Deciders entertainment journalist Meghan O’Keefe talks with four of Bridgerton’s lively, articulate actresses: Phoebe Dynevor (Daphne Bridgerton), Nicola Coughlan (Penelope Fratherinton), Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury), and Claudia Jessie (Eloise Bridgerton). Presented under the aegis of the 92Y, the interview can now be found in its archives.
A diehard fan of the new Netflix show (she’s now read all the books as well), O’Keefe begins by asking her guests what the series has wrought. Andoh laughs and says, “I’m amazed how my Twitter has gone Spanish – Brazilian. All of a sudden that part of the world is in love with the story.” Jessie tells us that as a working actor, when an agent gets you a program audition with a monster team behind it (Shondaland= Producer Shonda Rhimes with Show Runner Chris Van Deusen), you just go.
Dynevor seconds initial enthusiasm. “That it was Shonda, Netflix, and a Regency period drama where the women were empowered jumped out to me,” she says. “Every woman in it is a three-dimensional character.”
“For me, it was the writing,” Andoh says. “When you have to work to live up to dialogue, that’s exciting. The four characters you have here are uniquely themselves. They have their own ticks, hopes, desires, and trajectory and they brook no argument about moving forward. Lady D is just further along. She has no kids, power, standing, cash, and spotting women who are like her, reaches out. She also has a real appetite for life.”
Aristocratic Regency era families massed in London for a marathon six month social season, bringing together marriageable young men and women. Intentions were to keep wealth and influence within an established group and wherever possible to marry “up.” For monied brides, titles were more important than like income. Security on at least one side was paramount. At the insistence of their parents, women wed men who might be much older (to produce an heir) and/or with whom they had nothing in common, sometimes in order to support their families. If a woman was not married within a season, she was deemed less eligible.
“Tell us about Penelope,” O’Keefe asks Coughlan. “She seems to have everything against her, yet has so much fire.”
“She’s really sweet, but can also be savage; innocent at the beginning, while not yet a part of it (not having come out).” the actress replies. “The friendship between Penelope and Eloise is so important. Friendship underpins so much of the story.”
“Let’s look at how the books are not just about romance, but also friendship. What was it like to step into the roles of teenagers who are attached at the hip?” the host asks Coughlan and Jessie. “It was beautiful,” Coughlan replies. “We were allowed to examine the relationship realistically. They argue. We hated falling out.” She grimaces. “These girls are pretty sheltered, though often from an emotionally unsteady background,” Jessie adds. “You see them coming into a bizarre ritual. Friendship steadies them.”
“Single, older women do all the work. They maintain their vivacity and engagement by forging alliances with other women,” Andoh says. “It would be easy to play my mother as a pantomime,” Coughlan remarks. “But Polly Walker gives it such weight and sympathy. “ (Lady Featherington has the single mindedness of a guided missile in the pursuit of appropriate mates for her daughters. Her exaggerated taste defines her.) “You feel for her, for all these characters. Really, they’re just trying to get by under pressure,” Dynevor observes. “Daphne doesn’t really have any friends.”
The scene where Lady Danbury gives an all-woman party was particularly enjoyed by tonight’s guests. “Getting behind a table of brilliant actresses after all that time with men, was wonderful. You thank God these women can just be themselves, let their hair down,” Dynevor says. (They drink, gamble, and gossip.) “I feel she’s made a safe space for women, almost like they can undo their corsets a bit. It was liberating,” Andoh recalls. Did these parties exist?
As to balls: “Few expect any gratification from the rout itself; but the whole pleasure consists in the anticipation of the following days’ gossip, which the faintings, tearing of dresses, and elbowings which have occurred, are likely to afford.” Sydney, Lady Morgan (1781-1859)
The host notes that Season 1 is about Daphne’s coming of age. Dynevor admits her own coming of age has been very long “and it’s still happening. In the series, development is condensed. My character doesn’t get any time to find herself. Today, women can explore before settling down. Daphne finds a love match, gets married and discovers her sexuality in a very short time.”
“There are love and sex scenes (the sex is quite steamy), but this show took pains to focus on female pleasure,” O’Keefe reflects. “Daphne, (Dynevor), can you talk about your experience with an intimacy coordinator?” “It makes you realize how vulnerable actresses were before them,” she says. “We had six weeks to rehearse.” (Unheard of) “By the time we filmed, I knew where his hand was going to be at every moment. We had pads between us in bed. You plan it all before, then it’s just, let’s film it. I never felt uncomfortable. It was about getting it right.”
“Eloise is defined by a combination of curiosity and frustration,” the host remarks, asking Jessie what it was like to play such a modern persona in a Regency setting. “I quite enjoyed learning the etiquette and then unsubscribing to it,” the actress responds with a twinkle. “A lot of people think she’s the feminist of the piece. There’s unbelievable expectation on these characters. Eloise doesn’t look inward, she looks out and she’s bright. She probably gets a lot of eye rolls from the family.”
A conversation about the elaborate wigs and costumes elicits the following: Coughlan: “Once the wig is on, it’s like, oh, there she is! And we never wore a dress twice. Penelope is meant to look over the top and I found myself defending the clothes. The hair and make-up people actually valued our input. It’s not meant to be historically accurate, but our version.” Andoh: “The skill and detail of the makers is astonishing, proper craftsmanship. They create personality.” Dynevor: “There were fittings literally every week. In the end, the clothes really informed each character.
Regency fashion for women began with a shift, the precursor of the slip. Stays were employed to pull in the waist instead of full Victorian corsets. One petticoat was enough for a high-waisted dress. Cotton or silk stockings were held up by garters. Proper ladies didn’t wear drawers, as they were considered racy. Accessories: a fichu tucked into the bodice to cover cleavage, a boa, small cape (pelerine), or shawl, a parasol, a reticule= purse, gloves, hats or bonnets, veils for mourning, and muffs in season. The basic shoe pattern looked like a ballet slipper. Metal pattens attached to lift a shoe above the street in bad weather. Ankle boots were universal.
“The first season sets up each character. What do you each hope will happen to yours in the much anticipated second?” O’Keefe asks in closing. Andoh: “I’d like Lady Danbury to make space for more friendships and perhaps delve into the Bohemian part of society.” Dynevor: “There’s never really a happy ending. There will always be difficulties in Daphne and the Duke’s relationship.”
Jessie: “Eloise’s debut into the marriage market will happen. She won’t want to do it like her sister Daphne. And her relationship with Penelope has to change. They’re best mates, but there’s a lot they’re not sharing.” Coughlan: There’s room for a lot of drama. I can’t keep secrets from my friends like Phoebe. She’s a real romantic, but she wants to be a writer too.”
Bridgerton on Netflix
Top photo: BRIDGERTON (L to R) PHOEBE DYNEVOR as DAPHNE BRIDGERTON and ADJOA ANDOH as LADY DANBURY in episode 105 of BRIDGERTON Cr. LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX © 2020