Posts in Writing Comedy

FLEABAG wins Best Comedy Series at The Emmys! Emmy-nominated Sian Clifford chats to me about working with Phoebe Waller Bridge

For many fans and critics of the brilliant TV series Fleabag – which won Best Comedy and Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys, the focus has been on the hot priest (Andrew Scott) but one of the standout performances is that of Sian Clifford, who plays Claire. I spoke to her about sisterhood, working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott, and what it means to truly inhabit a character.

Kirsten Krauth:              Okay. So how did you come across the Fleabag script and what did you think the first time you read it?

Sian Clifford:                 Phoebe Waller-Bridge and I have known each other for 16 years, and we went to drama school together. That’s where we met. We have been very dear friends from the very first day. We always had a sort of fantasy to play sisters. We always talked about it. When Phoebe started writing, she set up a theater company called DryWrite, and I would always perform when her theater company would put things on. So I was always in all of those shows. I think I performed in all of them except one that I couldn’t make, and if I wasn’t in them, I was watching them. We were always, always, very, very big supporters of each other’s work and the highs and lows of this very challenging career.

I first encountered the script for Fleabag when she was developing it. She always had me in mind for Claire. The first time I read it properly was the night before the first read through, which was just a read through of the pilot episode. I think that was in 2014, autumn of 2014. I thought it was extraordinary, and then when we were green lit, we made the pilot in 2015, which we did. That was then green lit for a series, which we shot the remaining five episodes of for series one the following year. So it’s been a very long process.

The character of Claire, actually, her first incarnation, actually appeared in another sketch of Phoebe’s which she wrote back in, I’m going to say, 2009. That was the first time that character appeared, and then Phoebe took that character and put her into Fleabag. So it was a character and an energy that I was familiar with. I never thought they would let me play her, and for a long time it looked like I wouldn’t be able to play her. The BBC were keen to get a profile attached for that part, because it was a new show and obviously with new shows they want there to be sparkly things in there to draw a new audience. But Phoebe was adamant. I did auditions. I had a horrible audition …

Kirsten Krauth :             Why was the audition horrible? What happened?

Sian Clifford:                 Oh, I was just terrified. I just thought there was absolutely no hope. Phoebe was absolutely convinced that all we needed to do was just to put it on camera and they would say yes, and I thought I’d just been rubbish. I thought I’d been terrible. I remember just coming home that night and I messaged her and just said, “Listen, I know that was awful and I don’t mind if it doesn’t go my way.” I can’t remember how quickly I found out … but that was just an audition for the read throughs.

When we did the read through, I have to say, the BBC were wonderful and they just said, “So sorry. We absolutely get it now. Yes, we’d love you to play Claire.” But even then, I didn’t really believe it. I really didn’t believe it. Then we shot the pilot, and then I was like, “Okay, I think they’ll let me do it.” But even then, when we came around to shooting the actual series, I was still like, “Oh God, are they going to pull it away from me, kind of out from under me?” But fortunately they didn’t …

Kirsten Krauth :             That’s very fortunate.

Sian Clifford:                 But basically, when I first read the rest of the series, and that was the night before the read through, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read in my life, and I remained thinking that until I read season two.

Kirsten Krauth :             In the table scene that started season 2, all the main actors are sitting around. What was it like to film that scene? Were you on script? Were you improvising? Was Phoebe throwing in new ideas? How do you treat a new actor who comes into a series that’s already pretty established in terms of acting?

Sian Clifford:                 Well, we bully them until they do exactly what we want. No. Let’s answer all of those questions. It was extraordinary filming that. That was the first time we were all back together. I think it was around our third week of filming that we went into that. It was extremely challenging. We were downstairs in a restaurant, a real restaurant in Covent Garden in London, and it was baking hot. It was so hot. What our director and our DOP achieved with that blows my mind and I could watch it over and over and over. I think it’s so, so extraordinary. And how our editor pieced it together.

But I also remember what it took to capture all of those angles, and we’d shot it scene by scene, because there are scenes. It seems seamless when you watch it, as though it would have just been one long scene with these tiny little cutouts, but it was written as these little moments. We shot it as that, and for every single one we did different set ups. That’s why there are so many angles and that’s why you get so many different relationships between everyone round the table and it’s just so … I love it. But it was tough. Phoebe, it’s funny, her sister was the composer for the show, Isobel Waller-Bridge, and I have to give her a mention because she is extraordinary.

I mean, she’s just magical. But Phoebe is also a composer. I mean, the script is watertight. That is the one script that for me is the holy grail, and I will honor every single dot and cough, because it is perfect, when you read it.I have to say that whenever she decides that something isn’t working, it’s always rhythmic … well, usually rhythmic. She’ll go away and she’ll come back, or she’s always looking to make it funnier or punchier. She’s just constantly wanting to make it the best it could possibly be, and I think given the opportunity, she’d probably never stop.

But I do have to say that whenever she looks to make a change, it’s always very, very precise and deliberate, and it’s always better. You would never question it. It’s really, really extraordinary. So yes, there were definitely big changes happened to that scene whilst we were filming it. I mean, the whole speech that I gave about positivity, that was pretty fresh on the day. She said something like, “I feel like we need to give you more about this, you know?” That was quite a late addition, but a lot of that episode actually remained as it was from the outset, and I bow down to it. I don’t know how she did it.

But Andrew joining us was wonderful. I knew Andrew a little bit socially, because Phoebe and him worked together a long time ago in a show at the Soho Theatre, which is where Phoebe first performed Fleabag, which was kind of magical. I don’t know how well you know him in Australia, but he is an incredibly esteemed and celebrated actor, so we were very, very excited for him to join.

He’s the dream. He’s doing a Noel Coward play and he’s the light of London. He’s everywhere. There’s are posters of him everywhere at the moment. I’m so thrilled, because I know that it’s changing his career completely. We all knew he was this extraordinary human, and I’m so thrilled that more people know that as well. So that was really, really fun for us, because our characters, I would say, are definitely much more embedded in the second series, but that’s a natural organic kind of development that happens. And to throw that kind of catalyst into the mix of that family dynamic was just so much fun. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Loved it.

Kirsten Krauth :             You seem to have this amazing ability to wring comedy out of anger, often in a physical way rather than with words. Just wondering how do you convey both that anger and humor in a situation, because I also watched Vanity Fairand I think it’s a kind of a theme across both of those?

Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question, because I’m not a technical actor, in that there are certain aspects of my craft that I suppose are technical, and certainly with comedy, so much of it is about timing. But I do sort of feel like that’s a knack that you … I hate to say it, but I was going to say that you either have it or you don’t, but maybe that is something that can be trained and listened to. But I genuinely, I don’t plan it. For me, in my work, I always try to just really feel into the energy of a character and then just embody them. It’s been pointed out to me the rigidity of Claire and sort of the rigidity of her body, and I honestly was not aware of it until somebody pointed it out.

I just … I can’t tell you how beautifully put together those scripts are, so to me, she’s the easiest part I’ve ever had to play and the most joyous part I’ve ever had to play. Similarly, with Martha Crawley, actually, which was such a stunning script. When a character leaps off the page like that, it’s just a gift as an actor, because it does just wash over you and you can just … Everything in there, from their intonation to their punctuation to the stage directions, has informed you so fluidly with where to take the character and how to play it. It’s funny, Phoebe and I, we’ve learned so much in hindsight about the show, and even after the first season, I remember the response then was overwhelming. I mean, it’s obviously even bigger for the second one.

I remember we suddenly looked at each other and we were like, “You know what? We never ever once discussed how to play those sisters. We just knew. We never, ever contrived any of it. It was just there.” For me, acting is just about telling the truth. Some people talk about acting as a pretence or as a facade or that you’re lying or something. For me, I’m the worst liar on the planet. For me, it’s about absolutely telling the truth and honoring that human. For me, I can’t comment on Claire as a character. I find it very difficult, because I love her. She’s a part of me and my soul. There are obviously aspects of her that resonate with me, and I have to emphasize with every aspect of her, because how she is perceived by others, she certainly doesn’t perceive herself, you know?

There are some things she’s aware of, but she is not, I would say, the most self aware person, and so I can’t judge her for those things. For me as an actor, I will always approach from a place of empathy and complete sort of conviction in that human, that however they see the world through their eyes is all that I am here to honor. Whatever anyone else’s perception of it, that’s something else. And so for me, I know when a character is right for me to play, when I can feel them in my body. I’m about to play someone who’s a real person, which I’ve never done before and …

Kirsten Krauth :             Oh, right. Can you say who it is?

Sian Clifford:                 … I can’t say who it is, I’m afraid. Not yet. But I can feel her in my body already, and I have noticed it, that my body and my face change when I think about her, because it is … That’s all I can tell, and I know that sounds a bit esoteric and strange, but I used to approach things in a much more technical, sort of heavy way, but now I have sort of thrown all of that in the bin and just gone, “No, I’m just going to feel my way through to this person.” And at the same time, when you’re reading a script and it doesn’t resonate, you know immediately. You’re like, “Well I know I can’t … I don’t want to force myself into the body of this person. I just don’t think I should play them.” So there definitely has to be something that resonates for me with a person. Even if they’re not someone I relate to at all, I have to be able to feel them. And so with Claire, I can’t answer your question, because I don’t know. For me, she’s effortless to play, because it’s all there in the script.

And you’re surrounded by the most extraordinary actors, and our creative team, our crew, everyone is just so amazing. We tried to get exactly the same team from season one to season two, because we really are a family, and we’ve worked so hard to make this and create it, and we wanted to celebrate everyone and keep them involved. I don’t know. It’s easy to play Claire. What’s challenging are the things like when you have very little time or the usual things that come up on a set. But actually striking the balance between anger and humor, for me, I give all the credit to Phoebe and she gives all the credit to me, but for me, it is all there in the script. It’s all written, every moment, beat and breath. She dictates it, and it’s very, very easy to then perform that.

Kirsten Krauth :             The show covers topics not discussed often on television in a quite brutal way. For example, Claire’s miscarriage that Fleabag ends up taking responsibility for, in a way, and even the idea that she doesn’t want to have her husband’s baby. Are you attracted to the way the show opens up discussion around these issues?

Sian Clifford:                 Oh, yeah. I mean, the conversations that it began online, which I’m sure reached Australia … it’s been really emotional for us, because the miscarriage story is based on something that happened to a friend of Phoebe’s. Because initially, I think there was a little bit of people sort of saying, “No one would ever do that. You would never go back to the dinner table,” and then it was revealed that, actually, that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t a dinner, it was a business lunch. It was someone who basically just didn’t want to cause disruption, and never should a woman dare to sort of cause a rumpus like that. I just think it’s so, so important … yes, miscarriage, which is unbelievably common, and people don’t know that because it’s not spoken about.

So if we in any way have contributed to the beginning of a conversation that will take down that taboo, then I am honored to be a part of something that did that. Yeah, certainly, and I think even the conversation around Claire and Martin’s marriage and the toxicity of that relationship and how she finally mustered the courage on her own terms to walk away, that’s been very, very important to me that that has come up. I just think it’s so valuable. There are so many conversations happening right now that have been needed to be had for a very, very long time. I’m optimistic about where it will lead, even though we are living in very tumultuous times, but I’m very confident in the fact that we are having the conversations, even though they are very difficult conversations, that an open dialogue on these things will ultimately connect us more as humans and hopefully lead us to a much better place.

Kirsten Krauth :             Okay. That’s great. Thank you so much.

Sian Clifford:                 Oh, my God. It’s so lovely to talk to you. I grew up watching Neighborsand Home and Away. It’s so nice to hear an Australian accent over here. Love it.

Kirsten Krauth :             Oh, that’s fine. And good luck with the Emmy’s.

Sian Clifford:                 Oh, my God. I mean, just completely amazing. I’ve said this before, but honestly, I’ve won already. To me, I just never ever anticipated this. I really hoped that Phoebe and the show would be recognized, but I can’t get my head around it and I feel so honored and so grateful. But we’ll see what happens. This is enough for me.

A version of this interview was originally published at Witness Performance.

 

Doug Anthony Allstars give good head: balustrades, bubblers + barking mad

 

Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars,
Tim Ferguson, Kirsten Krauth, Paul McDermott, Jane McAllister, Flacco, Doug Anthony Allstars, Yarraville, 2014

I always vowed I’d never be like the baby-boomers: going to Rolling Stones and Beach Boys concerts, looking beyond the thinning hair and artificial hips and dementia. The lyrics written on cue cards for those fading memories.

And then I find myself at the Violent Femmes at Revesby RSL where bald men line the walls and I sit elegantly on garish carpet waiting for the band to start at 7.30. Or dancing to Stone Roses where the line-up well and truly looks resurrected. Twenty years on, the band desperately clings to the same look, the same haircut, as if fearful that their fans will just walk down the street and pass on by. And then there was Dexy’s Midnight Runners at Harvest Festival. OK, I can only remember one song, and so could they, really, the rhythm and brass section propping them up so they didn’t fall off the stage. I catch myself thinking, ‘Belinda Carlisle, that would be a great gig’, or ‘Duran Duran, that Girls on Film clip was really groundbreaking’.

Which brings me to Doug Anthony Allstars. I saw them on Friday night in Yarraville. I’d envisaged the comedy club as a run down terrace, intimate, with a red-curtained stage, dark, smoke-ringed. So 20 years ago. Instead I walk into a brightly-lit gambling den, pass the sign-in forms, to a huge room with plastic chairs and ugly carpet. I’ve blogged about how besotted I was with DAAS when I was a teen, and have had the luck to meet Paul and Tim in recent times — surreal moments where my old and new selves had to meet each other and clash, like worlds colliding.

Doug Anthony Allstars - now
Doug Anthony Allstars – now

So I’m in the audience, and I have my hair dyed blonde and cut short in a Jean-Seberg-Breathless style, just like I did when I was 18, and Paul wheels Tim out in a wheelchair, and they are both wearing suits, and an empty mic stands in for Richard for a bit, and the comedy via necessity comes cerebrally rather than physically except for small moments: Tim trying to play the triangle with a straw; Flacco (shorthand for Paul Livingston as there are two Pauls) trying to play the newspaper and shredding it (probably the highlight of the night – look you had to be there) and imagining his head as a balustrade; and Paul playing the wobble board and pissing into his own mouth.

Why it's best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you're 8 + travelling
Why it’s best not to approach strangers on aeroplanes when you’re 8 + travelling alone.

I met Rolf Harris when I was 8 (true story – I approached him on an aeroplane after being encouraged by the air hostess where I got an autograph and a bitter old man who was nasty and no touchy feelies). The final reference I didn’t get as I’m allergic to Rugby so I looked up this and found a new meaning for bubbler. Those footballers, they’re such a catch.

I’m guessing that this is no DAAS reunion. It feels like a gig for limited time only. Much of the energy of the previous incarnation came from the audience feeling terrified that they would be assaulted at any moment. The dynamic has segued into a commentary on the marking of time, highlighted by Paul’s intense and rapid-fire approach (which hasn’t really changed that much) versus Tim’s new persona, a man with MS who can ejaculate random and surreal lines (that’s what medication does to you) and accentuate the spasticity to get through airports quicker (he leans, paws and tries to bite his own shoulder). Tim’s Feminist Poems are a real highlight: on sideboobs, the importance of keeping your pubic hair (Sisters!) and ‘the sound of one clitoris clapping’. Every time he talks you think ‘WTF?’ which is probably a good thing for comedy in short doses.

Doug Anthony Allstars - then
Doug Anthony Allstars – then

A highlight of the show is the Meet and Greet afterwards. Now I don’t remember there ever being a Meet and Greet in my day. It would have turned into a fangirl riot. Seeing the queue snake around the room as women with DAAS tattoos on their shoulders and fishnet stockings and boots and the same haircuts they had when they were 18 gives the performance space over to the fans. As they adjust their dresses and rehearse what they’re going to say when they reach the desk, their faces are transformed as they leave, clutching their phones with selfies, their signed posters from the night.

Can middle-aged people still be punks? On stage, Paul says, ‘When we were young we used to pretend we didn’t care. Now we REALLY don’t care’; and in the most nostalgic moment of the night, when a screen image of the three beautiful young men singing, turns into Tim standing up out of his wheelchair, and my eyes well up, any emotion I feel is abruptly cut off as Paul runs off stage: it’s the closest they come to a Fuck You moment, really. Except for the Meet and Greet. As Paul rails against the clock striking midnight to security – ‘Where are our people? I’m tired! Get these people away from me!’, Tim draws a detailed anatomically correct diagram onto the inside pages of his book for sale — a woman’s legs spread wide apart, her vagina resplendent with pubic hair — for a group of middle-aged women standing around who’ve seen it all before (all they have to do is look down).

If you missed them in Sydney and Melbourne, DAAS’ next stop is Perth.

Throw your arms around him? No. Carry a Big Stick by Tim Ferguson

Tim_Ferguson_Carry_a_big_stickTim Ferguson may want to throw off the shackles of being a Doug Anthony All Star but I’m not going to let him. I’m 18. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s late. It might even be midnight. I’m feeling like I’ve taken an E but the rave scene is yet to come. I’m screaming like those girls at the Beatles. I’m in the audience for the Doug Anthony All Stars and a girl in doc martens is chasing Paul McDermott around the stage like she’s going to eat him alive. She is fast but he is faster. They are both completely desperate. I want to be her.

DAAS had a huge impact on my life at the time. They were inventive, creative (I bought a great deal of their memorabilia), sexy, at times scary and often just plain filthy. I spent many hours weighing up which one I desired most. Poor Richard never got much of a look in, but I was drawn to Paul’s on-the-knife-edge humour and voice (of course) and Tim’s sweet looks and sense of vulnerability (and ability to harmonise). Once I saw them lounging (and I think Richard fell off his chair) at Mietta’s (where I was pretending to be posh by ordering a Brandy Alexander, the way you order completely wrong drinks when you’re 18) and spent hours trying to work out a strategy to approach (and which one to choose) by which time they’d left. They were like Violent Femmes meets Monty Python: a heady mix.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-JfIduytVs&w=420&h=315]

I always followed their careers as they meandered through Good News Week, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Radio National. I felt that Paul and Richard kind of found their natural fit in the media but with Tim, I was never so sure. His puppy dog cuteness meant he could get away with everything, but he still always seemed too subversive for mainstream Channel 9. He’s wandered his way around to teaching and writing about comedy, now wielding a big stick, and it works.

His memoir, Carry a Big Stick, traces the usual steps: childhood, parents, family, poor sportsmanship, difficulty with girls (who could have thought?), monumental success, looking for jobs in all the wrong places, and a body that starts to let him down. He reveals here why he walks with a stick:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAUUmAbbANo&w=560&h=315]

When you’re reading memoirs (good ones), they trigger memories as you search for connections. Tim’s career is clearly shaped from early experiences. When he talks about moving from school to school, never settling, it reminds me of the many times I was new kid at the door, teachers doing their best (or very little) to settle me in. I love Tim’s interrogation of the strategies he would use for making friends; I had my own.

I also start to recognise, with an increasing sense of dread, characteristics I fast-tracked to my later years — influenced and explained by the transient life: the fear of being unmoored; the inability to handle conflict; the desire to be noticed (if indirectly); and the strange way I used to let friendships sail off without me.

I was constantly nervous and didn’t know why … it was the dread of drifting … The ache for performance racked me. I was desperately, breathlessly jealous of my friends and lovers, envying their lackadaisical confidence in their futures. Adrenaline would kick my system at the slightest change in their circumstances.

* * *

I hadn’t learned how to lose my temper – after so many years in strange seas, why would I have learned to rock the boat.

* * *

As attracted as I was to new people, I had to maintain the friendships I’d already developed. The darker side of the many shifts of my childhood had given me an ability to let people drift away as soon as they were out of my line of sight.

All of these things struck a nerve because I could see the threads going back, unravelling, to my time in the playground. As a child I desperately craved standing out (for my passions) while being at the same time extremely self-conscious. These two competing forces often threatened to tear me apart. For Tim, he desperately wants fame for the same reasons. He sees a therapist, who comes up with:

 … after my childhood attending so many schools in so many cities and towns, I was after something beyond cash and a gang. I was anxious to achieve a feeling of recognition, to no longer be considered an anonymous ‘new kid’.

This becomes the driving force for Tim’s career — and the strength of his memoir is based on it. I lingered over that passage for a long time, as it revealed something profound to me. It explained my desire to write just_a_girl, and the sense of release that writing it achieved. It was like all those ‘new girls’ in the playground had merged to become Layla and my adult self could shuffle forward like a Darwinian monkey to stand tall and walk away.

Tim also frames the Doug Anthonys’ success (and his general desire to perform) within an analysis of a wider Australian culture:

Australia’s convict past instilled in the culture a deep suspicion of anything classy, clever or feminine … No other country would bother with such self-defeatist numb-nuttery. Only Australians strive to pretend they’re dumb and downtrodden.

Given his years of practice, you’d hope Tim’s memoir is funny. This is his forte and what he’s spent most of his life researching. At times cocky, at times blunt, Tim challenges the accepted view (especially among filmmakers; they get a good serve) that good dramatic writing needs to be, well, serious. He argues that the two masks — comedy and tragedy — are weighted equally, that all drama writers need to learn the craft of comedy too. It’s an interesting observation, especially as some of the best Oz television at the moment straddles that tragi-comedy divide beautifully: I’m thinking of Rake, Offspring, Chris Lilley’s exceptional series and The Moodys.

While Tim lets the audience in to MS and its effects, his intention is made clear: he wants no sympathy. The focus is on working around the illness and carrying on. Sometimes this skating around topics means there are obvious gaps. For example, he refuses to talk about his children, his former relationships, his breakdown. While I understand this reluctance, it means there are layers to him that we miss. To not see him as a father, for example, given the wonderful evocation of his own dad, is ultimately frustrating.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C22mL6MXFGw&w=560&h=315]

But for Tim, it all comes back to the comedy. And what’s the grand principle?

Surprise the audience with a truth they recognise.

I guess that’s why the Doug Anthony All Stars appealed to me so much. I saw myself in their diatribes against and for feminism, art, wankers, and musical genre. They tore down my defences and allegiances, and rebuilt them in ways that challenged, frightened and excited me.

As for comedy, I’m working on learning from his approach. I find just_a_girl and Layla’s adventures pretty funny in parts but most readers use the word ‘disturbing’. Before I write the next novel, I’ll be looking into the craft behind comedy — and using it to get up to no good.

What about you? Were you a Doug Anthony All Stars fan? Have you ever tried to write comedy?