By Daniel Margrain
There is likely to be nobody who detests the vast majority of what passes for BBC comedy output more than I do. From the unedifying spectacle of Mrs Brown’s Boys to the stupefying banality of Miranda, what the sheer dearth of quality output over the years highlights is the importance teams of writers are to the production of quality comedy. This explains why American comedy’s invariably hit the mark but on the whole, their British counterparts fail.
But once in a while, something extraordinary hits our television screens. I witnessed such a moment the other night thanks to a recommendation from Victor Lewis-Smith. As somebody who appreciates the quirky character-led observational and acerbic comedy canon, I knew I was going to be in for a treat from the opening sequence. One of the early scenes in which the boyfriend of Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge left her due to her habit of masturbating to Barack Obama speeches, was genius. This was one of the many inventive and inspired tragic-comic sequences that punctuated the shows 26 minute duration.
Firmly set within the confessional territory of Bridget Jones, Waller-Bridge’s first person monologues to camera, which hint at its Edinburgh fringe origins, were repeated throughout the episode. While these sequences were not original – having been seen in Woody Allen films (most notably Annie Hall) – they were nevertheless brilliantly executed.
What we quickly learn is that Fleabag is the epitome of a woman constantly on the verge of having a hyperventilating nervous breakdown in what is an increasingly dysfunctional world. As she navigates an urban terrain of awkward men while struggling to bond with her sister, it soon becomes obvious that her nihilism and inability to deal with personal relationships is an expression of a melancholy that’s rooted in personal tragedy, money problems or both.
We soon learn that somebody close to her had suffered an untimely death and that she lied to her financially successful sister about her financial situation as a front in order to get her approval. Her father (Bill Paterson) appears as a distant and peripheral figure in her life while her stepmother (Olivia Coleman) who tells her how awful she looks, has the potential to be as venomous a character as Julia Davis’ in Nighty Night whose magnetic on-screen presence Waller-Bridge manages to equal, if not surpass.
As with Julia Davis’ character, Waller-Bridge pulls off a woman, whose ferocious self-loathing is out of control and whose life is in a state of perpetual chaos, with great aplomb and technical skill. But unlike Davis’ character, Fleabag’s method of dealing with these frailties is to not take anything seriously.
In contrast to the derivative and telegraphed pratfall farce of a sit-com like Miranda, the sense of pathos and melancholy in Fleabag is never far from the surface. After having watched the opening episode, I get the feeling that a number of tragedies will unfold as the series progresses in which underlying themes of alienation, loneliness and loss look set to be developed.
All the performances were first class, but particular congratulations go to Waller-Bridge whose front and centre role stole the show. I was never quite sure what she was about to do or when she was going to do it – real edge of the seat stuff. I was mezmerized by her which is a testament to the brilliant writing, inventive set pieces, casting and strong characters.
Those responsible for taking the decision to commission this brave and fresh work of art are to be commended for their risk-taking in bringing Fleabag to the small screen. We need more of it.
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