“If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry,” believes Lydia Hampson, Bafta Breakthrough Brit and producer of RTS award-winning comedy Fleabag.
It is a motto she has picked up from Fleabag’s creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
“We wanted to shoot it like a drama and cut it like a comedy,” she explains. “Sometimes it feels like drama is comedy’s big older brother.”
For Hampson and Waller-Bridge, it wasn’t enough to create a ‘typical’ comedy. “We were trying to go for the ambition of drama, but not at the expense of the laughs.”
It was a gamble, but a gamble that paid off. Fleabag, which originated as a paragraph of a character at a storytelling night, has gone on to win numerous awards, is internationally distributed, and has catapulted Waller-Bridge to international stardom with a role in the upcoming Star Wars spinoff.
“I’ll retire now,” jokes Hampson. It would have been a short career: Fleabag was Hampson’s first time in the producer’s chair for a TV series.
Her background is in live theatre and comedy. Having cut her teeth on big touring arena comedy shows with the likes of Dylan Moran and Eddie Izzard, she began discovering new talent for comedy promoters Just For Laughs - now Mick Perrin Worldwide – to take to the Edinburgh festival. “I like to think about it in terms of being in a school year group,” she explains. “My year was people like Daniel Rigby, Jess Knappett, Cardinal Burns and Holly Walsh.”
Her producer role is a continuation of that work, she says. “It just feels a bit like what I have always been doing: working with new people. I feel like [TV] can be a bit of a closed shop.”
“It’s nice that Fleabag came from theatre and Edinburgh because I feel like there’s a happy coincidental link there,” Hampson reflects. “I knew and loved the play, but didn’t know that it was being developed [for TV].”
Moving from live events to television brought challenges of its own, Hampson recalls. What was striking about Fleabag was the filmic look of the programme, with wide empty shots emphasising the characters isolation. “I knew we wanted really wide frames so we could get a feeling of Fleabag being alone in a very wide world... so [I’ve] totally got the artistic and editorial understanding, but then speaking to DoPs (Directors of Photography) and being like the …frame? Uh…shutter speed…? I just [had] no clue,” she laughs.
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With a second series of the show confirmed, Hampson is as excited as anyone to see what’s in store. “I was always hoping,” she admits. “So I am very glad [Phoebe] feels the same now. She needed some time to work out what she wanted to say with the character.”
The second series is expected to air on the BBC in early 2019 (“touch wood” Hampson adds), while Waller-Bridge finishes work on her new BBC America series Killing Eve.
One of the central elements of the programme was Fleabag’s relationship with the camera, which acts as a confidante and witness throughout the series. “Phoebe liked the idea of being in control of what you saw,” Hampson explains. “And then at the end [of the series] it flips and she’s not in control anymore.” One of the challenges of returning to the series is navigating that relationship. As Waller-Bridge told the RTS in earlier this year, “In my head, she was only ever looking at the camera because she was desperate to confess.”
“I don’t think she can put her walls back up,” believes Hampson. “We know now what has happened, we’ve seen the camera go from being a fun little voyeur to being us not letting her alone.
“Now she’s laid herself complete bare, is she pretending that she hasn’t? I can’t imagine that she’d be totally at ease with the camera in the way she was,” she reflects.
However, until Waller-Bridge puts pen to paper in 2018, Hampson will not know.
For now, she is working on a new project for ITV. “I think it’s nice to do something totally different. I’m not trying to recreate Fleabag. I’m doing a completely different show.”
That show is Cheat. Set in the esteemed surroundings of Cambridge University, it is far cry from the dirty streets of London that Fleabag inhabits. It follows two academics, a professor, Leah, and her PhD student Rose. “Rose cheats in her dissertation – or Leah believes that she has,” Hampson explains. Neither woman will back down and both believe that the other has wronged them by the accusation. “It’s a psychological, domestic (by which I mean small-scale) thriller,” she adds.
The four-parter is written by relative newcomer Gaby Hull. “He’s another comedy-do-doing-drama boy,” she laughs, “which is what I like.”
For Hampson, the chance to break away from comedy briefly is an exciting opportunity. “I sometimes think that there is a bit of a division in ‘are you a comedy or a drama person?’,” she says. However the increasing number of US/UK co-productions is having a positive impact on that pigeon-holing. “They work across all genres, and I personally like that way of working. I feel like, if you like a story, why can’t you try and tell it?”
And there are stories that Hampson is looking to tell. “What was so appealing about Fleabag was that lots of people would argue that they hear that voice every day from their friendship group. I’d really like to find whatever is another voice that has not been heard yet.” Penelope Skinner’s recent turn in Linda at the Royal Court Theatre is one such story. “That was about how older women almost become invisible and they get deemed irrelevant by society,” she recalls.
Hampson is adding her voice to the calls for more women-led programming. “It is definitely something that I am actively after, and have very firmly felt it is a thing that needs to be shone a light on.” Reese Witherspoon is a particular hero for her. Witherspoon’s production company is behind the hits Big Little Lies, Wild and Gone Girl, and places an emphasis on telling female stories. “I think she’s a powerhouse of a figure,” Hampson says, “firing on all cylinders at all times.”
They are big shoes to fill, however, as the award-laden shelves in the Two Brothers production company office show, Lydia Hampson’s up to the challenge.