Paul Vallely: BBC shocks as Fleabag turns religious

08 March 2019

A new priest character is portrayed sympathetically, says Paul Vallely

BBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley

Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and a Roman Catholic priest (Andrew Scott), who is to marry her father and stepmother, in Fleabag (BBC1, Mondays)

Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and a Roman Catholic priest (Andrew Scott), who is to marry her father and stepmother, in Fleabag (BBC1, Mondays)

FLEABAG has turned her attention to God. The award-winning cult BBC3 television series that first brought the extraordinarily talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge to public attention, returned with a new series this week, now being shown on BBC1.

This time, the writer, having apparently decided that the first series exhausted the copious potential of sex as a vehicle for comic shock, looks set to have her leading character turn religious. You cannot get more shocking than that, it seems, to a mainstream secular audience.

The first episode of the new series of Fleabag, broadcast on Monday, was set at an extraordinarily passive-aggressive dinner party with all the main characters from the original series: the sex-obsessed young woman of the title role; her repressed sister and her repellent and manipulative husband; her henpecked father and her monstrous godmother, who is hosting to announce her forthcoming marriage to the girls’ browbeaten and only recently widowed father. Death brings a tragic undertow to the wild company; for the heroine feels responsible for the death of her best friend in the first series.

But there is a new character at the table: the Catholic priest who is to marry the older couple. He is the only person who does not seem immediately deeply dysfunctional, totally ego-driven, and utterly self-serving.

Perhaps it will all go wrong later in the series. But, at first glance, the priest, although he drinks a lot and swears far too much — and not with the tame “fecking” vocabulary of Father Ted — offers a refreshing contrast to the self-absorption of everyone else. He is open, concerned, caring, and remarkably candid, as when he discloses that his brother is a paedophile with the line: “I am aware of the irony of that.”

Yet, as Pope Francis would have it, he is a pastor who “smells of his sheep”, although he avoids their flocking instinct. He declines to rise to the patronising secularism of the monstrous stepmother — though he is subversively capable of a delicious dig against the manipulative husband — and is quietly compassionate, when other characters are genuinely troubled.

Doubtless, the eponymous Fleabag, played by Waller-Bridge herself, will attempt to deploy her seductive talents on the unsuspecting cleric. But Waller-Bridge is a clever, sardonic, and unpredictable writer, as she showed in her script for another innovative recent TV series, Killing Eve, in which she won the audience’s sympathy for even a psychopathic serial killer (TV, 28 September 2018).

So, whatever the final outcome, I think that we can hope for some interesting interaction between the reformed kleptomaniac sexaholic and the calm cleric, who announced that, in becoming a priest later in life, he had “really found peace”.

At the end of the evening, after the dinner party has dissolved into comic chaos, it is the priest who is there to pick up the pieces and hold out the prospect of comfort and counselling to the eponymous anti-heroine, if it is needed. Fleabag herself, of course, has other ideas, later announcing to her sister that the priest is “so hot”.

However it concludes, the series might just impart a few truths about the reality of priestly ministry in the process. It will certainly be an interesting journey.

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