She’s been described as ‘a sociopath wrapped in a layer of whipped cream’. But nobody’s dared to ask just who the ‘delightfully evil’ stepmother in the BBC’s Fleabag — brilliantly played by Olivia Colman — is based on.
The award-winning series, which scooped plaudits for its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and a role in scripting the next Bond film, was hailed as the new way forward in British TV drama.
The series that has just ended will be the last, but TV companies are trying to recapture the magic with similar ideas.
Meanwhile, Phoebe and her wayward character Fleabag — a late-20s single woman who says: ‘I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it’ — are still much-discussed and watched on iPlayer and YouTube.
Phoebe Waller Bridge (pictured above) both wrote and starred in Fleabag and much of her work can be paralleled to her own life
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s father Michael (left) on his 2016 wedding day to Phoebe’s step mother Rosemary Goodenough (right)
Fleabag’s on screen parents are played by Olivia Colman (right) and Bill Patterson (left)
Hers is the name and the face of 2019. But who was the monster stepmother Phoebe was writing about — the smiling but killingly cold artist who painted a portrait of Fleabag showing the back of her head only?
Maybe it’s just coincidence that Phoebe’s own stepmother, Rosemary Goodenough, is a gifted artist with a winning smile.
Maybe it’s just coincidence, too, that in the flurry of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts that Rosemary has put out in recent months featuring pictures galore of her extended family, there’s not a mention or photo of her talented stepdaughter or her TV show.
Sian Clifford (pictured above) plays Fleabag’s on screen sister Claire who works in the financial sector
Maybe it’s just coincidence that Oscar-winner Olivia Colman’s hair was styled to look like Rosemary’s. And that her speech at the end of Series One has a very strong echo of a YouTube performance featuring Rosemary and Phoebe’s father Michael Waller-Bridge, a photographer and City financier.
Isobel Waller-Bridge (pictured above) is Phoebe’s sister
Rosemary herself — a 66-year-old thrice-married aristocrat — is far too shrewd to discuss any of this in detail. And yet she doesn’t deny it.
Speaking from her Norfolk home, she courteously sidestepped the Mail’s questions this week. Had she seen Fleabag?
‘Yes, absolutely. I think Phoebe has hit the zeitgeist very cleverly.’
Some people believe that Fleabag is strongly autobiographical — do you recognise any of the characters in it?
‘I think only Phoebe can answer that.’
Some sharper-tongued folk have drawn parallels between Olivia Colman’s character and yourself — are you, indeed, the inspiration? Are you amused by it?
‘Again, only a question Phoebe can answer.’
How did you and Phoebe get on, after you came into her father’s life when she was 19?
‘I’m sorry, that’s far too personal a question.’
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sian Clifford (pictured above) play on screen sisters who don’t always see eye to eye
An answer — though whether it’s the right one, who can tell? — might be found in the fact that Rosemary often favourably mentions Phoebe’s musician sister, Isobel, another phenomenally talented Waller-Bridge, on social media.
A year older than her 33-year-old writer sibling, she composed the score for Fleabag as well as the new TV version of Poirot starring John Malkovich, and the recent adaptation of War And Peace. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the actress chosen to portray Fleabag’s sister, Sian Clifford, bears a startling resemblance to her.
Isobel’s achievements get a favourable mention from Rosemary, while Phoebe’s do not — an allegory perhaps reflected in that double-portrait Fleabag’s stepmother painted of the two sisters, with Claire facing the artist, and Fleabag presenting the back of her head.
A still from series 2 of Fleabag which shows the wedding between her father and stepmother who is played by Olivia Colman
The show charts Fleabag and her relationship with her family such as her sister
In one episode, the two sisters go away to a wellness retreat with each other
Whatever the real-life relationship between the two sisters, they started life as a happy family unit in Ealing, West London — Phoebe, Isobel, younger brother Jasper, and parents Michael and Teresa.
The marriage lasted until Phoebe was in her late-teens, when, after divorcing Michael, Teresa moved the children to Battersea and a 17-year-old Phoebe, who had been acting since she was eight, went to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
It is a measure of the sisters’ ultimate love of each other — an important thread of the Fleabag storyline — that Phoebe asked, and Isobel consented, to write the music to the TV series.
To say that life around the Waller-Bridges was unorthodox would be a massive understatement.
Fleabag (right) with her onscreen father on the day of his wedding to his new wife, following the death of Fleabag’s mother
Fleabag walks her father down the aisle during the ceremony for his at home wedding
Fleabag and her father on the day of his wedding in series 2 of the popular BBC show
Phoebe’s father, an extraordinary figure, studied theoretical physics at university before taking a master’s degree in science and technology. In a dazzling career, he first worked at CERN in Switzerland, base of the famous Hadron Collider, before creating a hologram company in London.
Then he swapped cultures to develop trading technology at the London Stock Exchange, co-founding Tradepoint, the first fully electronic stock market. In another switch, in 2000, he became a portrait photographer and nine years later founded Amersham Investment Management, a venture capitalist group.
Shots of series 2 which show Fleabag and her sister Claire chatting in a local park
Along the way — you might say he was seeking trophies from the pages of Debrett’s — he found himself a clutch of four wives including, eccentrically, two of whom had fathers who bore almost the same name and same title.
Michael Waller-Bridge first married Sarah Bruce Lockhart, whose brother Lord (Sandy) Bruce Lockhart was once the main voice of Conservative local government.
They wed in 1977 but the union was short-lived. He then moved on to Teresa, the daughter of Eton and Cambridge-educated baronet Sir John Clerke.
The marriage lasted 20 years from 1982 and produced Isobel, Phoebe and brother Jasper.
A usually reliable online aristocratic reference source, ThePeerage.com, indicates that he then married Honor Clerk, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, whose father was also a baronet called Sir John Clerk — only this time without the ‘e’ — but there is scant evidence of this relationship.
In any case, for the past nine years he’s been married to Phoebe’s stepmother Rosemary — whose father (ex Eton, Oxford, and Guards) Sir Richard Goodenough was also a baronet. The couple met while fencing at the private members’ club Home House in Central London.
Today, Michael presents a genial front beside Rosemary in a YouTube video where she promotes her fashion goods, nodding and offering words of support.
Rosemary, a gifted artist with her own eponymous business, speaks with a passion about her latest work in what could almost be a copy of Olivia Colman’s speech in Fleabag about her ‘Sexhibition’ in the last episode of Series One.
While friends have little doubt that Colman’s character is heavily based on Rosemary, Michael’s similarity to Fleabag’s father ‘Dad’ (played by Scottish actor Bill Paterson) is more difficult to nail.
Certainly, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has inherited a great deal of her father’s brilliance. She has some of his eccentricities, too. His umbrella is topped with a silver duck’s-head handle. But she loves him — ‘he has a huge scientific and creative brain’.
Significantly, the TV writer has not commented publicly anywhere on the subject of her stepmother.
For her part, Rosemary — ambidextrous and ‘an insanely obsessive detail freak’, as she describes herself — followed a straighter path through life.
Married first at 25, she had two daughters by the exotically named Frederick le Roux, living in Scotland before marrying again in 1993 to Patrick Masson, who died in 2000. She met Michael Waller-Bridge in 2004 and they were married in 2009 (the photographs she posted on Facebook from the wedding feature many family members — but not Phoebe).
An exceptional artist, she moved into designing luxury accessories which sell through topline stores including Fortnum & Mason, and is credited by the fashion industry as being the first person in 150 years to redesign the man’s tie (seams at the side, flat bottom and a separate knot the wearer slides on).
Her next big thing, she tells me, is called Rosemary’s Bunker — a range of men’s and women’s swimwear based on designs from her oil paintings.
She’s universally regarded in the fashion trade, and the Duchess of Cambridge’s brother James Middleton has modelled for her.
So, a family of super-achievers.
However, not everything they touch, especially marriage, turns to gold — and, here, Phoebe follows in her parents’ footsteps.
In 2014, she married Irish journalist and author Conor Woodman, but two years later they were ready to divorce.
Phoebe is currently dating Martin McDonagh (pictured right) and had previously been married to Conor Woodman (left)
Her new partner is Martin McDonagh, London-born director and writer of the Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. At 49, he is 16 years her senior.
She has become the hottest property on stage, on screen, and at the writer’s desk, on both sides of the Atlantic. She wrote the scripts for Killing Eve, the blockbuster TV series about an MI5 officer hunting down a young female psychopath, for which she was nominated for an Emmy award, and picked up a Bafta award for her work on Fleabag.
Phoebe has just finished a six-week run of the Fleabag stage-show on Broadway and is the toast of New York — with the New York Times critic calling her ‘fabulous’, and the city’s uncrowned queen, Dame Anna Wintour, throwing a star-studded dinner to introduce her to her new best friends.
This week it was confirmed that Phoebe will polish the script of ‘Bond 25’ — the upcoming but so far unnamed James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig which starts shooting later this month, while reports from Hollywood suggest it was Craig who asked for her helping hand to tighten up the script.
Phoebe is set to polish the next James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig (pictured above in Casino Royale)
It’s all a long way from the lowly beginnings of Fleabag, which started as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013.
Meanwhile, back to Rosemary. Is she really the wicked stepmother so brilliantly portrayed by Olivia Colman?
She’s not saying, and Phoebe’s not admitting.
What Phoebe does confess, though, is that ‘being proper and sweet and nice and pleasing is a ****ing nightmare’.
She adds for good measure: ‘Good things can come out of rage. A director once said to me: “You have the gift of rage.” ’
Whether that rage was directed at Rosemary in Fleabag, we may never know but her foul-mouthed character says: ‘She is not an evil stepmother, she’s just a c***!’
But then again, maybe not.