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This Life less ordinary: Meet the inspiration behind Fleabag

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Daniela Nardini as Anna in This Life and (left) Phoebe Waller-bridge as Fleabag

Daniela Nardini as Anna in This Life and (left) Phoebe Waller-bridge as Fleabag

Daniela Nardini as Anna in This Life and (left) Phoebe Waller-bridge as Fleabag

Fleabag is long gone and you are bereft. Where will you find another heroine like her? I'll tell you where: in This Life, a drama that aired more than 20 years ago and returned to BBC Four this week. Anna from This Life was one of television's great characters. And she was the original Fleabag.

It's not just the physical resemblance between Daniela Nardini, the actress who played her, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Anna is Fleabag's older, more world-weary sister. Witty, impulsive, self-destructive, frank about sex - frank about everything - and a mass of insecurities behind all that bravado.

We were first introduced to her as she was interviewed for a job and asked by the panel about her childhood. "My father left when I was 11. My mother went to bed with a packet of Temazepam. She's still there." Pause. "Is this the kind of thing you want?" Add a look to camera and the line could have come straight out of Fleabag's mouth.

This Life was about a bunch of young lawyers sharing a house in London. There were 32 episodes and I urge you to watch them all. And while the other characters were endearing, but annoying (Warren and his endless self-analysis, Milly and her perfectionist tendencies, Egg and his obsession with Ryan Giggs, and let's get to Miles later), Anna was just out-and-out fabulous.

Nardini delivered her lines like Mae West. "There have been nights where I've lost it. Always find it again in the morning." "Only the old can afford to be young." While the women around her dressed as soberly as possible, she smoked fags in mini skirts and an animal print coat, with a slick of scarlet lipstick ("I like to think I'm wearing the same make-up as Elizabeth Hurley. Makes me feel that anything's possible.")

Where Fleabag had us gripped by the sexual tension between Fleabag and her hot priest, we watched This Life for the will-they-won't-they relationship between Anna and Miles. As played by Jack Davenport, he was a terrible person and she was far too good for him, but we secretly willed them to get together.

Waller-Bridge hasn't acknowledged that Anna was an inspiration, but she is certainly familiar with the character. She wrote the 2016 comedy Crashing about six twentysomethings living together, and called it "my homage to shows I'd grown up on, like Friends and This Life". And when she talked about the first series of Fleabag, she could have been describing Anna: "The whole of the last series was about her pushing boundaries to try to get a truthful reaction. Her humour, naughtiness and rebelliousness was her way of crying out for an honest conversation."

Of course, the characters aren't exactly the same. Waller-Bridge has an aristocratic edge that would allow her to fit seamlessly into an Evelyn Waugh adaptation, whereas Anna was a little rougher around the edges and a lot more fiery. And there is no way Anna would open a guinea-pig cafe.

We know how Anna ended up, because Amy Jenkins revisited the characters in This Life + 10 in 2007. Everyone hated it, including me, but I watched it again recently and it's not so bad.

Anna made it as a defence barrister and turned out to be the most together of the lot (Miles was broke, Warren was a mess, Millie and Egg were unhappily married), although she was desperate for a baby. She still had the best lines: "I only want the kind of man I can't actually bear, who'd try to look after me… but I'd die rather than let him."

It's instructive to see how the careers of This Life's cast panned out. If you'd had to pick one of them to rank among the world's highest-paid TV stars, would you have gone for Egg? Andrew Lincoln was reportedly paid $11m for his final season of The Walking Dead. Jack Davenport went to Hollywood, appearing in The Talented Mr Ripley and the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.

And Nardini? She's still acting, but is not the major star she deserves to be. In 2016 she told an interviewer that things were "quiet" on the job front and pointed out how few decent roles there are for women of her age (she's now 50). She didn't want to be typecast after This Life, yet every role she was offered was "sexually forward, sad, a bit f***ed up". It took two decades and the writing of Phoebe Waller-Bridge to take those characteristics and once again turn them into something brilliant.

This Life is currently showing nightly at 10pm on BBC Four

© The Telegraph

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