Lucy Prebble on I Hate Suzie, her letter from Weinstein, and Succession’s fourth season

Before she was the Emmy-winning writer and Bafta nominee behind TV hits such as Succession and I Hate Suzie, Lucy Prebble was just another kid, living in Haslemere, Surrey, annoyed at her family. “I grew up around a lot of people who weren’t saying things.” It was, she shrugs, all very British. So she started to write, filling up pages with whatever felt unsaid. “My early bits of writing were sort of heartbreakingly the things I wished my family were saying out loud to each other.” Other times, she would rewrite episodes of Star Trek for fun.

Prebble has since made a career out of filling in the blanks. The 41-year-old playwright is interested in what her audience hasn’t yet seen, whether that be a dramatisation of the collapse of an American oil giant, complete with velociraptor masks and lightsabers, as in her Olivier-nominated 2009 play Enron, or the utter mundanity of an at-home abortion – which is how the second season of I Hate Suzie begins.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Prebble muses over Zoom from her house in London. “When you see something and you think, ‘Well, that’s weird, because that happens a lot in real life, but I’ve never seen it.’ That feeling always makes me go towards it.”

That feeling – a mix of recognition of what you are seeing and shock that you’re seeing it – has come to define I Hate Suzie. Created by Prebble and her best friend Billie Piper, the show’s star, the series has been praised by critics and viewers for its portrayal of a woman’s life as lewd, scabrous, sad – and messy. More on that last word later. Returning for a second season, the show remains rife with taboo topics: motherhood guilt, problematic turn-ons, sperm banks. It is telling how many broadcasters originally turned it down.

At first blush, I Hate Suzie appears to be an autofiction of Piper’s life. Suzie Pickles is a former child pop star turned actor, with a role in a popular sci-fi franchise. Rings a bell. Many, in fact. But Piper and Prebble have always been quick to shut down suggestions that Suzie is based on the person who plays her. “Definitely not,” Prebble shakes her head now. Of course, she understands why people would think so.

“I’m not pretending those similarities aren’t there, but it’s playful and within an artistic frame,” she says. “There is something a bit provocative, and I do acknowledge that, but it really came out of this idea that it would be so interesting, dramatically, to have somebody who the country thinks they know. This idea of who Billie Piper is, and what Billie Piper means.” But Billie the person, she emphasises, is only a reference point for more ideas. Fictional ideas. And, Prebble laughs, it’s also just a “lazy dramatist” move. “You don’t have to do so much exposition about a new character.” A lot of that heavy lifting is done through people’s assumptions about Piper.

Prebble is a great chat: generous, funny, engaged. She speaks enthusiastically about technology, having previously written a column for The Observer. (She stopped when she found the deadlines to be too anxiety-inducing.) And she loves gaming – she’s a big fan of Portal 2, Immortality, and The Last of Us Part II. Open and effusive, she’s excited to dig into her work. “Did that read for you?” she asks after explaining her intentions behind a particular scene in I Hate Suzie (it did).

She also speaks with a hint of theatre, relaying anecdotes with pauses in all the right places. She did give acting a go at school, but found it too stressful. “Unless you’re hugely famous and successful, I think most actors have a very difficult life of waiting to be chosen and then being told what to do and what to feel. That doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, I have the opposite. For whatever dark reason, I want to build a world, and control the world, and tell people how to feel within that world.”

Prebble can’t help but feel a bit guilty about all the attention Piper has received over the Suzie similarities. “You know, writing is a fairly cowardly thing. You basically really want to say something, but you don’t want to say it directly and you don’t want to be there when people hear it,” she says.

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“I feel bad for Billie because she’s the one that is pushed out in front, so everyone thinks everything is about her. And well, no – actually it’s not. Sometimes it’s about me, or often it’s stuff we’ve created together because we’re artists or whatever.” Besides, she continues, “It’s also a bit offensive to us as creators, and me as a writer, to assume it’s all autobiographical.” The implication of that, she laughs, is that “I haven’t done any work!” Prebble worked very hard to make all this stuff up, thank you very much.

There is a tendency for people to assume that a female writer is a confessionalist, with intimate stories pouring out of her, when in fact she is a careful architect of her craft. Look at the reception of the first series of I Hate Suzie, which Prebble clarifies she was “delighted” with. Except one thing did niggle at her. “It was interesting how often it was described as chaotic and messy,” she says. “The show itself is not messy at all.”

In fact, the opposite is true; Prebble is devoted to craft and control. “If anything, it’s verging on schematic writing. But when something is personal and emotional, which obviously Suzie is to some extent, there’s sometimes a tiny bit of oversight that happens with the level of authorial control going on.” She pauses and jokes, “I’d just like to point that out, from a very controlling authorial perspective.” Remember the author; remember there’s a mind at work here, she says. It’s not just a bleeding heart oozing all over the place.

I Hate Suzie isn’t the first time Prebble and Piper have worked together. It’s not even the second. In 2012, Piper starred in Prebble’s National Theatre play The Effect, about a clinical drug trial, but their working relationship, and subsequent friendship, first began on Secret Diary of a Call Girl. The 2007 ITV2 series, based on the pseudonymous Belle de Jour books and blogs, starred Piper as Hannah Baxter, a high-end escort. Prebble was brought on as the writer; she left after the second season.

Both have since said that the show turned out “frothier and lighter” than they had wanted. Prebble was hesitant to return for series two, but was assured that things would be different. Surprise, surprise: they weren’t.

Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble met in 2007 working on the ITV2 series ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’

(Getty)

That’s the tricky thing about television, she says. “In film, people will tell you the truth because there’s too much money at stake not to.” Write in more jokes and romance, or get out, basically. “In theatre, everyone tells the truth because there’s not enough money so there’s nothing at stake. But working in television is very dangerous because it’s in the middle, so there’s a lot of ‘Yes, that sounds amazing!’ and then going back on it. It’s a very odd gaslight thing, where everyone is very nice to everyone else.”

No one, she says, was particularly horrible, but in some ways that’s a much harder, longer lesson to learn. “It’s better to be honest about what you want to do rather than spend years and years in a sort of confused state of self-abasement.”

On season two, nothing had changed. Secret Diary of a Call Girl was still not the show Prebble wanted to make. A storyline about mental health was axed because it was, the channel told her, “too dark”. She rolls her eyes. “Really? In a show about sex work, you think that a mental health issue is too much? It was bonkers.” Prebble can also recall someone at one point saying, “Look, we just want more of Billie in her underwear.” That was it for Prebble. She left before season three.

It is thankfully different now; the TV model has changed. Whereas it used to be that a channel would hire a writer to create a product to sell, now there has been an inversion of status. “I think of I Hate Suzie as the show that Billie and I are in charge of, and the channel and producers are helping us to do that.”

In 2017, as the #MeToo movement was gaining traction and harrowing testimonies were emerging thick and fast, Prebble wrote an essay for the London Review of Books about Harvey Weinstein and abuses of power in the industry more widely. It is an arresting read that details Prebble’s own experiences with the Hollywood mogul, which, while not lurid, are certainly telling. A year later, Prebble received a letter in the mail from The Weinstein Company.

“It was this really official terrifying letter.” It had embossed text and a red line across it. She was immediately freaked out, realising for the first time that she had signed an NDA when she worked briefly with Weinstein. Had she broken the law? What would the consequences be? How much trouble was she in? “It was terrifying. I felt nauseous.” When she had composed herself enough to read it, she saw what it was: a bankruptcy letter. “They owed me money for work I had done for this movie.”

She recalls it now as if it had only just happened, her voice still saturated with disbelief. “What a f***ing hilarious and awful metaphor for everything! I had looked at this letter and assumed I was in trouble, when of course it was him!” Prebble has kept the letter as a reminder to herself not to always assume she is the one at fault.



I’m really proud of the fact that Shiv is a flawed, monstrous nightmare. We’ve done well in not making her secretly good just because she’s a woman

When Prebble wrote the LRB piece, she said she had never once witnessed a single man calling out another man for sexist behaviour. “It has changed,” she says. “I’m really thrilled to notice that. I hadn’t thought of it until you asked me, but I have seen that happen on a couple of occasions since then. Both times on Succession, actually.” It’s a credit, she says, to having a “really, really good boss” in Jesse Armstrong and “really, really good” colleagues. “We’re writing a very dark satire of American capitalism, full of arseholes, but it’s really the nicest bunch of people.”

Of her work on the series, Prebble is most proud of Shiv (played by Sarah Snook). And no, she doesn’t care if people hate Shiv more compared with Roman or Kendall. In fact, Prebble welcomes the haters.

There was a time during the earlier seasons when Shiv, being the only daughter as well as a Democrat – “whatever that means” – seemed to be a good person, and therefore the rightful heir to the Waystar Royco throne. Anyone who has kept up with the show will know that it doesn’t exactly pan out that way. “I’m really proud of the fact that Shiv is a flawed, monstrous nightmare. We’ve done well in not making her secretly good just because she’s a woman.”

It’s always interesting to Prebble to see how invested an audience can be in characters they think are monstrous. She compares it to the World Cup right now. “Everybody goes, ‘Oh my God, it’s awful, it’s awful. Qatar… it’s just terrible. It’s so corrupt.’ And yet nobody stops cheering hugely for the matches when they’re on.” It’s not a judgement, just an observation – “something we should acknowledge about ourselves that is quite odd”.

Billie Piper on set as Suzie Pickles in ‘I Hate Suzie Too’

(Sky)

After leaving Secret Diary, Prebble went on to write Enron, a muscular, glossy dramatisation of the Texas energy giant’s downfall. It was perfectly timed (rehearsals began in September 2008, the very month that Lehman Brothers collapsed) and rapturously received. After finding huge success in London, Enron moved to Broadway. It closed after just one month. The Guardian’s theatre critic posited that its death warrant was signed the minute The New York Times published their “hostile” review. Does Prebble feel that the critical landscape has democratised since then?

She just cackles in response. “No, Annabel! There’s still only one publication that matters in America for theatre, and it’s The New York Times,” she says. “It was an appallingly beautiful failure, because it was exactly the metaphor of the show. All these rich Americans put millions in, and then the whole thing collapsed within a week. It was mesmerising and terrifying to watch.” No one would blame Prebble for sounding bitter about it, but she really doesn’t. “You know, it was an over-praised show, and then an over-criticised show, and I think the truth of it lived somewhere in the middle and that’s fine. But it was a hell of a time.” She grins. “I think it lost more value on Broadway than any other show.”

As a general rule, Prebble recommends failure. “Particularly, grand failure,” she smiles. “That sensation, that amount of shame, that amount of responsibility for people who are sad and shocked. It’s a cheap way of experiencing grief. You learn stuff about who you are. Success doesn’t teach you that; success actually takes a lot of that away.”

There is plenty of failure in I Hate Suzie – plenty of grand failure at that. Down on her luck, Suzie enters a reality TV competition, Dance Crazee. She is the first to be booted off. The subject of reality TV brings us predictably to Matt Hancock’s recent insect-eating stint on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Prebble groans at his name. “God, I just remember thinking, what an interesting way of reputation laundering!” Post-Trump, that overlap between celebrity and politics is only growing. It makes you think, says Prebble – or maybe “worry” is the more accurate word. “It makes you worry about why people go into politics in the first place.”

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfadyen as Roman, Shiv, and Tom in season three of ‘Succession’

(Sky/HBO)

I Hate Suzie is days away from returning to screens, just as delectable and panic-inducing as it was before. Getting to this point, though, has not been easy. Prebble was working on Succession and I Hate Suzie Too at the same time, and she became overcome with stress. She couldn’t write. (In fact, the experience was so challenging, Prebble says it’s unlikely there will be a third season of the series. “But never say never, everything else could fall apart and be rubbish.”)

This wasn’t a mere case of writer’s block, Prebble explains. “Every time I sat down to write, there was this awful feeling of depression and burden.” Out of options, she tried hypnotherapy. She caveats this with the disclaimer that she is the least “energy healing horoscope-y person” ever. “But I was desperate and falling behind on deadlines.” Through those sessions, she realised that her whole impulse and reason to write had changed.

For that kid in Surrey, annoyed at her parents, writing meant freedom. “But after 20 years of working, I’d come to a place psychologically where it was the opposite of that. It was a burden, and something that I got really anxious over. The place of freedom then became getting up from the desk. I had switched them around in my head.”

Her hypnotherapy sessions were focused on switching them back. Thankfully, it seems to have worked. “Touch wood!” says Prebble. Succession fans everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. On the subject of the much-anticipated fourth season, Prebble can say very little – but, ever a generous interviewee, she does try. “What can I say?” she pauses. “I said a very cocky thing to Jesse [Armstrong] the other day. We had watched a cut of one of the episodes, and I went, ‘You know what, this season might not be terrible.’” She notices my raised eyebrows. “In Succession language, that’s high praise! Very high praise indeed. So yes, you can quote me on that. Season four of Succession is not terrible – so far.”

‘I Hate Suzie Too’ will air nightly on Sky Atlantic at 9pm from 20 December to 22 December. The series will be available to watch on NOW

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/lucy-prebble-interview-i-hate-suzie-succession-b2246606.html Lucy Prebble on I Hate Suzie, her letter from Weinstein, and Succession’s fourth season

JOE HERNANDEZ

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