How Lenny Abrahamson Shot the 'Normal People'/'Fleabag' Comedy Mash-Up

Normal People/Fleabag Charity Stills - H - 2020
Credit: RTE

When Connell, Marianne and the Hot Priest came together for a surprise charity sketch on Irish TV, the director — who shot it remotely from Ireland — says even his close friends didn't know what was coming.

Fans of Normal People and Fleabag — of which there are more than a few around the world — were offered something of an unexpected treat late last month.

A second season of Normal People — arguably the most talked-about TV drama of 2020 so far — may not yet be much more than a twinkle in a Hulu commissioner’s (or, more probably, writer Sally Rooney’s) eye, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge has repeatedly confirmed that her smash-hit comedy won’t be returning. But suddenly both were back, at the same, and in a rather unusual format.

In a special TV crossover event made for Irish network RTE’s charity telethon RTE Does Comic Relief, broadcast June 26, both worlds collided, and the internet went subsequently wild with delight. Across a short sub-eight-minute sketch divided into two sections, Normal People stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones — reprising their roles as troubled lovers Connell and Marianne — went to church to offload their relationship woes in a confessional booth, where Fleabag’s very own Hot Priest, Andrew Scott, was on hand to lend a comically understanding ear. 

“I’m in love, Father, but it’s complicated,” says Mescal, kicking things off, before Edgar-Jones later reveals that she’s stolen Connell’s much-lusted-after chain. A second sketch saw the characters 40 years later — played by different actors — at home and having a typically intense discussion about a plate of beans on toast. 

Although there had been some reports that a special Normal People skit was in the works, and rumors of Scott’s involvement in the event at some point, very few knew about the mash-up.

According to Lenny Abrahamson, who directed six episodes of Normal People and returned for the sketch with Mescal and Edgar-Jones, among the many thousands to be surprised when it aired — and hundreds of thousands more when clips hit Twitter — were friends he was actually watching it with live.

"We went round to some close friends to have something to eat and watch it on the night, and we didn’t tell them," he tells The Hollywood Reporter, speaking from Ireland’s West coast. "Because there’s no fun to be had unless it’s a surprise."

The original idea, he claims, came from Irish standup comedian Deirdre O’Kane, who was among those behind the charity TV special (she also hosted the show and played Marianne in the 40-years-later sketch). Kane then enlisted acclaimed playwright and director Conor McPherson to write the script, and the Normal People/Fleabag mashup was born, with the stars and Abrahamson immediately signing up to get involved.

"The idea was to write something that could be shot in a relatively straightforward way," says Abrahamson, pointing to current restrictions. However, with the director then in Dublin, and Mescal, Edgar-Jones and Scott in London, it wasn’t going to be that easy. So he oversaw the project remotely, putting together a small London-based crew and enlisting his Normal People DP Suzie Lavelle, who scouted for locations (eventually choosing a former church that now operates as a music venue).

Thankfully, McPherson’s script required just three darkly lit boxes — the booths — for the actors to sit in, with only one onscreen at a time. 

“There’s no way I would ever do something more complicated in that way, but in this case it was just brilliantly conceived to allow that to be possible,” says Abrahamson, who watched the feed from the camera stream live on his laptop in Ireland while directing his team over headphones (although he admits there was a short delay, meaning the cast would have to wait about seven seconds to get his notes, like some sort of "drunk, half-comatose man in the corner").

The second part of the sketch — which as yet isn’t available to view in the U.S. due to music rights restrictions — sees Scott's priest interrupt a bickering Connell and Marianne with a few words from Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You," culminating in a laugh-out-loud ending with all three singing the song.

To help them hit the right notes, the trio had been sent their particular harmonies in advance by music director Simon Hale and had had several hours of practice over Zoom with Abrahamson. They also wore earpieces on the day to give them the necessary pitch.

That said, while the director admits he was able to do some tuning afterward, he claims it wasn’t necessary with Mescal. "Paul has a professional-level voice — he’s a really fine singer," he says.

Overall, the sketches — shot in one day — come across as if it were written by Rooney and Waller-Bridge. Abrahamson puts this down to the "brilliance" of McPherson’s script, which alongside minors tweaks by the actors — who all know their characters inside out — helped create something "almost serious" but with a very deadpan humor playing entirely off the tone of the original Normal People series.

"Which is the only way you can do something as ridiculous as that and get away with it," he says, adding that the only involvement from the two original creators was to get their blessings.

Dealing with two very much-loved shows — even in a comedy format for charity — does come with a weight of responsibility, and Abrahamson says there was an element of concern (which was one of the reasons he kept it so secret — basically to just within the production team).

"You really have to be careful because it's just the idea of breaking something that's been so nicely made," he says. "Both shows sit on the good shelf, so you don't want to mess with them.”

Thankfully, the response was overwhelmingly positive and helped RTE Does Comic Relief attract more than 600,000 viewers and raise in excess of $6.2 million for charities across Ireland, a figure Abrahamson hopes will rise as the U.S. finally gets to see the full musical element.

As for whether the confessional booth will be the last time we see Connell and Marianne onscreen, Abrahamson says the now much-demanded second season of Normal People was never a discussion point when they were making the first.

"But we have mused about the fact that we have these two phenomenal characters who, for a lot of people, feel like they really exist in the world. If you imagine them traveling on with their lives, it would be amazing to check in with them and see where they work in five or 10 years," he says.

"We’ve had those over-a-beer musings, and I think if it felt like the right thing in a few years, it would be a wonderful thing to do. But there are no particular plans."

See the first part of the sketch below