When my book came out in 2015 I said in interviews that I thought we would see more priest characters on TV. My prediction came true beyond my expectations, here are just a few:
- Sean Bean playing an RC Priest in Broken
- The single mother priest in Midwinter of the Spirit
- The gay female priest in Collateral
- The hilarious hospital chaplain in comedy Hospital People
- The rural vicar in This Country
- The whole dynasty of priests in Danish drama Ride Upon the Storm
Then, the second series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s groundbreaking show, Fleabag was announced, and it had an RC Priest love interest.
I deliberately didn’t write on my blog or even post about it on my Facebook Page as I had a feeling this was going to be complicated.
SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE ON
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s drama comedy rewrites the rules of TV and comedy, it is something totally new: from her frequent asides to the camera (constantly breaking the fourth wall), to her tackling of taboo subjects such as suicide, grief and miscarriage to her female characters misbehaving and being downright mean. Fleabag is not a programme that is easy to define or explain to someone that hasn’t seen it.
I think it is a brilliant bit of writing that is also at times exasperating and offensive.
Last Monday afternoon I got a phone call from one of the producers of BBC Breakfast. They had heard I had written a book about TV vicars and wondered if I would be able to go on the red sofa on Tuesday morning to talk about the final episode of the series and specifically the portrayal of the church and Christians in the programme.
I have to confess, I did have to think hard about whether to do it. The programme Fleabag doesn’t invite easy analysis, it is not a straightforward comedy, it is difficult to come out with a soundbite that will work on a national breakfast TV show. In the end, I agreed and this is the result:
It was really nerve wracking and you can see the terror on my face at the beginning of the clip! (They hadn’t told me where to look and I was looking at the autocue and other screens in front of me).
After speaking about it on national television I then started to read a range of responses to the programme including:
Farewell Fleabag: the most electrifying, devastating TV in years – The Guardian
Fleabag priest is just another abuser – The Church Times
On Fleabag, frustration and resisting easy answers – Theos Think Tank
Quite a debate began to rage about whether the priest character, played by Andrew Scott, was abusive in his behaviour. Read the comment pieces above to see a range of opinions.
I think the choice of an RC priest (rather than, say, an Anglican vicar) was deliberate. It heightened the sexual tension and drew the Fleabag character in to have a go at ‘forbidden fruit’. It also created lots of tensions for the viewer, almost because of the connotations that go with any RC priest being in a TV programme. Hence my reluctance to draw attention to the programme at first being unsure of where the story line would go.
Although I do think that the priest character does abuse his position and doesn’t treat Fleabag very well, the relationship he has with her is not all one sided – Fleabag seeks to seduce him too. (See this interesting Twitter thread here).
Phoebe Waller-Bridge uses religion in series 2 to explore the themes of faith, hope and love and, ultimately, redemption.
Unusually, and I did point this out in the TV interview, the priest takes Fleabag to a Quaker Meeting. She describes it as ‘very intense. It’s very quiet. It’s very…very…erotic’:
The Quakers of Great Britain responded brilliantly in this tweet!
Along with Fleabag, we are left wondering, what is she looking for? Whom? Could God fill this gap?
Fleabag is trying to make sense of her life after losing her mother and best friend, she tries drowning her sorrows in casual sex, that doesn’t work. So she then turns to the ‘hot priest’ engaged by her dad and awful godmother to conduct their wedding. She’s immediately sexually attracted to him, and also attracted to his sense of security in his faith, his life lived with purpose. We, with her, soon discover that he is a troubled soul and we worry for her – especially in the taut scenes in the church and confession booth where it all starts to unravel. In the end, her experiences with the priest character are not dissimilar to someone who has an affair with a married person, but they have the added layer of the divine, like the ghost at the feast – who interrupts proceedings twice by making pictures fall off the wall.
From the beginning the priest spots her little asides to the camera where no one else has ever seen them before. It’s not clear why he can see it, perhaps it’s the idea that he can see her insecurities. The big ‘wow’ moment of the second series was when the priest broke the ‘fourth wall’ by turning to the camera with Fleabag. I think after this moment, you realise that he is just as flawed as her and that being together is not going to work out for either of them. We’d hoped he might have the answers, but he doesn’t.
Interestingly, in the last episode, she has very few looks to the camera. It is almost like we, the audience, are her imaginary friend and now she doesn’t need us any more. She leaves us at the end with a tiny shake of the head to let us know she’s going to go it alone and she will be okay.
As you can see, this programme does not invite easy analysis, it is complex and nuanced – just like our lives are. This is the brilliance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing, she leaves you shocked, irritated, and moved to tears.
It is subtle and brilliant and I have found it really difficult to say something nuanced and interesting about it!
With hindsight, I could have perhaps been a bit more critical of the priest character in the TV interview I did but for breakfast TV it needed to be light and I do think the portrayal of Christianity was different and surprising.
I can’t wait to see what Phoebe Waller-Bridge has up her sleeve next!
Here’s a fun run down of some of the best things in Fleabag: