The director helped Phoebe Waller-Bridge to shape her show. Now he has moved on to Sherlock Holmes's sister.
The confession booth scene in Fleabag series two was when an already great show became an awards-guzzling masterwork. Remember — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the titular mess, reeling off a list of desires to the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), before crying in a livid collapse that had been coming. Grief and guilt make people seek help, and Fleabag had both. Still, when Waller-Bridge wrote that scene, her character wasn't going to cry. Then on set Harry Bradbeer told her it would be a good idea. Who is Bradbeer? The director of Fleabag.
"It's hard to define the impact Harry had on Fleabag, or me," Waller-Bridge tells me. "He will fight to the bone for a good idea. I was adamant not to cry in the confession booth, but he would not back down. I thought it should be a moment of defeat for Fleabag, whereas Harry demanded that I found the fight in her in at least one take. He was right, so that was a gloriously smug day in the edit for Harry."
I met Bradbeer last month, in a café in Hammersmith. He is a gentle, very polite man — perhaps why he works well with the extroverted Waller-Bridge. There is no point collaborating with your twin. When making Fleabag, the pair would stay up until 3am, moving bits of paper on the wall to plan the plot. Both have intricate minds. He says he pushed her to break down in the confession booth because that is the TV he likes. "Go Greek or go home" was a phrase Waller-Bridge used, and Fleabag, in the finale of the first series, fits that bill well, walking down a street with her make-up running. That was his image too.
"I told her the show was very funny," Bradbeer says of his first meeting with Waller-Bridge. "But we need to find the heart and pain in this, and I will go like an Exocet to find it. I talked of walking a line between monstrosity and adorability — and that set off a light in her head." They hit it off so well he also directed the opening episodes of Killing Eve — Waller-Bridge's Fleabag follow-up. Just what is it, I ask her, about this unassuming man? "When I first met Harry," she says, "I asked what he thought about Fleabag. His response was, 'For God's sake, darling, I am Fleabag.' He is kind, empathetic and indiscriminate. He looks for the heart in every character, but is cinematic in vision too. That's what sets him apart."
Fifty awards later, including six Emmys, two Golden Globes and four Baftas, Bradbeer doesn't seem affected in the slightest. He sips a coffee and smiles and, if he is unused to the spotlight, it doesn't show at all. He tells me the seat I'm in is where he first met Henry Cavill, aka Superman, when the men met to discuss working together on Bradbeer's imminent film, Enola Holmes. He is one of those people who seem to orbit the very famous and, when near that world, it can make somebody very unflappable indeed.
Enola Holmes is out this month. Originally made for the cinemas, but, because of Covid-19, now premiering on Netflix, it tells the action-packed story of Sherlock's sister, Enola — yes, "alone" backwards — finding her path after the disappearance of her mother (Helena Bonham Carter). Cavill is Sherlock, but, of course, the lead is Enola, played by the Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown as a contemplative firecracker. Given its cast and the fact it's a Holmes, written by Jack Thorne, who co-wrote and adapted Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I spent the entire run time thinking how huge this irreverent, eccentric film will be. I also enjoyed it immensely.
During the film, Enola — like Fleabag — breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the camera. "Jack's idea," Bradbeer protests. So it came about . . . "Before me. I thought about it, because I'd done it before, but here there was a reason. This girl is on her own. The viewer is her only contact." Will he have his lead look to the camera on his next project? He laughs. That's a no then.
Sugar Rush, Prisoners' Wives, No Angels, Lip Service, Fleabag, Killing Eve, Enola Holmes — Bradbeer's varied career, the lion's share on British TV, has dealt with a disproportionately high number of female lead characters.
Why has he focused on women so much? "It's such a difficult question," he says, laughing. "But reasonable. I always wanted a little sister and was meant to have a little sister, but my mother wasn't well enough to have another child." (He has a brother and a sister who are much older than he is.) "And one of my best friends was a girl, so I've always looked to make connections with women. I'm intrigued and puzzled by them and that came through in Fleabag. One of the reasons Phoebe and I got on so well was that I just kept asking her questions.I wanted, in the specificity of a woman now, to find a universal. I'm just fascinated by women, I think."
Is that why he thinks he and Thorne — who are not teenage girls — are able to master a part like Enola Holmes, a teenage girl? "I was reassured by the fact Millie liked the script," he says. "I'd listen to her. You have to ask as otherwise you're just a man who doesn't understand their experiences. We all share more than divides us in our human experience, but about specifics? If something clanged for her, we would revisit. We also have to accept that some men can write in a female voice and some women can write in a male voice. And 'twas ever thus."
Bradbeer studied at Marlborough College and University College London, and is married to Nino Strachey, daughter of Charles Strachey, 4th Baron O'Hagan and Princess Tamara Imeretinsky, a Georgian princess. That is, it is fair to say, a privileged background, and TV is full of privileged people who knew friends in the industry and, thus, got in. Bradbeer, though, says he didn't feel well connected. The only way in he had was via John Schlesinger, director of Midnight Cowboy. His mother's grandmother came over from Germany with the director's grandmother and even though she had not seen him for 50 years, wrote a letter and Bradbeer also wrote a letter, and Schlesinger gave him a job for a couple of years.
"So I wasn't well connected," he says. "But nepotism can be a problem, particularly when it comes to diversity, for people just not finding their way in." We met just after David Olusoga's MacTaggart lecture, in which the broadcaster said many people of colour in television, especially behind the camera, had simply given up. Is that something Bradbeer is aware of? "Yes, I'm very aware of it and I'm mentoring a black film director at the moment. It's something. Part of what we need to do."
Ten years ago Bradbeer also felt like giving up. He had been directing TV for 15 years, from The Bill to This Life, and it was grinding him down. The challenge, he says, was finding something that meant something to him and, around 2008, he hadn't worked for a year.
"I had a quiet patch," he says. "I thought of chucking it in and becoming a psychotherapist. I didn't know whether this was enough." As in enough fulfilment? "Yes. I always loved dealing in the material of human nature and Robert Altman says that you capture behaviour, and I wondered if I'd done all I wanted to do. So I enrolled in a psychotherapy course. I found myself being trained to listen and I thought about it being a career. But my agent rang and said I had a job, so I went back and found I was a better listener. Better as a director."
"He really delves into the personality of an actor," Cavill says. "We had many a meeting before doing anything on camera, to find a place between me as a person and Sherlock as character. Harry's attention to detail shines through."
He has a rhythm and clatter to his work, citing how Martin Scorsese crashes into a scene as inspiration, plus Paul Thomas Anderson and his deliberately scatty Punch Drunk Love. You can see that style in Fleabag and Enola Holmes and the latter will be where he finally makes a name for himself. He even has a first-look deal with Amazon Studios now, like Waller-Bridge, to create TV. "I'd say in films the director's vision is overestimated and in television it's underestimated," he says, smiling, which seems fair, given few people had a clue that he even directed Fleabag.
Which brings us to the third series of Fleabag. Seriously. When asked about the possibility of that happening in an interview in the summer, Bradbeer didn't rule it out. Because Fleabag is still alive … "Well, if truth be told, I can't speak for Phoebe. So that's it. She might come back. But not for a while. I don't think she's got anything to tell for a while."
Which, again, is not a hard no. So I ask Waller-Bridge: Fleabag isn't dead, so it's hard to rule out entirely a third series for her or Harry. Any comment? "Ha ha," she replies. "No, they're both off on their next adventures… Just as it should be."
Enola Holmes is on Netflix from September 23.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London