At the time of this writing, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has shot up to the top of the bookmaker’s tables causing whispers that somebody knows something. It happened to Peter Capaldi just before he was announced, don’t you know. Sure, the same thing happened with Olivia Colman and Kris Marshall and we were all sure that meant something then and it didn’t but it must mean something now, right? Probably not, but Waller-Bridge is a compelling candidate for the role and, as it turns out, I’ve also seen most of her larger roles.
Waller-Bridge, who has significant credits as a young playwright, had a duo of television projects in 2016 where she was the writer and star (both adapted from the stage). The year started with Crashing, a sitcom about young London professional and creative types who are recruited to live in an abandoned hospital in an attempt to stop if from becoming a squat. While the premise has potential to highlight housing issues, it ended up being more a quirky background for an otherwise standard sit-com in the Friends style. (Granted, I never could understand how they could afford such nice Manhattan apartments in Friends, so in that sense Crashing was more believable.) Waller-Bridge plays Lulu, a quirky, spontaneous, sex-obsessed 20-something with little direction in life. This was followed up later in the year by Fleabag, originally a one-woman play, where Waller-Bridge plays the title character (yes, the character is referred to as “Fleabag” in credits and seemingly has no name in dialogue), who is a quirky, spontaneous, sex-obsessed 20-something struggling with her direction in life. There’s a bit of a theme here.
Both comedy projects came out of 10-minute character sketches that Waller-Bridge wrote as part of a writing exercise with her production group DryWrite. Given the timing, it’s not so surprising that the characters set up by Waller-Bridge are so similar. She developed a strong character and put her, with some variation, in different settings. It’s a testament to Waller-Bridge’s writing that both incarnations work well enough to carry their own projects (Crashing’s Lulu is more of an ensemble lead, but a lead nonetheless). These comedy productions also built on Waller-Bridge’s earliest major TV role in the Cafe, where Waller-Bridge played the childhood friend of one of a family who runs a cafe. I haven’t seen it, and based on reviews don’t feel a need to, but Waller-Bridge apparently shone enough in season one to get a larger role in season two. Her character is a quirky, spontaneous, 20-something who isn’t so sex obsessed, but it’s a family sitcom.
(Here’s your six-degrees of Who trivia moment: in The Cafe, Waller-Bridge plays the daughter of David Astill, played by David Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, making Waller-Bridge a Doctor’s Granddaughter.)
Waller-Bridges’s other major role to date, and likely her highest profile, was under future Who-helmer Chris Chibnall in season two of Broadchurch. Waller-Bridge plays Abby, junior barrister defending the murderer of season one’s child victim. In this role Waller-Bridge is not spontaneous or quirky, but calculating and cold. She may well be twenty-something, but she’s more of a primary antagonist in the series than manic pixie. Abby seems to revel in the prospect of getting a murderer off, to the eventual consternation of her senior. It’s a near-180 from her comic roles (although you could say that selfishness is endemic to all three roles) and Waller-Bridge often steals the scene. On some level it’s a fairly standard character (sleazy lawyer with a sprinkling of snobby Londoner), but Waller-Bridge gives it life.
What she would bring to the role
Waller-Bridge has the ability to play comic and dramatic. In Fleabag she swings between the two rapidly and with seeming ease. Quirky could easily be parlayed into alienness, and Fleabag has enough social awkwardness to argue that she could do the whole “not understanding human social convention” thing very well. She’s also a very compelling actor. I didn’t really like Fleabag, but I kept watching because Waller-Bridge held my interest (and also for Olivia Colman’s amazing performance).
Chibnall is already familiar with her from Broadchurch, which could well be an asset for hitting the ground running. Her playwrighting skills could potentially come in use in providing ideas and potentially scripts for the show. (This may be a double-edged sword; Tom Baker reportedly clashed with writers not named Douglas Adams over his insisted emendations to scripts).
Waller-Bridge would probably end up being more in the Tom Baker mold, leaning towards campy. This is certainly a well-established Doctor variation. She’s certainly capable of being more dark and dramatic, so this assumption may be wrong.
What complications are there
She has two upcoming projects, but one (Goodbye Christopher Robin) is already in post-production. She’s currently filming the Han Solo prequel, reportedly as a droid similar to Alan Tudyk’s Rogue One outing. That should finish up well before the next Who films and the prequels seem to be one-shots. Even if they do a sequel of the prequel, they could easily accommodate things by having someone else do the mo-cap and adding Waller-Bridges’s voice later.
Some may question casting her as the anchor to a family-oriented show given her recent TV roles (especially Fleabag which opens with a monologue about anal sex), but if Whodom can accommodate the profanity of Malcolm Tucker, it can do the same for Fleabag and Lulu.
Then there’s also the question of whether she’d want this role. Despite her success at it, Waller-Bridge is still relatively young as a playwright. Her last two TV projects had her with a lot of control. Taking on the Doctor means putting that aside. She may feel that now is just not the right time.
Despite a lack of genre experience, up and coming playwright/actor is a promising bookmaker’s choice.
A housekeeping note: Obviously I didn’t post this week. April was a busy time for me in my personal and professional lives. I may slow down through May until I build up a backlog of posts again.