Written by Ashley Davies

In The News

Woman of the Year: Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Our writers pick the women who rocked their world in 2016. For Ashley Davies that was Fleabag‘s creator and star.

Fleabag

Going underground: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag plumbs the depths of dark comedy. Photo: BBC Three.

Blimey, that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has done all right this year, hey?

I don’t remember a comedy series being discussed with such vehemence and in such detail – in my sweaty little echo-chamber anyway – as the BBC Three hit Fleabag, which she wrote and starred in.

In case you haven’t seen it (ferchrissakes sort it aaht, will ya?), it’s about a twentysomething woman who we assume is called Fleabag. Her best friend has recently died – trying to get the attention of a bloke by flinging herself in front of a bike – and the cafe they ran together is dying. Her mother is dead, her father struggles to communicate with her, her stepmother (the spectacularly talented Olivia Colman) is patronising and her sister is cold. Fleabag is selfish. She sleeps around, she lies, steals and uses people. Sounds like a character you’d struggle to care about, doesn’t she?

Well, no. And yes. But mainly no. The thing is, Waller-Bridge is a master at capturing traits we fear or hate in ourselves and others. It starts with breaking the fourth wall and making us feel as if we’re her only confidante, and eventually you’re in her world, feeling sympathy for this troubled soul despite not necessarily liking her. At the same time she draws you in to empathise with the characters who you’re supposed to resent. It’s a complex business.

Some feminist critics pointed out that not only did Fleabag fail the Bechdel test, it didn’t even get out of bed for the exam. But I’d argue that that’s missing the point because Fleabag’s behaviour isn’t presented as something to aspire to: it’s a form of unconscious self-harm that a lot of women recognise. She fucks up over and over again, squandering kindness and love because subconsciously she doesn’t feel she deserves it. She is twice bereaved and suffering. That’s my take on it, anyway. She also happens to be disarmingly open about anal sex and masturbating to Barack Obama. I bet you don’t get that on Gilmore Girls.

“The skill and relish with which Waller-Bridge explores the awkwardness and pain behind apparently brash personalities is something to behold. She really is a fresh new voice that we’d do well to listen to and nurture.”

Fleabag (which had a sold-out theatre run in London this month – three years after winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh) wasn’t even Waller-Bridge’s only authored work on TV this year. In early 2016 Channel 4 broadcast Crashing, which might have looked to the casual observer like a twentysomething Skins. But it was much more complex and usefully zeitgeisty than that.

It felt like the only sitcom to acknowledge the shitty situation that (not only but mainly) young people find themselves in these days: utterly excluded from property ownership unless their parents are loaded.

It focused on the lives of a group of property guardians – people who pay a nominal amount to live in an empty former municipal building until the developers move in. It’s a great set-up in which to trap a disparate bunch of characters at different stages of their lives, and, again, Waller-Bridge played a woman who it’s just not that easy to like. The kind of woman you wouldn’t want around your boyfriend or husband, but who you’d eventually feel for because she’s so lost.

The skill and relish with which Waller-Bridge explores the awkwardness and pain behind apparently brash personalities is something to behold. She really is a fresh new voice that we’d do well to listen to and nurture.

And 2017 isn’t looking too shabby for her either. BBC America recently signed her up as showrunner and executive producer for eight episodes of Killing Eve, a drama about an assassin and the desk-based secret service worker trying to hunt her down.

Based on the Villanelle novella series by Luke Jennings, the story focuses on two very different women – one an elegant psychopath who lives a life of luxury, the other stuck in her office but fantasising about being a proper spy – who become increasingly obsessed with each other. It sounds pretty cool.

More power to her elbow.

Read our contributors’ other picks for women of the year here.

@MsAshleyDavies

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Written by Ashley Davies

Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.