Fleabag to Mrs Brown's Boys: why the riskiest TV comes straight from the stage

Screenwriters often find themselves in a straitjacket – but comedy shows written for the theatre have free rein to be as foul-mouthed and foul-minded as they like. The world needs more of it

The new sitcom Fleabag is likely to remind many viewers of another recent hit: E4’s Bafta-winning Chewing Gum. Both are graphically confessional accounts of the social and sexual lives of young women, covering issues such as first-date anal sex, threesomes and malfunctioning sex toys.

It’s hard to imagine many viewers of those shows also being fans of Mrs Brown’s Boys. But the trio certainly have something in common: each was adapted from a successful stage show.

Writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed the theatrical version of Fleabag at the Edinburgh fringe and then in London, while Chewing Gum has its origins in Chewing Gum Dreams, which Michaela Coel wrote and performed at venues from the Yard Theatre to the National Theatre. Before Mrs Brown’s Boys reached TV in 2011, Brendan O’Carroll had spent years touring stage shows featuring the foul-minded Dublin widow, which is why he was so unruffled by the show’s recent live episode on the BBC.

The key question for any stage-to-screen transfer is how much to change once the fourth wall has become protected glass rather than curtain. Both Fleabag and Chewing Gum Dreams were monologues, so they required significant re-engineering to become six half-hours of TV, although Waller-Bridge and Coel both opted to retain a significant level of direct address.

Waller-Bridge confides asides to the camera (at one point, literally behind the back of the actor playing her sister, telling us that her sibling is “uptight and borderline anorexic”) and at times flashes the viewer wry or sly looks, in a manner handed down from Eric Morecambe to Miranda Hart. Moments that were anecdotes on stage – a one-night stand that ends in anal sex, a relationship breakup caused by being caught masturbating to a Barack Obama speech – become dialogues with a male actor, but, daringly, Waller-Bridge tells the tale of rectal penetration to the screen, like a newsreader, as the action happens behind her.

In Chewing Gum, Coel engages us face-to-face at times of intimate crisis (commenting on the progress of a sexual encounter, for example), with the result that both Chewing Gum and Fleabag often feel like filthy twists on Miranda.

TV show Chewing Gum
A filthy twist on Miranda … Chewing Gum. Photograph: Channel 4

Mrs Brown is another female protagonist who flashes dirty looks and lines directly through the screen. Since the start of the TV version in 2011, O’Carroll has been even more insistent than Coel and Waller-Bridge in maintaining theatricality, recording in front of a live audience with whom he often interacts.

In such moments, the ancient live performance device of the soliloquy becomes televisually experimental – which is ironic, since a fear of seeming “stagey” is the reason plays have generally ranked far behind novels, movies and real-life stories as source material for TV.

Crossover was more common in the past, when TV dramas were often shot in studios with cinematic aspirations. From the 60s to the 80s, TV drama departments routinely scouted in theatres, making it common for a hit play – such as Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians – to be transferred almost intact to Play for Today.

Admirers of Mike Leigh’s TV work often don’t realise that Abigail’s Party started life at Hampstead Theatre. One of the standout modern TV dramas, the political epic Our Friends In the North (1996), was expanded by Peter Flannery from a 1982 stage play for the RSC, although a decision to rewrite and reshoot the opening episode, because it was considered too close to the stage script, shows the nervousness about such transfers.

The traffic has been even less frequent in comedy. British sitcoms have often been cast from West End comedy specialists (during one series of The Good Life, for instance, Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Richard Briers and Paul Eddington were all also appearing in an Ayckbourn or Frayn stage hit). Despite this, theatre comedies have only rarely become successful sitcoms. Rising Damp, with Leonard Rossiter as the misanthrophic landlord Rigsby, was initially written as a play called The Banana Box. Three members of the TV cast played the equivalent parts on stage, although the surname of the main character was changed from Rokesby for TV. In the mid-90s, Richard Harris’s West End long-runner about a village cricket team, Outside Edge, gave ITV three high-scoring innings on television.

However, until the recent threesome, the stage door has rarely opened into a TV studio. Strikingly, what unites Mrs Brown’s Boys with Chewing Gum and Fleabag – apart from their greasepaint birthplaces – is that all three are more verbally explicit and more playful with form than British comedy shows tend to be. This suggests that theatre writers may naturally proceed with a greater freedom and inventiveness, and that a straitjacketing formality can descend when creating a comedy directly for television. Comedy commissioners should reflect on this. Perhaps they need to get out more.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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