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Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, one of BBC Three’s biggest hits, began as a low-budget stage comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, written and performed by a woman in her twenties. BBC Three’s new comedy pilot Britney also began as a low-budget stage comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, only written and performed by two women in their twenties rather than one. Best friends, in fact. The parallels are appropriate: this is another distinctive, offbeat series with a knot of pain in its chest. The BBC would be smart to commission it for a full series.
Britney is based on the real experiences of its writers and stars, Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson, who play themselves. The pilot begins with a potted history of their friendship: they met at school and have been inseparable since their first sleepover, which was followed by years of shared holidays and making grand plans to “live next door to each other in London and have a secret underground tunnel connecting the two houses”. As Charly’s dad (played by Tony Gardner) puts it, they’ve “carried a creepy child co-dependence way into adulthood”.
When we meet them, things aren’t going to plan – Ellen hasn’t left the village they grew up in and Charly’s moved to New York to pursue her acting dreams. In this first episode, she’s back in the UK for a brief visit that soon turns into a long one when she discovers she has a brain tumour.
The grim news is treated with some of the best medicine: humour and surrealism. When Charly gets the doctor’s call, his voice is strange and distorted, like an ominous Dalek. In shock, she walks out to her back garden, where the lawn collapses in on itself, giving way to a giant, yawning crater. “I wonder what my brain thinks of all this?” Charly says, before we get a glimpse of the tumour itself, portrayed here as a drag queen who strolls in and announces “It’s Britney, bitch” – hence the title of the show. Clive named her tumour after the pop star and all the “sassy, amazing, exciting” things she embodies, which she believed her brain was capable of, too.
Clive and Robertson’s chemistry is undeniable; they perform with the warmth and wit of two people who’ve been finishing each other’s sentences for 15 years. Clive, who was exceptional in the Channel 4 OCD drama Pure, gives an equally sensitive performance here. And Robertson has a natural comic touch, her micro-expressions and delivery landing effortlessly.
The tone of the pilot is perhaps best summed up in the final scene, when Charly’s eccentric family, in a bid to cheer her up on diagnosis day, dig out an old sumo wrestling costume for her to wear. This happened in real life. “I’m one sincere hug away from having a breakdown,” Charly tells Ellen, “but if you like, you could run at me and I could belly bounce you?” A young woman bobbing around a suburban garden in a sumo outfit shouldn’t make you cry, but it probably will.