Vicky Jones: 'Fleabag felt like a tipping point for feminism'

The stage director of Fleabag on her new TV series for HBO, texting her exes, and how she writes during lockdown

Sheffield-born writer-director Vicky Jones, 41, is co-founder of DryWrite Theatre Company, alongside her frequent collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She directed the original stage production of Fleabag, script-edited the TV version and is currently the National Theatre’s playwright in residence. Jones has written and created new HBO series Run, DryWrite’s first TV production, which debuts this week on Sky, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever.

How did the idea for Run come about?
Me and Phoebe had a joke years ago where we’d whisper “Run!” to each other in any situation we wanted to get out of. A relationship, a social engagement, the wrong job, wrong decision… The idea being that we’d take each other’s hands, make a dash for it and keep going. It was a comforting feeling that there was always someone who’d run away with us. We never did it, never just ran off and left people hanging – except once at a festival, but that’s another story! Mostly it was just a funny idea. Years later, it morphed into this TV show.

The series opens with a long-separated couple texting “Run!” to each other. Did you ever unwisely text your exes?
I used to. I’d also stalk them on social media and obsess about the tiniest things. Are they wearing that jumper I bought them? Bastard!

Merritt Wever’s character, Ruby, is a suburban housewife who leaves her life behind. Why?
I wanted to explore the idea of a woman at the end of her tether. Yes, she’s middle-class, and in many ways she has nothing to complain about, but Ruby feels like she’s not seen, even by herself. She’s an intelligent woman with loads of potential, but she’s ignored herself and given up so much. This is the only way Ruby can think of to change her life and she does it in a split-second. It’s an extreme solution to what’s perhaps a common problem.

Watch a trailer for Run.

Domhnall Gleeson’s character, Billy, is a motivational speaker. Did you research those?
I did, people like Tony Robbins, and you get sucked in by them. They’re so powerful in the way they use language. We didn’t want Billy to be an arsehole, callously using people for profit. He’s one of the better ones, who genuinely wants to help people, but he does come to the conclusion that he doesn’t have any right to be telling people how to live.

And the title of his bestselling book is Amazing. Period
[Laughs] That was Phoebe’s idea. She’s amazing, period.

At one point, Ruby masturbates in a train toilet. Is that Run’s equivalent of Fleabag’s Obama scene?
A few years ago it felt like there were no female masturbation scenes on TV, but suddenly there are loads. I liked the idea that [the characters] were so turned on by each other, they just had to. You have to be pretty desperate to do it in the toilet of a train! It was a way of showing how sexually charged they are.

Run’s writer, producers, director are all women. Was that important to you?
Absolutely. It’s not at the expense of men at all, but that’s just who we naturally look to and gravitate towards. There are so many talented women out there, you don’t even have to think about positive discrimination.

Was Phoebe Waller-Bridge always going to pop up in a cameo role?
Oh yeah, she always wanted a part. It’s a surprise who she plays, I think.

How does it feel, looking back now, at the cultural impact Fleabag made?
It felt like a tipping point for feminism at that time. There was no real voice or leadership where feminism was concerned. In fact, lots of our friends were distancing themselves from the notions of feminism that we’d grown up with. The messages that young girls were getting through porn were confusing. Where were we supposed to look for inspiration? There wasn’t clarity where feminism was concerned, but now there really is. The world has changed so quickly and we’re proud to have been a part of that.

Was last summer’s West End run a nice way to close the chapter?
Sadly I was in Canada making Run, so I didn’t see any of it. But before I left, I did get to march around to Wyndham’s theatre with Phoebe and I watched her do some bits from the very back of the auditorium, just to check she could reach it. Of course she was nailing it, so I knew it was going to work.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge performing Fleabag at Wyndham’s theatre, London, August last year.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge performing Fleabag at Wyndham’s theatre, London, August 2019. Photograph: Matt Humphrey

What’s your writing routine?
It’s bad for my back, but I write on my bed. Pile a load of cushions up, then try to write. I’ll despair for the first half-hour, then get beyond that phase and start writing.

What makes you happy when you’re not working?
I have a podcast called Guilt & Shame, which is about being completely honest. I splurge a lot of personal stuff on that, so I’m hoping my mum doesn’t listen to it.

What’s next for you?
I’m writing a film with Amblin [Steven Spielberg’s production company] when I have time. For the next couple of months, though, I’m hoping to spend a bit more time with my baby. That’s one nice thing that’s come out of the current situation.

How are you coping in coronavirus lockdown?
I’m just in my bedroom. This is where I live now. Sitting on my bed all day, so it could be worse. I’ve gone semi-feral.

Are you expecting an influx of texts from your friends saying “Run”?
I would love that! It’s the perfect time for it now, of course. I could run to my bedroom wall and back.

• Run starts on Wednesday 15 April at 9pm on Sky Comedy and Now TV


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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