From the Citizens’ to Fleabag, why the Scottish actor loves playing awkward
Dark, and funny, yes, there’s a very fine line to be drawn. It’s not easy to be awkwardly funny and at the same time portentous of darker emotions underneath,” says actor Bill Paterson. He’s talking about Fleabag, the comedy drama written by its star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in which he plays her dad and which is back on our screens on Monday.
Adapted from Waller-Bridge’s 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe First winning one-woman play, which itself started out as a stand-up sketch, she developed Fleabag into a sitcom which was a hit in 2016, picking up a shelf-full of awards, including a Bafta for Waller-Bridge as best female performance in a comedy.
Now it’s back for a second series, airing on BBC1 as well as BBC3 this time round, and as dark and comic, unbearable, excruciating and woefully witty as ever, as we follow the eponymous thirty-something navigating her way through London and the challenges of her broken life.
Did I say it was funny? Well it is because Waller-Bridge manages to make us laugh no matter how dismal the situation and Fleabag is bleak with belly-laughs.
Paterson reprises the role of Fleabag’s father, a widower about to re-marry, and as the series opens, we’re a year on, yet he still can’t look his daughter in the eye after the bereavements, betrayals, revelations, rejections, assaults, agonies, car-crash relationships and downright awkwardness last time round.
It opens with the awkward family meal to end all awkward family meals, celebrating the engagement of Dad, a role Paterson loves, to his fiancée, played by an Olivia Colman risking her national treasure status to play the monstrous Godmother, an artist who ‘paints sex’.
Little wonder that Paterson’s character has trouble finishing his sentences given the atmosphere, and his hesitant welcoming speech is a particularly enjoyable example of excruciation in action.
“Yes, he often doesn’t finish his sentences,” says Paterson. “But that’s often because the actor hasn’t learned them,” he jokes. “No, he’s wishing that this dinner was not actually taking place.”
And as things pan out, he’s right.
“But he does manage to complete his sentences sometimes,” says Paterson, “and there are a couple of scenes in the series which are very, very moving, about the inarticulacy of an older father with a young woman in the full flight of her womanhood. We’re not talking about talking to a teenager of 13 or 14 and just having to go with the flow of their hormones, this is grown-up talk and he does make it clear how he feels.”
Fortunately Paterson doesn’t share his character’s ineloquence and is expansive on the series and the reasons for its phenomenal success. He is quick to hand credit over to the writer.
“Phoebe has her finger on the pulse of a sort of awkwardness, a sort of embarrassment, that we all have,” he says. “Although there’s also such open-ness nowadays where people talk about every part of their emotions and you can go online and spew out whatever you feel, there still remains a private outrage. So you can shock people by having the wrong thing said at the wrong moment, and Phoebe’s good at finding the wrong thing to say or the wrong thing to do.”
Dad, along with Godmother, Bus Rodent, Arsehole Guy and Bank Manager, doesn’t have a name, and this season we’re introduced to Priest, as Fleabag takes on God.
“Maybe that distances your thinking a little bit,” says Paterson. “Once you know a person’s name you think you know them more but if they have a generic name, it makes them stand for all sorts of things,” says Paterson.
As well as Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) as Priest, Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour) will also be joining a cast that includes Sian Clifford, Hugh Skinner, Colman and Paterson.
He may be the right age at 73, but Paterson confesses he doesn’t see himself as the perfect physical specimen to be tall and dark haired Fleabag or her sister Claire’s dad.
“I’m just a little bit short and my hair’s slightly the wrong colour,” he says, “so I worked out that my much-loved late wife would be Anna Chancellor. I know Anna quite well, so I got her permission, and that way you get the height and dark hair.
“I’ve got a picture of myself with Anna at some charity thing and it’s a great picture. I put it on the mantelpiece on the set and said to Phoebe, if you don’t mind, I’ve put the picture of your mum and me up, and she said that’s the last thing that Godmother would allow, so it was hastily consigned to the bin!”
Which sounds about right as Colman’s Godmother is a gloriously unsympathetic foil to the mild-mannered Dad, who appears oblivious to her worst excesses. But Paterson demurs.
“There’s a scene where it’s clear he knows what she’s like but as in so many relationships, she provides him with comfort and things that are difficult to put into words. So he balances the two sides, and there are moments when she is probably fantastic.”
Glasgow-born Paterson can identify with Dad as a parent, having two grown up children of his own with theatre designer Hildegard Bechtler – he puts the success and longevity of their 25-year marriage down to the fact that “she works all the time. She is one of the busiest theatre and opera designers in the country, so there’s not much time sitting around” – and their offspring are very close in age to their screen counterparts.
“My son is the same age as Phoebe and my daughter is just coming up for 30.”
As for his parenting skills, he acknowledges that he does have some experience: “I suppose I have the ability to sit at a table and stare and think ‘I’ll just let them get on with this’.
“Also, there’s a part of your life where you’ve been the alleged fount of wisdom, and then you begin to realise that information may be awfully WRONG, and it’s time to sit aside and let THEM pass on the information.
“Some of my daughter’s friends watched Fleabag and said ‘Is your dad really as hopeless as that?’ and she said, ‘no, he’s not really... but sometimes he is.’” He laughs. “So it’s a mixture of life and art, of fact and fiction and that’s the strength of it.”
With his fulsome praise for the other cast members, Paterson comes across as modest and self-effacing, very courteous and he is also hugely entertaining to talk to. Mention the long career that’s seen him in everything from Auf Wiedersehen Pet to Sea of Souls, to Outlander, Shetland and Little Dorrit on TV, and Comfort and Joy, The Witches and Truly, Madly, Deeply on film, not to mention lending his warm West Coast tones to voicing the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and his own childhood Tales From the Back Green on BBC Scotland, and he responds with “I’ve done so much, it’s not worth talking about it!”
But he’s very obliging, so we start at the beginning in Dennistoun in 1945, where Paterson was raised by a plumber and hairdresser, and had no showbusiness connections other than an uncle who ran a puppet theatre. It was a school trip to the Citizens’ Theatre in the Gorbals that lit the spark for the teenage Paterson.
“I fell in love with the Citizens’,” he says. “I just did. It was an escape from school. We were dragged down there somewhere about 1961, a bunch of maybe 30 of us, of whom 28 never went back, but two of us said ‘this is it, this is the place for us!’ It was something intangible. I thought my God these are real plays, guys up there talking directly to you from the stage.”
Paterson remembers it as a vital, exciting time for the theatre, with the likes of the recently departed Albert Finney arriving to play Henry IV.
“I saw that twice. And that wasn’t easy because the queues were all the way up to Gorbals Cross. Albert Finney was at the height of his fame and he came to the Citizens’. We couldn’t believe that this guy, at the height of his powers, came there,” he says.
“The Citizens’ became my library. It’s where I learned things, saw all sorts of famous writers for the very first time; the Arthur Millers and Tennessee Williams and Shakespeares and Brechts and Bernard Shaws and Pinters, and everything. It was an incredible grounding of great theatre and it was a second home really.”
However, Paterson didn’t think of theatre as a profession and after school spent three years as a quantity surveyor’s apprentice before he quit and went to Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, making his professional debut in 1967 alongside Leonard Rossiter in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Citizens’.
“I never thought of acting for a living, but when I discovered you could do a teaching course at drama college I signed up, because I thought you can still have this great interest, and also teach drama in schools as a job. That coincided with the rise of theatre in education and the start of Citizens’ Theatre for Youth, which I joined, thinking I’ll do this for a few months. That was in 1969, and I’m still at it.”
Working at the Citizens’, Paterson teamed up with Alex Norton and John Bett and joined the Great Northern Welly Boot Show, a musical comedy based on the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ work-in to save the yards, co-written by and starring Billy Connolly as the Jimmy Reid figure. A sell-out at the 1972 Edinburgh Festival, it was seen by playwright and producer John McGrath who invited Paterson to join the 7:84 Theatre Company, which aimed to take theatre out to the people.
It was 7:84 who jumped in a bus in 1973 and toured McGrath’s production of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, one of Scotland’s most influential pieces of political theatre, a musical history from the Clearances to the oil boom. It’s about to be staged again by the National Theatre of Scotland in May, something which has not escaped Paterson’s notice.
“I’ve got this plan which I’m in the middle of trying to get moving,” he says and explains.
“It’s very rare to have a piece of theatre of that time almost filmed entirely, (filmed brilliantly by John Mackenzie) and because the National Theatre is taking The Cheviot back to Dornie Hall (in Kyle of Lochalsh) where we filmed it, I’m trying to make a documentary about what it got right, what it got wrong, and what it didn’t deal with at all. So I’d like to get footage from the original performance and the new one. I’m trying to get BBC Scotland interested, we’re working on it…” he says.
As for what it got right, he says: “It suggested that the oil would come and go and possibly not benefit very many in society or all parts of the community, and I think that’s probably true. The oil was used to fund unemployment by the British government of the early 80s and that extra dosh didn’t go the way it went in Norway, or even in Shetland. And the West Coast oil boom never happened at all.
“But one thing we don’t mention in The Cheviot is the fishing and fish farming. Nothing has altered the Highlands industrially more than fish farming in the last 40 years and there wasn’t even the tiniest of hints of that at the time.
“The other thing is the internet, and the fact you can now live in very isolated communities and be connected to the world. I don’t live in the Highlands, but my guess is that they are in a better state now than they were in the 1970s.
“So, I’d like to explore the fish farms and the internet – and nationalism. Nationalism was really not the issue in the 1970s, it was international socialism and all the rest of it. I’d like to link these things, and it doesn’t need to be too heavy,” he adds, because 7:84 was always as much about song and dance as dogma.
“I think it’s really worthwhile, something the new channel should jump at!”
Another career highlight is more recent, in 2015, when he and his old friend Brian Cox played the leads in Samuel Beckett’s classic tragi-comic Waiting for Godot.
“That was such a joy. I know actors gush sometimes, but Brian and I just adored every second of working together. Brian was asked to do something for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Lyceum Theatre and he said he’d like to do Godot. I don’t think he’d ever even… he certainly hadn’t READ it,” says Paterson. “He might have SEEN it, but he hadn’t READ it. I think he just thought I’d better say something like Waiting for Godot, and he said ‘I’d like to do it with Billy Paterson’.”
It was also Cox who suggested they play it in their own accents, “so we didn’t have to put on kid-on Irish or mock Cockney. We would just do Brian Cox and Bill Paterson speaking in their voices and if Beckett’s words sat easily in our mouths without forcing, that would be it. We just followed Beckett’s words, not a syllable changed. The end result was up to other people to judge, but we adored it. We could have gone on longer, there were offers, but Brian’s the busiest man on the planet…” he says.
Paterson doesn’t do so badly himself, writing a new play based on the spiv character in The Cheviot, who is back for Brexit. “The chaos would be right up his street,” says Paterson.
Speaking of Brexit, does he see himself ever relocating from his London home and returning north after decades down south.
“It might be the only hope of a passport!” he says and laughs.
Paterson has also just finished filming a feature, working title Love Sarah, and asked to expand, he is once more self-effacing:
“Oh it’s one of these silver pound kind of films, for people of a certain age who have time to go to the cinemas. It was with the absolutely glorious Celia Imrie, national treasure, and I’m, I hate to use the words love interest, but the sort of character who begins as a sinister threat, then turns out to be a rather sweet person.”
And when will it be out?
“Oh, who knows? It’s a very low budget kind of thing, but it will be nice,” he says.
He is also pleased to report he “pops up” in the forthcoming Good Omens, what Paterson calls “that giant thing”, the Amazon Prime TV miniseries adapted from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book, a tale of the bungling of Armageddon, with David Tennant as a demon, Michael Sheen as an angel and Frances McDormand as God. “I’m in there somewhere along with 50 other people,” he says. “That’s about to appear.”
Good and evil, light and dark, fact and fiction, tragedy and humour, for Paterson the best parts have a complexity comprised of these, and the new Fleabag is no exception.
“Yes, at times you’ve got tragedy, really horrible things, teetering on the edge of absurdity and fun. It’s a very fine line, and not everybody can do it, you know.”
He’s talking about Waller-Bridge, but when it comes to walking a fine line Paterson can do it too.
Season two of Fleabag begins on BBC3 on iPlayer on Monday 4 March at 10am and BBC1 at 10:35pm