Why we’re all in love with Fleabag

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

Why would you need the scripts for Fleabag? It’s hardly a lost classic. It’s always popping up on BBC iPlayer. So it was with a touch of scepticism that I picked up this volume, subtitled not ‘The Scripts’ but ‘The Scriptures’, in reference to Fleabag’s long, pitiless pursuit of a hot priest in Series 2, and beautifully presented: sombre hardcover without, shocking-pink end-papers within. Clever — there’s already something of the spliced rhythm of the series in the design. But the pink band wrapper made it look too much like a present: was this just a commercial attempt at cramming that scabrous lost soul, transgressive cultural heroine and all round dirtbag into a giftable item?

Then I read it. Bliss. These scripts are written with such precise technical skill that it is a pleasure and an education to see their workings. Particularly their economy, from the brutal minor character names (‘Needy Waitress’) to inverted commas in the directions (‘Claire and Fleabag “laugh’’’). It’s a fun exercise to overlay in your mind the sound, the rhythm of the edit and the performances as you read these scripts, highly controlled as they are, with many two-second flashbacks dropped in, i.e. ‘Boo is standing on the edge of the pavement, traffic speeding past’. Occasional mumblings can be deciphered, script in hand, and ad-libs that aren’t in the script identified. And motifs noticed: Boo, as well as the name of Fleabag’s dead best friend, is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s avowed favourite approach. Surprise ’em. And Boo! is, after all, what ghosts are supposed to say.

It’s also good to study the moments of genius, such as when the priest, falling in love with Fleabag, breaks the fourth — or should that be fifth? — wall and notices, actually notices, Fleabag making an aside to camera. ‘What was that? Where did… where did you just go?’ It’s as potent as the Tristan chord. And yet it looks like nothing on the page, its effectiveness created by two series’ worth of to-camera asides.

If you feel it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Olivia Colman playing the ghastly godmother, that’s probably because Waller-Bridge wrote it specifically for her, striking while the iron was red-hot, directly after Colman turned up at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show of Fleabag and pledged allegiance. Likewise, the actor Andrew Scott came on board first, and his celibate priest character was developed later, as Waller-Bridge explains. She offers precisely no precious ruminations on the alchemy of text and performance in her brisk postscript and thank you roll-call.

Fleabag is a family affair. Teresa W-B (mother) also appears in Episode 1 as the female feminist lecturer who asks the audience: ‘Who here would give five years of their life for the perfect body?’. The only hands that shoot up in the packed lecture hall are those of Fleabag and her sister Claire. It’s a classic moment.

There is also the score of (sister) Isobel Waller-Bridge’s original choral composition The Confessional Kyrie, printed in the back of the book in pious gothic script, as a final camp flourish. Oh, and an empty page with ‘write like you’re not afraid’ as its heading. Which is super-encouraging to the next gen, of course. Not cringey. No.

And there we are. That’s it. Die-hard fans will want to turn to the script of the 2013 Edinburgh show, published by Nick Hern Books, bulked up with added essays. These tell the story of the evolution of the show via £4,000 crowdfunding on Kickstarter, the kind waitress who gave Phoebe and her best friend/dramaturge Vicky Jones a free coffee etc etc. There are tales of the writers’ nights they started, in which one exercise was ‘make the audience love your character in under five minutes’. Audience members each had heart-shaped helium balloons, which they released at the moment they felt the love. It takes a lot to get great work off the ground. Vicky reminisces with Phoebe about the struggle. ‘You were so hard on yourself… It was like you were dragging her out from the depths of your belly.’

Additional headscratching by Deborah Frances-White, the writer and host of the Guilty Feminist podcast, offers such waffle as: ‘One hallmark of fourth-wave feminism is women harnessing the power of the internet as a tool of resistance. Fleabag uses it to feed her pornography addiction and order fast food…’. Perhaps Fleabag is best left to speak for itself. Scripts as Scriptures. Amen.

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