Fleabag’s Vicky Jones: “Be honest and be direct. Don’t be afraid of anything, it’s a wonderful time to be a woman”

The screenwriter and director gives her advice to aspiring writers, and talks to Ellie Harrison about having Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a creative collaborator, her new short film starring Jodie Comer - and how the female orgasm is empowering

Vicky Jones (United Agents, EH)

Vicky Jones is the woman behind some of the most exciting television and theatre of our time. With her creative collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the screenwriter and director has helped to bring trailblazing series such as Crashing and Fleabag to the forefront of British comedy, as well as penning an episode of the hotly anticipated thriller Killing Eve. Jones has written critically acclaimed plays – notably The One and Touch – and her new short film for the BBC, Bovril Pam, premieres tonight.

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Bovril Pam sees Jones reunite with Killing Eve star Jodie Comer and tells the tale of a Scouse secretary on the cusp of the sexual revolution in 1961. With wide-eyed, scandalised glee, Comer’s character confides in the viewer about her first orgasm, in a monologue that strongly echoes Meg Ryan’s infamous fake climax scene in When Harry Met Sally. It’s one of eight monologues in BBC Four’s Snatches series, marking the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK.

“I wanted to write a story about a woman who has an orgasm because of another woman,” Jones tells me, explaining that series curator Vicky Featherstone was keen for the film to pass the Bechdel test – which requires that a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Many of the other monologues in the set focus on male oppression, but Bovril Pam is about a woman who, although repressed by a patriarchy that dictates she will somehow “spoil herself” by masturbating, finds herself empowered by a climax she enjoys thanks to a sexually liberated, enigmatic acquaintance named Vera.

Vera – a woman who is gloriously free of societal constraints and judgement – is a recurring character in Jones’ work, having also cropped up in her play Touch. “She’s a woman I met once, a long time ago, who I had a very close flirtation with and who was very inspiring sexually herself,” says Jones.

“She had no rules. She had left home very young, she was Russian-Korean and she was culturally completely so other that she was totally independent, an independent thinker, very bright. And she had this wonderful, liberated sex life and attitude towards sex.”

It’s clear that Vera has a special place in Jones’ heart, who doubts that this friend from her past even follows her work or is aware of her influence. “We were waitresses together back when I was temping for years and we would just talk for hours and I was just so, she was completely original,” she remembers. “But then we left the job and we sort of stayed in touch and then we didn’t, and now I can’t find her anywhere on Facebook, I wonder whether she’s gone back to Russia. She could be anywhere in the world.”

Vera is free, it seems, of that very British tendency to separate what we like in bed, and what we admit to liking in bed. Decades on from the swinging sixties, British society is still prude, obsessed with self-presentation and attaches a lot of shame to sex. Jones bridges the disparity between private and public fantasies with her work, and says the key to writing about sex is “honesty – that’s literally it”.

“It surprises me all the time how easy [writing about sex] should be,” she says. “We should be able to just say, ‘This is how it is.’ Because we’re all doing it. Even now, people feel like they’ll be judged, even just for having sex. When I wrote Bovril Pam I was just literally imagining, I mean I won’t go into details, but exactly how it feels for me. And you hope that that will be universal. It should be the easiest thing for us to talk about.”

Jodie Comer, Snatches (BBC, EH)
Jodie Comer in Bovril Pam, Snatches (BBC)

The reason Fleabag, for example, was such a cultural phenomenon and a hit was because it said things about sex that no one else dared to say. The “Obama wank” scene, which became notorious for depicting Waller-Bridge’s protagonist pleasuring herself to a video of the former US president, is the perfect example of this.

“It feels sometimes like you have to be the first to say it,” says Jones. “Phoebe has always been very inspiring to me about that as well, she’s always been the first to say it. There were so many times when she was writing Fleabag that I was just like, ‘You can’t say that!’ and she was like, ‘Why not? It’s true.’ And I would just have to agree that there’s no reason why not, and then nothing happened to her, everybody loved it. So you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s okay. It’s fine actually just to tell the truth.’”

Waller-Bridge and Jones were relative unknowns when they became friends in 2007, after Jones was fired from a directing job at a theatre and Waller-Bridge, a member of the cast, walked out in solidarity. It was over the consolatory drink that shortly followed that the pair founded their theatre writing company DryWrite.

Jones was producing and directing under DryWrite and only became a writer four years ago when she penned her first play, The One. She says she feels “lucky” because there was an “appetite for female voices” in TV and theatre just as she began writing.

“When Fleabag came out first of all there were a lot of people saying, ‘Women are very in right now.’ Like we were a subject, like gardening,” she laughs, “which Phoebe and I always found quite amusing and weird.

“But actually I feel I’ve been lucky enough to start writing at a time when there’s been a recognition that there was a dearth of female voices.”

Because of this, Jones believes that now, 100 years on from when women won the vote, is a fantastic time to work in the arts. To aspiring female screenwriters, she says, “This is your time. This is it. In this sexual revolution, post-Weinstein era, just write and be honest and be direct. Don’t be afraid of anything, it’s a wonderful time to be a woman.”

Bovril Pam airs as part of Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives at 10pm on BBC Four, Tuesday 19th June

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The One is back on at the Soho Theatre from Thursday 5th July