The Designer Who Brought Fleabag's Apartment To LifeAbigail Cain
The second season of Fleabag—a six-episode tour de force powered by creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge—was pretty much perfect. It received a whopping 11 Emmy nominations earlier this month; critics have showered it with praise for dealing beautifully (and raunchily) with themes of grief, family, self-loathing, love, faith, and desire.
In short, Jonathan Paul Green had a lot to work with. As Fleabag’s production designer, he was responsible for the look of the show—everything from Claire’s posh townhouse to Fleabag’s ramshackle guinea pig café. “It was just a really exciting world to create,” he said. “You don't want to do run-of-the-mill, you want to do something unusual. Phoebe had written some really strong, in-depth complex characters, and there was great scope for the production design within that.”
Green’s role as head of the art department is to oversee the visual elements of a production—things like locations, sets, color schemes, and lighting—to ensure they contribute to the overall story. Typically, he said, his process begins with a read-through of the script. Once he forms his own impressions of the characters, he’ll put together a mood board of images for the producer and director (and, occasionally, the writer) to discuss.
Fleabag and Harry's bedroom in season one. All images courtesy of Jonathan Paul Green
When it came to Fleabag’s season one apartment, however, he didn’t have as much freedom as usual. By the time he joined the project in summer 2016, Waller-Bridge and her team had already shot the pilot, which prominently features the apartment Fleabag shares with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Harry. By that point, the original apartment was no longer available for filming, so Green was tasked with rebuilding it as a set.
The apartment itself plays a significant role in Fleabag’s relationship. Since Harry is prone to cleaning when he moves out, she times their breakups for moments when their flat needs a good tidying up. (Look, it’s in the show title: A paragon of morality Fleabag is not.) It’s true that the place is a bit untidy—a pair of hangers dangle from the crown molding, and clothes are shoved haphazardly onto a rack in the corner. Unlike most messes, however, this one is deliberate. “It gives you a sense that this place is not particularly well-furnished, maybe there's not a lot of storage space,” Green said. At the same time, it’s not meant to be over-the-top. “We didn't want her to live in squalor. She's very house-proud, but she didn't have the means to live in anything too luxurious.”
Where she does live, according to Green, is in London’s Dartmouth Park. “It's close to some very smart areas and it's close to some slightly more rundown areas, and there’s all sorts in between,” he explained. “It's a very vibrant area with a lot of character, and it fitted the world perfectly.” (And, according to a quick Google search for one-bedrooms in Dartmouth Park, it means that Fleabag’s rent is about $2,000 a month.)
Fleabag's bathroom from her season two apartment.
Viewers may have noticed that Fleabag moves apartments between the first and second season. It makes narrative sense—over a year has passed, and she’s been trying to turn over a new leaf. But it was also a practical decision, since it would have been difficult to remount the original scenery. “We all took the view that we would just start from scratch and say that she had moved into different flat,” he said.
It actually took the crew a while to find a new apartment that would work. The beginning of Green’s apartment checklist was pretty standard: Good natural light from a window or two, period details, first floor or garden. It was the last thing that made the hunt particularly tricky: it needed to be big enough to fit an entire film crew but still look like an ordinary one-bedroom.
“There's always that difficulty with the scale,” he explained. “You’re trying to find somewhere small that looks believable in scale to the type of place you would live in, but is logistically big enough for shooting.”
They did end up finding a place—or places, to be exact. Fleabag’s second-season “apartment” is the product of a bit of careful editing. The living room and bathroom scenes were shot in one London flat, while the bedroom scenes were shot in another. The former, Green said, was an empty rental that they paid to take off the market for a week so the crew could paint it a darker color, shoot the necessary scenes, then return the walls to their original white. (White is not a great background color for TV, as it turns out, and dark blue is not a great color for most potential tenants.)
The guinea pig café been gutted after Fleabag's first season, but Green was able to resurrect the interior for season two. "We all felt like we’d come back to visit an old friend."
Fleabag’s guinea pig café was also tricky. Between the first and second seasons, the original building had been purchased by a new owner and was in the midst of being remodeled into a trendy Turkish restaurant. Luckily for Green, the facade was still intact. In the end, the new owners agreed to let the crew rebuild the old café from scratch within the hollowed-out interior, film for a few days, then tear it all back down again.
No matter how much work goes into each set, Green said, the key is for everything to look more or less unremarkable. “It's a fine line,” he said. Sure, Fleabag is a fictional character with a rich interior life. “But she's still a normal person living in a normal place. You don't want to go too obvious with things. You want it to be all be as believable as possible.”