the anal variety, which I would guess makes its first UK TV appearance here. This is surely also the first time that male viewers have been able to appreciate a woman scriptwriter revealing what is an open secret to many women, namely that a great many men are inordinately and puerilely obsessed by sex via the tradesman’s entrance (in Greece the men who are also obsessed by it, call it ‘storming the castle’). Add to that there is open female masturbation on Fleabag, and that it is very funny when she furtively pleasures herself in bed next to Harry whilst watching gorgeous Barack Obama on her laptop, then instantly denies it. Her language in this context is unambiguous, and not long ago would have been banned on TV. She asks Harry if he ‘wanks’, and later addressing the camera as to the nature of her odious godmother says she is a ‘see you en tee’ (my considered phonetics, not Fleabag’s). Then, turning to the amiable buffoonery of farting, there is a fair bit of that in Fleabag, all of it female. Her unhappy sister Claire at one point bizarrely complains she hasn’t farted for 3 years, while Fleabag has the reverse problem. To Claire’s horror, she drops one that is pungent and malodorous in a lift the two are sharing, and when a nice woman enters and sniffs the air, expects the worst. Instead the woman commends Fleabag on her exquisite scent. That said, it is worth pointing out that other gifted female comics got there first with the fearless farting, and with the controversial subject of women who are capable of being totally outrageous. Two massive comic talents who both cut their teeth on excellent Scottish sketch shows, are Morwenna Banks (born 1961) who appeared on the early 90s Channel 4’s Absolutely and Karen Dunbar (born 1971) who starred in BBC Scotland’s Chewin The Fat approximately a decade later. They both went on to have their own shows, and in one of Banks’s Channel 5 skits, she plays a posh young woman who is rotten drunk, and who hiccups, belches and farts so horribly she effectively poisons her boyfriend played by Absolutely regular, Gordon Kennedy. Even better, Dunbar in her spin off show plays a woman in a medical surgery which the doctor has vacated for a while. Bored, she starts playing with his stethoscope, and by way of finale sticks it down her pants and farts volcanically inside it, just as the doctor is returning. Dunbar (who incidentally is gay) also on Chewin the Fat invented the mindblowing and taboo-breaking Betty The Auld Slapper, a frail white-haired lady in a wheelchair in a Glasgow care home, who spends her time salivating about all the excellent and furious sex she had in any conveniently empty air raid shelters during WW2, while her husband was away in the army.
Back to Fleabag, which if you look at it in standard compositional terms makes its success a quite baffling phenomenon. It is after all a comic drama, which means it needs to have characters who are strongly and vividly evoked, in order to make us laugh. Fleabag is a strong character, yes, and her sister Claire even more so, for Sian Clifford( born 1985, and also known for her TV appearance in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair) not only has the best lines, she is far and away the finest actor in this series. Claire is a successful businesswoman often working abroad, and makes a fortune in her job, but she is permanently overstressed, direly unhappy and self-doubting, and doesn’t hide it, least of all from her anarchic sister. She invariably stops Fleabag in her tracks before she opens her mouth, then hints that everything that she, Claire, does, is doomed to failure, and can never be any different. Her neurosis and her permanent angry irritation, make for strong comedy and a comedy which has convincing pathos, for she is not only likeable, you can tell that she also loves her appalling sister, though she does everything to hide the fact. Her US husband, antique dealer Martin, played by Brett Gelman (born 1976) is by contrast brash, angry, boozy and says outrageous things, partly one suspects because he finds upper middle class English mores so stultifying. If a woman he knows goes downstairs to the toilet in a restaurant, he improvises some misogynistic riff about fucking her down there, and he is standard slob predatorial inasmuch as he tries to kiss Fleabag on Claire’s birthday and then says that it was she tried to kiss him. He roars and explodes a good deal, and does his best with the lines Waller-Bridge gives him, but in the final event tends to the caricatural.
However, Martin does not spoil the show overall, for that honour is left to Fleabag’s Dad as portrayed by Bill Paterson (born 1945) a gifted veteran actor of film and stage, who is completely and embarrassingly at sea with the empty, vacuous and wholly pointless lines Waller-Bridge has given him. The core of the drama is that Fleabag and Claire loved their late Mum to distraction, and ditto their old Dad, whose fate worries them a great deal, as he is about to marry their obnoxious godmother (Olivia Colman, born 1974), a former student of their artist mother. Godmother has achieved stellar and very lucrative success as an avant-garde London artist, and does radical things like organising a Sexhibition which catalogues her orgasms among other things. She is the last word in preposterous and self-aggrandising New Age vanity and is also infinitely snide and malicious, which is why Fleabag justly summarises her as a see you en tee. Olivia Colman has a phenomenal track record as an actor with awards galore, and she likewise does her best with the waspish and witchish lines she has in her script, but the most obvious thing you note is she is acting on her own, because she is not getting the support she needs from the actor who is playing the man she claims to love to distraction. Bill Paterson waffles and stammers his harmless and forgettable observations about love and life, mostly to Fleabag, then prevaricates about nothing in particular, and makes numerous inconsequential clergyman-style jests, for he is meant to be portraying I’ve no idea what, nor I imagine did Waller-Bridge when she penned his lines. His single memorable character trait is he is tight with money, and not even that gets worked for comic effect. He is supposed to be an adorable and charismatic father, but he is more like a ghost who has strayed amnesically onto screen. Yet he is there full on, for about 25-30% of the viewing time, and every time he comes on, you wince and wait for him to shut up. The direst scene is where he is reminiscing mistily about his wife, and he states that he loved her, but didn’t actually like her, as she was so much of a fun person and he alas, didn’t ‘do’ fun. At which point, Fleabag jostles him reprovingly and says, But you are fun, Dad! and you can actually hear the studio cat laughing in the deafening silence that follows.
As for inner credibility, which all drama, including comic drama, has to have, you ask yourself why the two sisters would spend so much time with Dad and future stepmum, when she is so odious and he is so paralysingly dull and stingy to boot. Claire is rolling in money and has no need to inherit, but as for Fleabag and her finances, this is where credible inner consistency again rears its awkward head. She runs a spectacularly unsuccessful café, and yet somehow leads a standard comfortable middle-class London existence in a smart flat, which as anyone will tell you needs quite some income. Waller-Bridge gets round this enigma in all-purpose baffling style, by having Fleabag randomly charge £12 or £20 for a sandwich, which unconvincingly all the customers stump up without demur, even when she has the gall to say she has no change. The cafe and its origins, is in fact the clue to the central artistic problem with Fleabag. It was the brainchild of Fleabag plus her friend Boo (played by Jennifer Rainsford) a warm and friendly and principled young woman with a marked local accent, as opposed to the standard grammar school posh of Fleabag and family and her boyfriends. The two of them endowed the cafe with a considerable novelty, by theming all of it with guinea pigs, so that every picture in the place is of the sweet little rodent, plus there is a specimen in a little hut which often gets taken out to be petted by Fleabag and her acquaintances. It’s whimsical enough to imagine a guinea pig café would take off even in anything-goes North London, though it does later clarify why Fleabag’s takings are so scant. However, tragedy intervenes at an early stage, for Boo falls for the nice lad who lives next door, and before long her free-floating amoral partner Fleabag gives into her own unstoppable passion, and sleeps with him, meaning she cheats on her best friend. The next stage you have to gulp at, for Waller-Bridge has Boo grotesquely deciding to stage a traffic accident, but only a little one, a minor scrape that is intended to win the lad’s attention and pity, and thus his fickle love. What we know so far of Boo’s common sense and down to earth caring character, makes this bizarre self-harm proposal whimsical in the extreme, but Waller-Bridge makes the tragedy increase on an exponential and dizzy scale, so that three other innocent people, as well as Boo, are killed in the collision. All this is done as intermittent flashback through the 2 series, so that we have the more or less unworkable scenario of a comedy series with the leadening ballast of Fleabag’s torturing sense of guilt at all that hellish sorrow she has caused. All the best comedies of course (Amarcord, Steptoe and Son, Phoenix Nights) have the authentic balance of convincing pathos, but multiple deaths and torturing guilt are not the stuff of pathos, they are instead Waller-Bridge shooting herself in the foot as a scriptwriter before she starts. Not only is she overloading her canvas with so much tragedy, but that unconvincing tragedy and the sweet little guinea pig café and the £20 sandwiches and the fact Fleabag lives in London on fresh air, and that she dotes lovingly on her terminally dreary Dad, and that she an atheist is deeply in love with a sweet and puckish little Catholic priest, all of it is cumulatively and irreversibly and artistically incredible. For the problem is, that even the scattiest and most surreal of comic dramas, needs to have a unifying inner consistency, to be credible within its own artistic terms, not just a take it or leave it string of random episodic eccentricities.
To return to the business of Boo and her origins. I don’t know whether Waller-Bridge did this deliberately, but in schematic terms she has a specific clutch of characters who are intended to be comic, namely Fleabag’s dysfunctional family members and her troop of usually witless boyfriends. To a man and woman, they are all comfortably off London professionals, with independent or fee paying school accents to match (aside of course from the American, Martin). On the other hand, there are three Fleabag characters who are basically decent and kind-hearted individuals, and who happen to have markedly ordinary accents (meaning that 2 of them have regional London suburb intonations) and who do not come of a privileged background. They, by contrast, are all capable of warmth and friendliness, for they listen to Fleabag, and take her and her problems seriously. They are the tragic Boo; the kindly Bank Manager who is also the business grant man (played by Hugh Dennis of Punt and Dennis fame, born 1962) and the brotherly Catholic Priest, who being a Dubliner is ipso facto warm and friendly and is an honorary regional provincial.
This schematic dichotomy of kind and human and therefore unlikely to be funny characters, versus selfish and dysfunctional and hence potentially comic types, presents technical problems for any would be comedy writer. It means that Fleabag is a cross between hectic comedy and straight sentimental drama, and inevitably that mixture of registers weakens and dilutes its overall strength. When the decent priest tries to explain to Fleabag what God and goodness mean to him, and she amiably analyses her own atheism, it is all very nice and reasonable, but the comedy coefficient temporarily drops, and we suddenly forget what kind of programme it is we are watching. Also, the message, attractive as it is, that posh and affluent folk are inextricably fucked up and objectionable egotists, whereas ordinary and poorer folk are kind and amiable and unselfish listeners, just isn’t the final truth. As someone from the northern working class provinces myself, I promise you that some of the best and least selfish people in the world are of moneyed and privileged origins, whilst some of the dreariest buggers in the universe are sadly from the working class sticks.
In case this looks like an envious demolition job upon a young and very successful writer, let me hasten to add that I thoroughly applaud Waller-Bridge’s other major TV project, namely the scripting of Series 1 of the drama series, the equally acclaimed Killing Eve (BBC America 2018 onwards). A tongue in cheek fable about the UK secret service pitted against its Russian counterpart, it is strongly plotted, with an impressively sustained tension and an original line in imaginatively quirky twists. In homage to the celebrated Danish crime series The Bridge, it pulls in its main actor, Kim Bodnia (born 1965) and has him as a baddie in the form of an amoral Russian secret service boss. In The Bridge, Bodnia is a decent Copenhagen detective with an effective but also amoral colleague, Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helen) who sleeps with various men, but, as if borderline autistic, has no emotional attachments whatever. The Killing Eve equivalent is a remarkable psychopathic assassin working for the Russians, called Villanelle, played flawlessly by the English actress Jodie Comer (born 1993) and for which she won a British Academy TV Award. I have only seen the first series and can’t wait to see the rest.
The next post will be on or before Saturday, August 31st