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Lydia HampsonPhotography: BAFTA/Charlie Clift.

Producer Lydia Hampson discusses cult sitcom Fleabag

We talk to the BAFTA Breakthrough Brit about her career, what to expect from season two of Fleabag, and her advice for young writers

Fleabag, the hit BBC sitcom, contains so many brilliant, biting one-liners, but I’ll pick one. In the second episode, the show’s main character, Fleabag, played by writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, addresses the camera while on the toilet. “I’m not obsessed with sex”, she shrugs. “I just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it. The awkwardness of it. The drama of it. The moment you realise someone wants your body.” Then comes the kicker. “Not so much the feeling of it.”

As the mini-monologue indicates, Fleabag can be filthy, funny and full of pathos. The first season, which aired in 2016, caused an instant stir. Within the opening minutes, Fleabag cheerfully cracks a gag about anal sex and masturbates to Obama on her laptop. But it’s a trick. As the comedy-drama progresses, it evolves into a different kind of multi-layered show. Here’s a woman brought up in the age of online porn. She obsesses over her sexual appeal to men, but derives little pleasure from the activity itself. By the end, Fleabag is coming clean about her trauma and insecurities. “Everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it”, she sobs. “Or I’m completely fucking alone.”

Lydia Hampson, the TV show’s producer, first got to know Waller-Bridge’s talents in 2013. Back then, Fleabag was a one-woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe: Waller-Bridge, a chair, some sound effects. By chance, Hampson was in the audience; a few years later, she steered the sitcom in its transition from stage to screen. As a result, Hampson was recently named as a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and will be repeating her producing duties for the second season of Fleabag, due to air in early 2019.

When I visit Hampson at her London office, I mention the first season’s novelistic qualities. The shock value seems hard to repeat. How will they overcome Difficult Second Album syndrome? “The key is to not retread old ground”, Hampson believes. “The whole of the first series, it was a façade. She was shiny and prim on top, but you didn’t know she was grieving underneath it all. In that last episode, we saw she was broken. Where do we go from there?”

The hit rate of season one can, in part, be credited to Waller-Bridge essentially workshopping the gags on stage. So will season two rely on gut instinct? “Phoebe’s amazing at writing dialogue”, Hampson enthuses, “and that’s because she’ll often say it in front of you and gauge the reaction of people in the room. On the last series, that was me or Vicky Jones, the director of the stage show. With the original, it was: if it makes Vicky laugh, it’s going in. There won’t be Fleabag 2: The Play, but she’ll still be sounding things out loud.”

It helps, then, that Hampson has plenty of experience in comedy, particularly on the live side. After graduating, she got a job with Just For Laughs Live. “I was a runner on big touring shows like Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran”, she recalls. “But what I most enjoyed was working with new talent, because you’re learning together. With someone who’s massively established, you can’t be like, ‘I’ve got some advice for you here.’” So she started producing the company’s stable of work at the Edinburgh Fringe. “Which was really fun. You basically spent autumn to Christmas seeing loads of shows, meeting loads of people who are also starting out.”

After a few years of getting to know Edinburgh inside-out, though, Hampson felt an urge to jump into TV production. “I quit my job!” she laughs. “I spent a year freelancing. I got in contact with everyone I ever met and said, ‘This is what I’m doing, and I’d love to work with you.’” This led to, among other things, producing The Art of Foley, an online comedy for Channel 4. Another of her pitches, a project with writer Nat Saunders, was warmly received by Two Brothers Pictures; a meeting to discuss the treatment led to Harry Williams (one of the two brothers) asking what she was up to work-wise. “I said, ‘I’m really busy.’ But I had absolutely no jobs at all!” The production company, it turned out, had an upcoming read-through of Fleabag with the BBC and Hampson was invited. The read-through got a pilot, the pilot got a series, and the rest, as they say, was BAFTA-winning sitcom history.

The decision was made early on for Fleabag to speak to camera. “It was the most honest way of recapturing what Phoebe did on stage,” Hampson explains, “because it was a monologue where Fleabag made the audience feel like a complicit companion – even if they didn’t necessarily want to be complicit in what she was doing. She’d do something awful, then look at the audience and go, ‘Am I right?’ And they’d be like, ‘No!’”

Ever since single-camera sitcoms without laughter tracks became the norm, there’s been a trend for characters to directly address the viewer. Take Peep ShowParks and Recreation, or anything about a stand-up comic. But Hampson doesn’t believe it’s a fair comparison. “Fleabag breaks the fourth wall in a different way”, she says. “In a lot of those shows, people tell the truth to camera and then lie to their fellow characters. Whereas Fleabag’s an unreliable narrator.” Hampson cites Michael Caine in Alfie as an inspiration. “Phoebe looks to camera and goes, ‘Hey, I’m totally fine.’ And you’re like, ‘You’re definitely not fine.”

“What Phoebe did so well in Fleabag is bring a voice that lots of women heard in their friendship groups but hadn’t heard on TV” – Lydia Hampson

In the play, Fleabag kills the guinea pig; this was where the BBC drew the line. Animal cruelty aside, there were few restrictions. “They were totally freeing,” Hampson says. “That’s partly because it went on BBC Three online, and there was more scope to be braver or sillier. We could play with the duration of episodes. Same with the anamorphic lenses.” But when BBC Three went web-only, it was generally seen as a negative move? “Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it? I think it’s quite a British thing that online is still seen as TV’s less-good, younger brother. Whereas in the States, there’s Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and all these things taking over traditional television formats.”

That said, I’m speaking to Hampson shortly after Netflix and Amazon announced the cancellation of smart, funny cult comedies like One MississippiI Love Dick, and Lady Dynamite. Without viewing figures, it’s tough to gauge how successful these shows actually are. I thought they were popular, but apparently not. “On BBC Three online”, she says, “I never felt this big pressure of getting the overnights in or wondering what the numbers were. But there’s not much point in telling a story if no one’s watching it. Ideally, you want to communicate with people. The Scandinavian TV show Skam was all told on Instagram. That was hugely successful with teenagers because that’s how they consume their entertainment.”

Skam, incidentally, is receiving an American remake. Has Fleabag been approached yet? “No”, she says, “but I know the Germans want to remake it with a German story.” What about a Fleabag movie? “Oh yeah, I’d love to do a film! We’ve never spoken about it, but a big-screen version would be great.”

At the moment, Hampson’s working on Cheat, a psychological thriller for ITV. The four-part series shoots from June to August, with Louise Hooper (When Bjork Met Attenborough) as director. After that, Fleabag films from August to October. Which means a busy calendar lies ahead, especially as it’s the producer’s year as a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit.

“It’s going really well so far”, Hampson says about the BAFTA scheme. “I’ve had a couple of meetings. One was with Warren Littlefield’s production company in the States over Skype. It was really interesting to hear how they develop their work. I had a meeting with Hilary Bevan Jones at Endor. It was so kind of her to take the time, considering how busy she is. We talked about being a woman in the industry; how to manage all the expectations; and stuff like that. It’s interesting to speak to someone about the personal side, rather than only their career trajectory.”

She has a wish list of names, including David Simon, the creator and showrunner of The Wire. “BAFTA has a travel bursary, and you can use some of that money to make a trip to the States, which is what I’d like to do this year. I don’t know when. I’ve got to film these two things back to back.”

On top of that, Hampson is searching for new writers. “What Phoebe did so well in Fleabag is bring a voice that lots of women heard in their friendship groups but hadn’t heard on TV. I’d like to find what other voices aren’t yet on TV, and to find the group of characters that could put them there.” That doesn’t mean she’s after someone with completed scripts and a 500-page production bible. “I wouldn’t be doing my job as a producer if I just sat on my hands and sent off someone’s bible. You need to be able to collaborate.”

How involved should a producer get with the writing? “It really depends”, says Hampson, who offers feedback on Waller-Bridge’s drafts. “My base position is: you should facilitate the writer to tell the best story. With Fleabag, a lot of that was protecting Phoebe’s voice. So not diluting it or trying to make it somebody else.” In case someone wants Waller-Bridge to be more likeable? “Actually, that didn’t happen, because once we made the pilot, the commissioners and the BBC had a sense of what the show was.”

Not everyone was that quick. “One review said, ‘This is filthier than Bridget Jones.’ It’s nothing like Bridget Jones! But it’s quite easy to get pigeonholed. So I was trying to make sure it was Fleabag. As a producer, you should recognise what the show is, and then keep the integrity of it.”

Any dream actors for season two? “Obama!” Hampson laughs. He’s unemployed, I mention. “No, I think what makes Fleabag great is that it feels real, and you wouldn’t want to make it a Comic Relief sketch.” The viewing figures may be a secret, but Fleabag’s success certainly isn’t. Obama cameo or not, season two can’t come soon enough.

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