"For a long time I was the one holding Phoebe's coat, and I was happy with that." Interview by Katie Glass.
The last time I met Vicky Jones — best friend of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and the real-life inspiration for the character Boo in her hit show Fleabag — was three years ago. The three of us were in a west London restaurant drinking champagne, chatting excitedly about the stratospheric success of Fleabag on television. Jones had directed Waller-Bridge in the original one-woman stage show in 2013, and had gone on to script edit the BBC TV show. Waller-Bridge was muttering about a spy-drama she was working on, which would turn out to be Killing Eve. Jones was launching Touch, a play she had written and which they were co-producing. Who could have predicted how much their lives have changed since?
Fleabag has won six Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Bafta. Killing Eve boasts three Baftas, a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Jones's BBC4 monologue Bovril Pam for its Snatches series was Bafta-nominated and she became the National Theatre's playwright in residence. Meanwhile, the stage show of Fleabag, which Jones returned to direct in a sold-out London run last autumn, is up for an Olivier award for best comedy this year.
"All the awards are just insane," Jones grins through my computer screen. Kept apart by coronavirus protocols, we are talking to each other on Skype. She spins her laptop around to show me her London flat, in which she's surrounded not by statuettes, but by cardboard boxes. She and her partner have just moved in, she explains. Two rooms away, their 14-month-old son, Fox, is sleeping. "I have no social life at all."
Waller-Bridge, meanwhile, has been jetting back and forth to America for the awards season, finessing the script for the new (and much-delayed) Bond film, as well as busily preparing for the third season of Killing Eve, which launches on BBC America next month and is expected in the UK in June. "She's off doing the most incredible things around the world, she's got the most exciting life and I'm at home being a mother," Jones says. She's delightfully uncompetitive, however. "It never surprises me when Phoebe gets those kinds of things. I just always knew. I was always in awe of the way she can come up with magic, the room can bloom with a few things that she's said and suddenly everyone will be in stitches. She is unbelievably hard-working and she is that good — that sort of justice doesn't always happen."
If in person, Waller-Bridge shares some of the eccentric charm and posh-sexiness of her character, Fleabag, then Jones is undoubtedly Fleabag's best mate Boo, shimmering with cheeky kindness. "I really recognise myself in her in so many ways in terms of personality," Jones admits, when I mention the similarities. "There's a lot about her that wasn't me — I'm not a crazy 'walk in front of the traffic' kind of person." (Those who have seen the first series will know what that means.) "But I remember a scene where there's the two of them on the bed talking into the night and that certainly reminds me of me and Phoebe, just talking and talking into the night for hours, staying over at each other's houses."
Jones is more comfortable in the background. She had got into theatre as a student at Birmingham University but was too shy to act. "Nobody recognises me," she says proudly. "For a long time I was the one who held [Phoebe's] coat while people took photos of her, and I was happy with the coat holding. I find it difficult to even read about myself, let alone get any attention."
That is about to change. We are meeting because she has written her first TV drama series, Run. It has been executive-produced by Jones and Waller-Bridge and is their first TV production through their company, DryWrite. A romcom thriller, Run will premiere on HBO next month and has already been tipped for an Emmy nomination. "For me this is all very big and very exciting," Jones smiles shyly, "for it to do well would be beyond amazing." Run has all the quirks of the hybrid style you'd expect of a Waller-Bridge show (there's a masturbation scene in the first episode). The premise is that two ex-lovers cash in on a 15-year-old pact they made to escape together, at the drop of a text, if one contacted the other saying: "Run". When one pulls that trigger, they set off on a train journey across America.
I only got to watch the first two episodes so I didn't see Waller-Bridge, who has a part. "I'm not allowed to tell you anything as it's later in the season, but it's not a walk-on part, it's more than that," Jones reveals.
The idea for Run came from something Jones and Waller-Bridge used to do in real life. "We had this joke if we were temping, or in a relationship we didn't want to be in, or whatever, that one of us would just say to the other, 'RUN!' And we'd both run out of there — this idea that we had each other and we could always escape if we wanted to. Which, when you're poor and powerless, feels like a comforting prospect — and still does."
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Solidarity on the run is a theme of their friendship — they've had a Thelma & Louise vibe since they met, when Jones was fired from directing a play that Waller-Bridge was acting in. Waller-Bridge, who had recently graduated from Rada, walked out in protest. "She ran out of that show because of me," Jones grins. "It felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and became the best."
Not long after their walk-out, Jones and Waller-Bridge established DryWrite, a theatre production company, staging experimental nights of short plays. They would commission writers to work on random themes and put on immersive plays at the George Tavern, a dilapidated boozer in east London. It was Waller-Bridge who encouraged Jones to write. "I was in such awe of writers. Phoebe and I were both obsessed with writers. I thought I'd never be able to do that … We would talk about it for hours, then eventually we started doing it ourselves." Jones loved the chance to work with her busy friend again on Run — "I miss her."
When we last met, Jones had just written the play Touch, about a woman in her thirties craving the security of a relationship as she negotiated London's impossible dating scene. Ruby, the main female character in Run, is on the opposite trajectory: a woman escaping the mundanity of marriage and motherhood. That switch in perspective seems to reflect how things have changed in Jones's own life.
"Definitely," she nods. "Touch was inspired by my life at the time, just desperately wanting to find someone and being so angry about not being able to … then when it all works out for you, and it feels so easy, you think you'll write this woman who feels sick of her life." But, she quickly adds, "I'm not sick of my life at all."
Jones wanted to address some of the darker side of motherhood; to explore the myths, the unfair expectations on women and how it alters their relationship with their own sexuality and bodies. She felt the need to be honest about "that experience of wanting to escape all the time because you just don't feel you're good enough. The expectation of being a good mother is everywhere, in everything you do, from breastfeeding to food and sleeping. I feel like mothers aren't honest with each other about how much they're going through and how hard it is."
In Run, the main female character — and this is a tiny spoiler but it's revealed pretty quickly — is a mother who abandons her family to embark on a hedonistic escapade. Jones says she is familiar with that feeling of wanting to flee. "I've gone through that, as have all women. You definitely feel like running out sometimes. Men do it all the time. It is an endless double-standard and an endless taboo." She points to the way men generally are held up to different standards than women. "We just accept their slight crapness …"
The story, she says, is one that "desperately needs to be told", but when she first touted it, commissioners kept telling her no one would sympathise with a mother who ran away from her responsibilities. It was eventually commissioned by the American network HBO, which Jones feels is "ahead of the curve — they are genuinely looking for authentic voices". After all, she says, this is what real women chat about. "Phoebe and I talk about that stuff all the time — but while we talk about it among ourselves, we don't necessarily see it on TV."
All roads seem to lead back to Waller-Bridge. "Everything I do is for Phoebe," laughs Jones. "I imagine her as the audience and then I push it harder … for definite, she's always my muse."
Since we last met, the landscape has also changed for women in film and TV. Alongside the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns led by Hollywood actresses, behind the scenes female writers have begun taking on influential positions and projects, telling ever-more diverse stories. Complex female characters have emerged, generating the same excitement as Fleabag and Killing Eve. We talk about recent female-led projects, including Kerry Ehrin's work as a showrunner on Apple TV's sensational The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston, and Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Soon, Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl will become a film starring Beanie Feldstein, adapted and directed by Coky Giedroyc (sister of the comedian and TV presenter Mel Giedroyc, of Mel and Sue fame).
"It feels like a very good time to be a woman and a writer because people genuinely are interested in the female perspective and the creation of complicated female characters," Jones says. "It's a tremendously positive experience. I really feel things have changed for ever. We were on the sidelines and now we've become much more of the mainstream.
"A lot of what happened with #MeToo was suddenly having the right to talk about how things made you feel. Not just the facts, but the emotions. That's incredibly empowering from a female perspective because, obviously, we didn't used to feel like we could say those things. We felt intimidated or felt we weren't being listened to — and so those things used to feel irrelevant. But people are really interested to hear that now and interested for you to write about it."
Becoming a mother changed Jones's perspective in many ways. She was amazed to discover the "ingrained sexism" that influences children. Having a son also "totally changed my feelings about boys". It has inspired her as a writer, not only to keep writing "women who are difficult and flawed and behave in ways that are shocking" but also to create surprising male characters "who cry and are more emotional".
In Run, the lead male character, Billy, is played by Domhnall Gleeson, star of the recent Star Wars and Peter Rabbit movies. "Billy is someone I'm proud is incredibly emotional — he can't help being in touch with his emotions all the time. They pour out of him."
One game she and Phoebe like to play with their scripts is to swap the male and female characters; exploring if they still work or if the reversal shows up assumptions based on gender. I wonder if she ever thought — like some in these gender-curious times — of raising her son, Fox, gender neutral?
"I don't feel like I'd like to bring Fox up gender neutral," she replies. "I think being a boy and a girl are a fact. Unless you decide to change it, it's a fact. But rather than saying, 'Girls do this and I don't like that and therefore I'm wrong,' it's more [like] girls can do anything and be anything and so can boys."
Jones has found it refreshing to work in TV after years writing for the stage. She has enjoyed escaping the stuffiness. "When I used to go for interviews in theatre it was so intimidating. People are incredibly learned and intelligent and divinely well spoken. On TV you don't really have that. If something is going down well, it's on. If something makes you laugh, it doesn't matter why. Theatre really isn't like that — the respect is for great art, sometimes at the expense of the art. In TV we're all just focused on our audience. That's freeing and it's right."
The culture wars of our time are never far away. I wonder what she made of the criticism from certain quarters that Waller-Bridge had failed to check the privilege of Fleabag — a posh girl, whose problems would pale in comparison with those of someone from a poor background. "It's very easy to say that because Phoebe has got a posh voice," Jones says. "But I don't think there was much in that story that was about her being privileged, really. The things in her story were about friendship and family, grief and loss, confusion and a sense of being detached from who you were. I think that's really universal."
She says she has seen "all different kinds of people" tell Waller-Bridge they relate to Fleabag. "Phoebe's been stopped by big, burly men in pubs who say, 'I am Fleabag.' I'm so proud of her for that. I really think she's written something that's about the human condition and psyche, as well as about a middle-class girl. You have to start somewhere when you're writing, you can't just write about someone who's every single woman — she has to be someone and be from somewhere."
I ask if we might see Fleabag again. "That's Phoebe, you'd have to ask her," says Jones, "but she's finished with that, I think." Usually I'd feel disappointed. But if I know anything about Jones and Waller-Bridge it's that they will bring the same magic to whatever project they create next.
Written by: Katie Glass
© The Times of London