Personally the most shocking thing I’ve found about the sitcom Fleabag, BBC2’s excellent new scabrous, hard-core, bleedingly hip import from BBC3, is that it most reminds me of Miranda. This may seem an odd idea: scabrous, hardcore and hip, bleedingly or otherwise, are not adjectives much associated with the national-treasure niche occupied by Miranda Hart and her comedy gang. However: consider…
1 It’s a show with a central female character whom the viewers get to know intimately from the get-go – an intimacy achieved by her speaking and reacting directly to camera. Like Miranda, the action in Fleabag is constantly mediated by looks, tics and comments to us. For example: in the second episode, she’s having sex and the man involved becomes obsessed with the smallness of her breasts. Which may not seem very Miranda. But then Fleabag turns to camera and says, “Bit much…” Need I say more? OK, I will.
2 The central female character is constantly screwing up, and is deeply adrift in the world of men and relationships. Men, as in Miranda, are the sex objects here.
3 There’s even a bit in the first episode where someone mistakes her for a man.
The reason that this similarity hasn’t been spotted before – apart from the possibility that it’s wrong – is that Fleabag’s calling card, as far as critics are concerned, is that it’s shocking. And shock tends to override everything else – virtually no reviews I’ve read of Fleabag have mentioned its form or structure or style or plotting – but all mention the fact that the first episode included anal sex and the c-word.
It’s hard to get past shock, in comedy or elsewhere. In 1969, Jean-Luc Godard’s British Sounds showed an image of a naked woman’s torso, voiced-over by political and revolutionary ideas. Godard’s intention, by staying on the woman, was to empty the image of its power. Trouble is, all I can remember, having seen it 30 years ago, is the nakedness: I could not tell you a single one of the voiced-over ideas.
Shock is not what it used to be, however. Most forms of shock are not shocking any more. Writers, comics and artists still reach for body parts and swear words and illicit sexual practices to scandalise, but although people do exist who remain disturbed by these things (as I found out to my cost recently when my Radio 4 show, Don’t Make Me Laugh, broadcast a round about the Queen’s sex life), the truth is that the shock of the new needs to be found elsewhere.
On the other hand, social media have created a situation where everyone in the world can raise a little flag of self, and one thing that really powers the wind behind that flag is outrage. Thus everyone is shocked by everything now. From a comedian’s point of view, it can appear as if someone will find some way of being shocked by (and then telling you off for) any joke at all.
In my new live show, the subject matter – my late mother’s sex life, my dad’s dementia – is shocking, but not, I think, in the usual way: not least because the purpose is not to shock, but to describe my parents in as unvarnished a way as possible. But also by making it so personal to me, I challenge the audience to be shocked. There is a sense in which the person in the room who should be most offended by these stories is the one on stage.
But who knows if it works, if I’ve got the comic balance right? After all, I’m someone who thinks Fleabag is just like Miranda.
David Baddiel’s stand-up show My Family: Not the Sitcom is at London’s Vaudeville Theatre from 13 September to 15 October. For more information go to davidbaddiel.com