Fleabag - the importance of smoking to plot and characterisation
Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 10:03
Simon Clark

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.

Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (http://taking-liberties.squarespace.com/).
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