Two of the most successful British comedies of the last few years, receiving acclaim not just in the UK but also elsewhere thanks to streaming services, have been BBC3’s Fleabag and E4’s Chewing Gum. They are female-driven comedies with very different settings: Fleabag is about a white woman who owns a café in a middle class area of London, while Chewing Gum centres around a black woman who works in a corner shop on a Tower Hamlets housing estate. Yet despite these notable differences, the two shows have several things in common. Both originated as one-woman plays, Fleabag and Chewing Gum Dreams, before being adapted for television. Each show has a star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the case of Fleabag and Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum, who is also its creator and writer. And both have protagonists who regularly break the fourth wall by looking into the camera and addressing the viewer at home.
Fleabag’s first – and to date only – series aired on BBC3 in 2016 and begins with three full minutes of the titular Fleabag (we never learn her real name) speaking to the audience. Before the show’s title card even appears, she has talked us through a sexual encounter, in rather graphic detail, from the night of until the morning after. This quickly establishes the confessional nature of the show and indicates that Fleabag is going to be sharing a lot of personal information with us over the course of the series. If you’re of a particularly sensitive disposition, you may not make it past these first few candid minutes.
In the opening episode, fourth wall breaking is used to introduce us to Fleabag’s family. Upon seeing her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), Fleabag directly tells us that “she’s uptight, beautiful, probably anorexic, but clothes look awesome on her”, confesses in hushed tones “I’m wearing the top she lost years ago”, and admits that she can’t bear to ask her sister for the money she desperately needs. This gives us a concise introduction to Claire’s character as well as an insight into Fleabag’s own personality. Fleabag also explains her complicated parental situation to the viewer – namely that her mother is dead and that her father (Bill Paterson) is now romantically involved with her godmother (Olivia Colman). When she drops into her dad’s house unannounced late at night, the quietly antagonistic relationship she has with her godmother becomes clear. Following a few pleasantries, her godmother remarks with a fixed smile “I find the night times very peaceful… usually” and Fleabag looks over her shoulder at the camera, raising her eyebrows in a “here we go” sort of way.
In addition to offering exposition, Fleabag’s breaking of the fourth wall also provides humour. Similar to the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show, in which the audience hears the two lead characters’ thoughts that they would never verbalise, there are frequent moments in Fleabag that draw humour from the contrast between what she’s saying to people in her world and what she’s saying to the viewer. When someone she fancies asks to meet up, she enthusiastically says yes at the camera before saying yes much more casually to him. At several points, she laughs politely at a joke that someone has made, interrupting her laughter to lock eyes with the camera and make a comment like “shut up” or “I hate myself.”
Fleabag’s monologues to camera let the viewer into the inner workings of her mind. She admits that because her on-again, off-again boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) tends to clean her flat every time he moves out, “I’ve considered timing a breakup for when the flat needs a bit of a going over”. While sitting on the toilet, she says of sex, “I’m not obsessed with sex, just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it, the awkwardness of it, the drama of it. The moment you realise someone wants your body… Not so much the feeling of it.” As a result of having access to her deepest, darkest thoughts, we end up knowing more about her than most of us do about our real-life friends.
Throughout the series, Fleabag involves the viewer in her story via her frequent asides to camera, getting us on her side regardless of whether we truly like her as a person or not. During conversations with everyone in her life, from her sister to her various love interests, she gives the camera looks that imply “aren’t these people ridiculous?” From flashbacks we learn that she shared a close bond with her friend and café co-owner Boo (Jenny Rainsford), who died after stepping out into a road in an attempt to upset her unfaithful boyfriend. Since Boo is no longer around, and Fleabag doesn’t appear to have any other friends, the viewer becomes the closest thing she has to a confidant. By slyly mocking everyone around her, Fleabag seems to be sharing a private joke with us. We’re made to feel as if we’re at a party where she is the only person we know, and we’re both finding the other guests unbearable.
Since Fleabag is the show’s storyteller, it is easy for the viewer to take everything she says at face value. However there are a number of clues that suggest she isn’t a completely reliable narrator. For instance, one telling insight into her psyche comes not from a fourth wall breaking moment but from a remark made by her sister. When she visits her mother’s grave with Claire and comments that a weeping man in the graveyard is at a different grave every day, Claire responds “you come here every day?”. This is new information for the viewer, suggesting that past trauma in Fleabag’s life is affecting her more than she lets on.
Fleabag also labels her brother-in-law as “one of those men who is explosively sexually inappropriate with everyone, but makes you feel bad if you take offense because ‘he was just being fun’”. This displays a lack of self awareness, as Fleabag herself is highly sexually inappropriate, joking to her sister that people might think they’re a couple (Claire retorts “the fact your mind even goes there is beyond disturbing”) and making unnecessary remarks to a doctor during a breast exam. It becomes apparent that things said in her asides to camera are not always to be trusted, such as when she hands her sister a cake, confidently tells us “she won’t eat it” and is quickly proven wrong. On a similar note, we learn that her on-off boyfriend leaves a toy dinosaur in her flat every time he moves out as an excuse to come back. But following the particular breakup that we witness, Fleabag notices the dinosaur is still there and smugly assures us “he’ll be back”, only for him to return immediately, grab the toy, and leave.
In the final episode of the series, Fleabag is shown to make a great deal of errors in judgement. After finding out that the man she has been sleeping with is in love with someone else, despite her unwavering confidence that he was falling for her, she is visibly embarrassed and tries to avoid looking at the camera. Meanwhile her attempts to flirt with her ex-boyfriend are rebuffed, and her theft of a valuable sculpture from her godmother does not have the outcome she thought it would.
All of these setbacks encountered by Fleabag in the finale culminate in an argument with her sister, in which we discover her true role in Boo’s death – that she was the woman with whom Boo’s boyfriend cheated. The fact that Fleabag has told the viewer so many of her secrets throughout the series makes this ultimate revelation all the more shocking. Once her sister has said “after what you did to Boo”, Fleabag looks at the camera and then turns away, only to find that she is surrounded as the camera is on the other side of her too. She tries to avoid making eye contact with the viewer, looking back and forth between the camera and her sister, unable to speak. As flashbacks reveal what happened between her and Boo’s boyfriend, the accompanying jazz music becomes increasingly clattering and chaotic. The camera then lunges towards her in an accusatory way, before following her down a narrow corridor. In other words, after being a passive observer throughout the series, the camera finally becomes its own entity.
Similarly to Fleabag, fourth wall breaking in Chewing Gum (which ran for two series on E4 in 2015 and 2017) gives the show a confessional quality. At the beginning of the first episode, the protagonist turns to the camera and tells us “my mum was gonna name me Alyssa, which means sweet angel in Indian, but when I came out she looked at me and called me Tracy”. The subsequent few minutes set up the character of Tracy, showing us that she is religious and has an even more religious long-term boyfriend (John Macmillan) with whom she desperately wants to have sex. As they pray together, she fantasises about him, looks directly at the viewer in a “help me” sort of way, and informs us that she often has nosebleeds when she’s sleeping due to sexual frustration.
During the rest of the opening episode, Tracy sums up her best friend Candice (Danielle Walters) in an aside to camera: “Candice is like the buffest girl I’ve ever seen on the whole of my estate, but she’s got learning difficulties so it sort of balances it out, so like I can be best friends with her and I ain’t jealous or anything”. After an exasperating conversation with her goody-goody sister (Susan Wokoma), who says she wants nothing out of life other than for things to stay exactly as they are, Tracy turns to the camera with resolve and says she is going to seduce her boyfriend. The episode concludes with him forcefully rejecting her advances and a new man, Connor (Robert Lonsdale), entering her life.
Throughout Chewing Gum, asides to camera are used to highlight Tracy’s sexual inexperience. While getting intimate with Connor, she admits to the viewer “I don’t know what I’m doing” and responds to his comment that she is too pure by confusedly telling us “I don’t understand”, before assuring him that of course she understands. She also excitedly explains to us her plans to “fix” Connor and make herself seem more desirable to him.
Whereas Fleabag uses her fourth wall breaking looks and remarks to mock those around here, implying that she thinks she is better than them, Tracy is significantly more naïve and less cynical about the world. When a pharmacist questions her about her unnecessary request for the morning after pill, she ponders “I don’t trust this guy, man. Do you trust this guy?”, almost pleading for the viewer’s guidance. Later in a book club where she hasn’t read the book, she asks us “I don’t know what these people are talking about, do you know what they’re talking about?”, and after her disapproving mother commands her to leave the house, she cries “Did you see that? My mum just kicked me out!”. In contrast to Fleabag’s often confident, knowing asides, Tracy asks a lot of rhetorical questions, seemingly looking for help and reassurance as she navigates her way through new experiences. The closest she ever gets to Fleabag levels of cynicism is informing the viewer ““I hate this man, I hate this man so much” after greeting her uncle.
The overall tone of Chewing Gum is more cheerful than Fleabag, so the fourth wall-breaking moments are generally more light-hearted. Several episodes begin with Tracy enthusiastically monologuing to camera, updating us on her life as if we’re a friend she hasn’t seen in a few days. On one occasion, she says of her estate “it’s boring, there’s not even any crime here” and goes on to boast “I’ve got my ear to the ground, I’m alert at all times”, all while a very noticeable crime is being committed just behind her. Tracy’s asides also add to the humour in embarrassing situations, such as when she tells us during a shambolic family dinner “I’m sorry, it’s never like this… you should go, I’ll save you food” and when she ashamedly says “don’t look at me” after lying to Connor that she is dating a celebrity. Even the fourth wall breaking itself is made fun of at one point, when Tracy’s cousin hijacks it and starts addressing the viewer, only for her to interrupt him and question who he is talking to.
As a viewer, we feel as if we’re one of Tracy’s many friends, in contrast to Fleabag who doesn’t appear to have any. Although Tracy has a strict, religious family, there are several people to whom she can turn for advice, including Candice and other girls from the estate, as well as Candice’s grandmother (Maggie Steed). Their advice may not always be good, but it’s clear that a support network is there for Tracy when she needs it. More often than not, she breaks the fourth wall in situations where she does not have any of these friends with her, and therefore treats the viewer as a substitute.
From single-camera shows to more traditional studio sitcoms, comedies can essentially be what they want to be as long as they serve their purpose of making people laugh. Since fourth wall-breaking comedy The Office appeared on our TV screens in the early 2000s, followed by a successful American remake, we have been seeing more and more mockumentary and fly-on-the-wall style shows, such as People Just Do Nothing in the UK, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family in the US, and Summer Heights High in Australia. This evolution in comedy has also coincided with the rise of reality shows, making viewers even more accustomed to seeing people on TV talking directly to camera. Fleabag and Chewing Gum both require a certain suspension of disbelief from the viewer, as they are neither reality TV nor shot in a mockumentary style – but their mode of storytelling is common to both these genres.
Since Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michael Coel’s Chewing Gum both began life as one-woman plays, which were essentially long monologues to their audiences, the decision to let their protagonists break the fourth wall and interact with their audiences on TV was a natural one. The result is that Fleabag and Tracy become characters with whom the viewer feels a connection, regardless of whether we approve of their actions or not. As they share secrets and private jokes with us, we begin to feel as if we know them better than anyone and trust is built up. When this trust is shattered, such as in Fleabag’s finale, the impact is all the more affecting.