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Fleabag - the importance of smoking to plot and characterisation

A week after the final episode, the short-lived but perfectly formed Fleabag continues to attract admiring comments.

Like many people I was aware of the first series, broadcast in 2016, but I hadn’t watched it.

Instead, when series two began last month, I caught the first episode and that motivated me to watch season one on BBC iPlayer.

Then, as season two played out, I watched it religiously (no pun intended) every week.

The final episode was everything most reviewers have said it was.

There is one thing however that has not been commented upon, to the best of my knowledge, and it’s this:

The role of smoking in both characterisation and plot.

I can see some people rolling their eyes but bear with me.

I haven’t done an in depth analysis so I can offer only three examples, but they are important ones.

Fleabag, the leading character played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a smoker.

In episode one of series two we see her in a dark alleyway outside the restaurant where her family (and a priest, played by Andrew Scott) are enduring a socially awkward dinner.

She is outside the restaurant leaning against a brick wall smoking a cigarette when she is joined by the priest who grins and says, “Fellow smoker. Do you have a spare one?”

“Sure,” she replies.

She gives him a cigarette, then lights it.

“So do your family get together much?” he asks.

As he is saying this she walks off without another word.

“Fuck you then,” says the priest.

She turns. He smiles. She returns his smile. No more is said and she returns to the restaurant.

This is their first direct engagement and it’s clear (if we didn’t know it already) that a clandestine relationship will play a major part in the rest of the series.

Later in the same episode she is joined by her father (Bill Patterson) with whom she has a loving but uncomfortable relationship that isn’t helped by his forthcoming marriage to her dreadful stepmother-to-be (Olivia Coleman).

Her father explains his presence outside the restaurant by muttering “Just a breath of air”. When she offers him her cigarette he declines. “No thanks.”

[Spoiler alert.]

Fast forward to the final episode and what one might call the denouement.

After her father’s wedding, which is conducted by Scott’s priest, Fleabag stands on the steps of the house, alone, smoking.

She is joined by her father. “Oh, there you are,” he says. They look at each other and laugh.

She offers him her cigarette. “Oh, fuck it,” he says, and this time accepts.

Inhaling deeply, he returns the cigarette. “Thank you."

The moment is important because it brings them together.

In the final scene at the bus shelter neither Fleabag nor the priest smoke. Perhaps that was an indication they were both moving on or perhaps it wasn’t important and I’m reading too much into it.

The point is, at no stage did the characters’ smoking feel gratuitous. It seemed entirely normal. Not just normal, it was an essential part of both plot and characterisation.

If tobacco control activists like ASH get their way, however, scenes like that could be banned from TV and film - or given a rating that prohibits even older teenagers seeing them.

My other point is this. Fleabag has been lauded, rightly so, as one of the best UK comedies of all time (although comedy drama might be a better description).

In terms of ‘quit while you’re ahead’ TV programmes, it’s been compared to Fawlty Towers and The Office which also ran for just twelve episodes.

From the reviews I’ve read no-one has mentioned, in a negative way (or at all), the fact that the leading characters, including the priest, smoke.

Nor are viewers marching on Broadcasting House in protest.

The simple fact is that for millions of people smoking is a normal habit. Most viewers (smokers and non-smokers) recognise that and are perfectly relaxed about its depiction on television and film.

In short, any attempt to further restrict smoking on our screens would be an appalling act of censorship and cultural vandalism.

For proof just watch Fleabag. I rest my case.

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Reader Comments (7)

Smoking is a human thing to do. We are all smokers whether smoker, non smoker, anti smoker or even smokerphobic. If smoking wasn't so important to our way of life, we wouldn't be described using smoking as a reference point. There are many special bonds made over a smoke.

ASH are uncultured Philistines so it is no surprise they want smokers banned from the screen too. Sadly, the public will be unable to relate to drama that doesn't feel human, or is too sterile. Perfect characters are not human. They have flaws, smoking may be one of them and maybe even who they smoke with - see MotherFatherSon and the main female character's meetings on the roof with a homeless former drug addict..

I also note that even though smoking is no longer shown in TV chat shows or topical programmes, some like the excellent This Week often show the ambience of a drift of smoke in the titles or as background, as they do in live stage performances where smoke is used to create atmosphere too.

Sometimes the use of a wisp of smoke is so subtle it is hardly noticeable but it is there. I guess since fire was discovered there has always been a relationship between humans and smoke and tobacco smoke is part of that. It may only have been in Europe for 700 years but it has been part of human life for thousands of years and evidence is often found with remains of ancient people like the Mayans.

ASH is an organisation full of bullies paid to abuse, marginalise, exclude and lie about smokers as part of the 20 year hate campaign they have been running against an identifiable group of people. I am ashamed of my Government that talks equality and anti hate on the one hand while funding it and supporting it 100% on the other through hate groups like ASH.

I haven't seen Fleabag but I will.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 13:21 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

Smoking is perfectly normal. Antismoking is the perverse aberration. Antismoking is based on a totalitarian ideology that seeks to impose its will by alll means available, including lies, manipulating data, relentless propaganda, and sowing the persecution of smokers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 19:59 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

"In the final scene at the bus shelter ..."

That's probably because bus shelters are included in the wretched smoking ban and they probably didn't feel able to show any characters "breaking the law," even if they were brave enough to show them smoking at all.

But seriously, whenever I watch any new series on the TV these days, I look out for someone smoking in the first episode (or, in a book, I look for some reference to smoking in the first chapter). It might not be a major character or a even very big scene, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it's therefore been written by a smoker, and it's pretty common knowledge in writing circles that smokers make the best writers (and also that the standard of their writing drops off significantly if they quit). So a smoking character somewhere in an episode is a good omen. Non-smokers don't tend to include scenes with smoking or characters who smoke because, to them, smoking just isn't something that occurs in everyday life and so, to an extent, they just "forget" to include it. But that omission is quite useful because, in my experience, it often indicates that even if it's OK or looks promising, ultimately the series just won't grab me or draw me in or, even if it does, the ending will tend to be ever-so-slightly disappointing or predictable.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 1:45 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

A couple of years ago I bought a summer read, a detective novel, but I threw it away part way through chapter 1 as the self hating smoker protagonist beat herself up for smoking. I don't want to hear anti smoker propaganda shoved on me when trying to relax with a book, a TV programme or even a stage show.

How smokers are presented in fiction matters a lot to me - a bit like how it matters to others of different races, or sexuality, who take offence at books like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, or Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep because of the derogatory language used.

Smokers are people too although we are often dismissed as being non human so that we can be targeted for hate and bullying campaigns, discriminated against, and abused without retribution or protection.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 11:44 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

If you want humorous detective fiction with a better attitude, I recommend M.C. Beaton's 'Agatha Raisin' series. In every one of them the heroine takes a few swipes at anti-smoking legislation and such puritanism. I read one out of curiosity and now have a 'one a day' habit on non-working days.
If the author isn't already an open FOREST supporter, maybe you should sound her out.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 15:53 | Unregistered CommenterManx Gent

I love the Inspector Montalbano books. The main character smokes in the novels but the screen character does not. That might be because the actor who plays him does not smoke. However at 97, the author Andrea Camillieri is a proud smoker who often berates the stupidity of anti smoker laws in his novels.

Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 13:15 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

I smoked three packs a day and stopping was one of the hardest things I have done. After the physical addiction stops - just three days - the social habit still pushes to have another cigarette. Visual cues are just one of the effective means to prompt ‘just one’ or ‘that might be a fun thing to do.’ Using smoking in a TV series or film is a cheap device that comes with a heavy social and health cost. A clever director could come up with a better solution to the dramatic requirement.

Thursday, September 5, 2019 at 9:20 | Unregistered CommenterAlana

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