Emily Menger-Davies gains insight from watching hit comedy series Fleabag with her gran.
Having received Fleabag: The Scriptures at Christmas and read it all day long on Boxing Day, and following another deluge of awards for the show, it’s got me raving once again about how well written and important it is. Fleabag has become the show I keep getting people to watch – including (albeit cautiously) my gran.
My gran is easily one of the funniest people I know, and I often think that her daily misdemeanours would be great material for a sitcom of their own. When it came to persuading her to try Fleabag, it was telling her that Obama had listed it in his top 10 television series of 2019 that clinched the deal. So, with Obama’s stamp of approval, she was all ears – I’d played my cards right. We started with series two (more priest, less sex) and, as liberal as my gran is, I think this was a wise choice. I do have a slight preference for series two which, if nothing else, is perhaps more relaxing to watch in that you find yourself less often jumping to lower the volume when suddenly caught off-guard by a sharp cut-to sex scene.
My gran’s comedic immersion is deeply ingrained in classic male comedy duos such as Laurel and Hardy and Morecombe and Wise, and to this day you can say nothing funnier to her than “they are the right notes, just not in the right order”. So when I told her that Fleabag was a comedy series, I’m not sure this was quite what she had in mind. Whilst moments like Claire’s disastrous haircut had her in stitches, the more bittersweet moments of the show left her feeling a bit cheated of laughs.
Personally, I think the genre hybridity of Fleabag as a comedy/drama is what makes it so important and unique. Fleabag’s successful fusion of moments which make you laugh or cry, or laugh and cry raises the important question about the function of comedy as a means of escapism and exactly just how much reality you allow to trickle into the jokes. Reality can be a hard pill to swallow, and comedy is often the spoon full of sugar that helps it go down. The gradual inclusion of mental health issues into modern comedy also follows a generation of comedians such as John Cleese and Robin Williams who, despite their comic personas, shocked their fans when it was revealed that they suffered from mental health issues like depression. However, the landscape of comedy is changing as punchlines are becoming less central and more ornamental decoration to a main storyline. In 2017, for instance, comedy fans were bowled over by Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette in which she used the platform of stand-up comedy to confront the ways we use humour to deflect and self-deprecate rather than face up to harsh realities. In Fleabag, our protagonist’s side glances and cheeky winks to the camera expertly deflect what life throws at her, but we are also very aware of her pain when she meets our eye, even if just for a split second, in the more heart-rending moments of the show.
Nevertheless, watching the show as a fourth/fifth (which one are we in now?) wave feminist alongside a second wave feminist with 60 years of history between us on the sofa, opened up a long and interesting discussion about gender and relationships. One of the things which is so unique about Fleabag is that it flips the gender dynamic of men being the flawed heroes and women being their moral counterpoint. Fleabag is full of contradictions, she’s ashamed yet shameless, funny yet sad, and detached yet loving. She uses sex to get what she wants – usually more sex – and this was what worried my gran. A woman as sexually liberated and emotionally unattached as a promiscuous man is contradictory to what feminism means to her. Whilst my gran’s generation celebrated female virtues as the nurturing and moral gender in order to gain a place at the table and focused on protecting women from the male sexual promiscuity Fleabag herself participates in, mine is currently clamouring for series like Fleabag which recognise the equal potential of all genders to make mistakes.
One aspect of my gran’s response to the show which was unexpected was that she wasn’t as moved by Andrew Scott’s hot priest character as much as she was moved by the relationship between Fleabag and her sister, Claire. Having had a sister whom she loved but with whom she didn’t always see eye to eye, my gran recognised and identified with the relationship in a way that transcends the generation gap. Through all the complicated relationships they navigate, the real couple the viewer is rooting for throughout the series are the sisters who break up and get back together too many times to count. What’s more, the unspoken grief of the mother’s death between Fleabag and the family is beautifully and humorously symbolised by the gold sculpture which is passed between family members as they wrestle silently over who gets ownership of the mother’s memory. This presentation of the aftermath of grief was an undisputedly beautiful element of the show, one in which we both recognised and appreciated the honesty.
In my opinion, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s flood of awards for Fleabag is well deserved and one of my favourite things about it is that with each different person I watch it alongside, it provokes a new response. The evolution of comedy as an art form is changing rapidly alongside society’s views on gender and is an important tool in challenging assumed norms. Fundamentally, I learned two things from watching Fleabag with my gran: firstly, that the honesty of this series full of talented writing and the perceptiveness of family, friendship and romantic relationships can be enjoyed on a cross-generational level and secondly, that I may have found the only woman in Britain who is immune to Andrew Scott’s charms.