There’s been a bit of a wait since Fleabag last graced our screens, which is no surprise given the immense success the show’s writer and lead, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has enjoyed since the series aired in 2016. After receiving a Bafta for her performance as the titular character, she’s been busy working on the equally brilliant Killing Eve starring Sandra Oh. But we can finally catch-up with Fleabag and find out if she’s as angry and cynical as ever.
The new six-part series is set a year on and opens with an incredibly awkward dinner party. On the one side of Fleabag, there’s her softly-spoken father (Bill Paterson) and his gloriously passive aggressive partner, played by the newly-anointed Oscar winner Olivia Colman.
On the other, there’s her sister (Sian Clifford) who she hasn’t spoken to since the disastrous ‘Sex-hibition’ at the end of series one, and her weasel-like husband (Brett Gelman).
And beside her is a Catholic priest, played by Andrew Scott, who Fleabag can’t sum up and therefore dismissively cast aside as she’s accustomed to doing. He loves to drink and smoke and takes a laissez-faire approach to the chaos that ensues during the evening.
“It’s was a ludicrous amount of fun getting everyone back together and because the actors knew their characters so well, we could riff on set to find even more nuance,” says Phoebe, 33.Kristen Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw will also be making an appearance but in what capacity is being kept secret for now.
“I feel crazy lucky to have this cast. Andrew is electric in every take, Olivia Colman can be adorable and then monstrous in the space of a millisecond and Bill Paterson just broke my heart all the way through, and then sparring with Sian is just endless fun.”
When we met Fleabag in series one, she was “in the eye of her own emotional storm of grief and addiction” following the death of her best pal Boo.
“She was relying on her, ‘I’m fine! I’m hilarious! I’m in control!’ front that she presented to the audience in a hope it would distract you from her own self-hatred,” explains Phoebe.
“This series is about growing up slightly. She’s just about holding it together when someone new comes into her life and shakes it all up a bit, as do some family members who she was surprised to see back in her life again.”
Grief continues to be an important theme in this next chapter of Fleabag’s life. “It never leaves you and the ghost of that person, or the feeling that is left with you after they’ve gone, never leaves you. I wanted to honour that somehow; that Fleabag’s life does go on. The grief is still very much there, it just manifests in a slightly different way,” says Phoebe.
This second chapter also deals with the choices we make in our lives, and the reasons we do. “I think it’s a natural impulse to find ways to bring the ceiling down on your life just when you’ve got it all in order. Fleabag is living right on the precipice of that when we meet her. It's also about family; how deeply you can hurt each other and how quickly you can forgive each other; and touches on what happens when you have distance from the people you love and the courage it takes to find your way back to them.”
Bringing Fleabag and her sister Claire back together “was just the biggest challenge,” admits Phoebe. “How to bring these two prickly things back together so they can love each other again...and maybe they do, maybe they don't!” In real-life, she has a close relationship with both her sister, who writes the music for Fleabag, and brother, “but as you grow up as siblings you can kind of push it further with each other because you know you have to love each other and you will love each other forever,” notes Phoebe.
“You can kind of be your ugliest version of yourself with those people in a way you can't with other people you have met or your chosen family.”
The initial idea for Fleabag came about in 2013 when Phoebe was challenged to write a short monologue for a story-telling night run by a friend.
“What I wrote there became the first ten minutes of what became the hour-long play my theatre company took to the Edinburgh Festival,” says Phoebe.
“My first instinct was to write something that allowed me to play something other than a ‘princess part’ where all the action happens around a woman and she just cries or dies at the end of it. It’s about writing what scares you. Imagine what you’d write if you weren't afraid of what people would say or think and put it out there.”
There was an incredible response to Fleabag in Edinburgh. “I think people responded to the fact she was a complicated, darkly funny, sexually candid and unapologetic character, with a twisted back story. I wanted it to hide a tragedy in a comedy. Laughter lures people in so innocently.”
Not long after, the BBC commissioned a pilot and Phoebe spent about a year “wrestling it out of a one woman show into this multi-character TV show”.
“Initially, I had no f***king idea how to do it. You have a captive audience in a theatre and that's what makes people quite lazy. They think, ‘I can do this monologue about the stars and you’re just going to have to swallow it’, and I feel that’s rude. The discipline of writing the play was that every single line had to be a new direction and the audience had to be kept on their toes,” says Phoebe.
“There’s a kind of extreme version of that on screen, because people can switch off or go and do their washing, so I think you have to make it even more surprising and arresting.”
Fleabag returns to BBC One and BBC Three on Monday, March 4