I’m sorry Fleabag put my family in spotlight, says Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Show’s creator regrets that guesswork about inspiration for characters made life tricky for those close to her

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of the dark comedy Fleabag, has confessed to making serious mistakes with those she cares about following her extraordinary success as a writer and performer.

Her family, she claims, have “taken the brunt” of the negative impact of her sudden fame due to her failure to protect them from outside guesswork about the inspiration for her hit BBC Two show, which portrays the misadventures of a young woman known as Fleabag. The character’s strained relationships with an elder sister, Claire, played by Sian Clifford, and her godmother, played by Olivia Colman, are pivotal to the story, as is suppressed grief over a mother’s death and the loss of a close friend.

“Because it’s about family and everything, my family suddenly experienced this really intense focus from people in their lives, and people asking about the show and asking about me, and one of my regrets is I wish I’d seen that coming,” she explains.

Waller-Bridge may appear to be riding high, especially after writing half of the first series of the comic thriller Killing Eve, playing a robot in a Star Wars film, working on the script for the next Bond movie, and performing her sellout live show in New York, but she is candid about her continued personal failings. She will reveal on a podcast out this week that she should have taken more responsibility and “managed to fortify” her extended family in anticipation of the reactions of the media and the show’s many fans.

“They were actually taking the brunt of the profile of the show getting bigger,” Waller-Bridge says. “They were being asked all the questions about the show … Basically, there was just a communication breakdown with my family.”

A year ago, Waller-Bridge was the first guest on the popular podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day and she has returned to mark the anniversary. Guests on the confessional series are required to admit to failures and, after a series of very public triumphs, Day asked Waller-Bridge to recall errors made during this period in the limelight. The star says her main failure was not shielding her family, although she explains that she had little idea of the amount of attention the show would receive and that, as she was performing in New York when it was being broadcast in Britain, communication was difficult.

“I’d underestimated, as we all had, what impact it was going to have and that people were going to want to talk about it so much and like it so much,” she says. “And I was essentially just so far away from everybody and in a different timezone doing the play … I hadn’t really connected with my close friends and family when it went out, so they then had this strange explosion of this show happening.”

Waller-Bridge, who celebrates her 34th birthday in a fortnight, has an elder sister, Isobel, who is the acclaimed composer behind the music for ITV’s Vanity Fair and BBC One’s The Split, as well as for Fleabag. Her younger brother, Jasper, is a music manager. Her mother, Teresa, is divorced from her father, Michael, who is now married to the artist and designer Rosemary Goodenough.

Waller-Bridge concedes that Fleabag invited viewers to engage with her character in an unusually intimate way, but she is clear that she “controlled and created” that effect.

“The people closest to me didn’t invite that and there’s so much over-familiarity that comes with that: people assuming that Iso is like Claire.

“And also people just assuming that so much of it is true. That bleeds into my family’s life when the show’s going out because, weirdly, they are having to defend our family,” she tells Day.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge with her sister Isobel, left, the TV and film composer.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge with her sister Isobel, left, the TV and film composer. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex

Speculation that a female screenwriter could only have drawn such lifelike characters from real life is another irritation. “Women can make things up too! It’s not all our diaries!” she says. Her inspiration actually came from mining her deepest worries.

“Of course I’m drawing on really personal things and things that echo in real life, but I write about my biggest fears. I write about losing my best friend or losing my mum, or not communicating with my dad, or not getting on with his new partner, and all those things are my worst fears: whereas actually my mum’s alive and well, my best friend is alive and well and we have an unbelievable relationship, my relationship with both my siblings is incredible, I get on really well with my stepmother and my dad; but it’s the ‘what if?’.”

The solution, Waller-Bridge suspects, would have been to sit down with her family and explain that “it’s not about you guys, but there’s a few degrees of separation in other people’s minds because it’s so personal and it’s about family, and because there are strange links, like I did have an ex-boyfriend with a motorbike or my stepmother is actually an artist - all those sort of things”.

Yet male screenwriters who write about families are not often expected to account for their inspiration and so Waller-Bridge claims she was surprised by the ferocity of speculation about Fleabag.

“It might be to do with the fact I’m a woman, but it also might not be. That autobiographical assumption is something I’m asked about a lot. It is either because the show feels so raw and real that people think it’s real, or it’s because people assume there’s a limit to a woman’s imagination. I’d always rather believe the former.”

• This article was amended on 2 July 2019 to clarify that Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote four of the eight episodes of the first series of Killing Eve. The other writers were George Kay, Vicky Jones and Rob Williams.


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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