Stuck on Suzie
While working on the latest season of Succession, writer Lucy Prebble found time to reunite with best friend Billie Piper for I Hate Suzie Too, a sequel to the 2020 drama. She tells DQ about showrunning, truthful writing and the demands of creating a fictional dance competition.
With filming on the fourth season of hit US drama Succession nearing completion, writer and executive producer Lucy Prebble is among those on set every day – and night. When she speaks to DQ from her New York base, she’s been working hours that stretch from 4.30pm to 4.30am, “but it means I can do stuff in the day,” she says.
Quite how she finds the energy to do anything else is a mystery, with scripts being written and rewritten for the HBO series as production hurtles towards its conclusion ahead of a prospective Spring 2023 return date for one of the biggest and best shows on TV.
“Sometimes there are changes to the actual episode we’re shooting, but often we’re doing a lot of stuff on set and then also writing the next episode that’s coming up,” Prebble explains. “So that’s fun.”
The award-winning playwright has been ever-present on the series, which was created by fellow Brit Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and tells a story of power and family dynamics through the eyes of patriarch Logan Roy and his four grown-up children, all of whom vie for control of media empire Waystar Royco.
Prebble’s first venture into TV came in 2007 with ITV2 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which she wrote based on the blog of a London call girl known as Belle du Jour. But it’s through working on Succession that she has come to adopt the US writer-producer model that installs a creative voice – such as showrunner Armstrong – to oversee a whole show from beginning to end.
“That’s why they create the sort of television they do,” Prebble says of HBO, the home of The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under, “and that’s how I like to do it. I sometimes wish I was one of those writers who hands over a script and then is like, ‘That’s my bit of the relay race done, off you go.’ I’ve seen brilliant writers do that, but it’s not something that’s worked for me; or when I have done that, the project hasn’t really worked out or maybe I just haven’t been a fan of the project.”
It’s an approach that can be traced back to Prebble’s roots in theatre. She would often rewrite around the cast as a show began to take shape, and then again during previews, when further changes would be made depending on the response of the audience. “That’s terrifying for the actors because they’re not doing the same performance again and again, but I guess that’s the equivalent of talking to an actor in between takes,” she says.
When Prebble hasn’t been focusing on Succession, for the past few years she’s been able to fill the rest of her time collaborating with actor and best friend Billie Piper on their standout Sky series I Hate Suzie and new “anti-Christmas, Christmas special” I Hate Suzie Too, which is produced by Bad Wolf (His Dark Materials) and distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.
“I know I will look back and go, ‘I can’t believe how fortunate I was to work on a show of the quality of Succession, and I can’t believe how fortunate I was to work with my best friend on a show where we were creatively allowed to do pretty much what we wanted.’ That goes without saying,” Prebble notes, “but I’m also very, very tired.”
I Hate Suzie, which debuted in 2020, stars Piper as Suzie Pickles, an actor and former child star whose life is turned upside when pictures of her in an extremely compromising position emerge following a hacking. The leak leaves Suzie and her best friend and manager, Naomi (Leila Farzad), struggling to hold her life, career and marriage to Cob (Daniel Ings) together.
Now, in I Hate Suzie Too, a three-part follow-up that launches on Sky tomorrow and on HBO in the US two days later, Suzie has a new agent, new PR and a new job dancing for ‘likes’ on reality TV competition Dance Crazee, as she tries to win back her first love – the public – while her personal life spirals further out of control. Farzad and Ings return alongside new cast members including Douglas Hodge, Blake Harrison, Layton Williams, Omari Douglas, Anastasia Hille, Angela Sant’Albano, Reza Diako and Yaz Zadeh.
While Succession and I Hate Suzie are clearly very different shows, after working on four seasons of the HBO series, there were numerous lessons Prebble could apply to developing a Suzie sequel.
The most important, she says, is to always start from a place of truth. “What I learned from Succession particularly is to really start from what’s true – what would honestly happen in a room if this thing was happening? – rather than starting from what would make a good scene or what’s funny, which is always helpful, but you need to start from what would actually happen,” she says. “It’s amazing how relatively little television does that. A scene often doesn’t work because something in it is untrue.”
With a nod to her background as a playwright, Pebble admits she tends to lean towards tragedy and change. And after finishing I Hate Suzie, she was a little hesitant to do more once she thought Suzie’s story was complete.
But coming from a more comedic background, Armstrong told her that if something works and people like it, it means there’s an element at the heart of the story that you can return to again and again.
On Succession, “we do a lot of quite slow-moving A-story, the central business story, but it’s the smaller stories within it, the character stuff, that’s always turning,” Prebble observes. “The characters don’t need to change as much as you think they do. In life, people do move and change quite slowly. That gave me the confidence that there’s more to do with Suzie, because even though the characters can be the same, they can be in a different circumstance and that will be enough. That’s something Succession also taught me, that not everything has to be a massive Greek or Shakespearean tragedy where the world is completely different at the end from how it was at the beginning.”
Prebble and Piper – who forged their friendship when Piper took the lead in Secret Diary of a Call Girl – set aside two weeks in the summer of 2021 to discuss how Suzie might return, before Prebble spent the autumn and the beginning of this year penning the scripts. “I can’t believe how quickly I wrote the show, it was a lot of pressure,” she says of the process, which had to be completed swiftly because of Piper’s busy filming schedule and the limited window in which they could shoot the new season earlier this year. It meant that for several months, Prebble was locked between Suzie and Succession.
“I had no life. I didn’t go out once in the evening for four months. It was pretty savage,” she says. “I was in New York for some of it. I don’t have an office so I rented a cheap hotel room to write in, but it was right by the Holland Tunnel. What I didn’t know was at about 2.30pm to 9pm every single day, there’s unbelievable traffic outside this hotel room, so you have thousands of cars coming out of Manhattan and beeping non-stop. When I watch the show now, I can hear that under every episode.”
Taking inspiration from John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night and one of Prebble’s favourite films, 1979’s All That Jazz, she and Piper came up with the idea of featuring a live show in I Hate Suzie Too – at first a theatre play where the camera would follow Suzie on and off stage. But also because of those influences – and Piper’s desire to include more dancing – they settled on the idea of Suzie entering a TV dance competition.
“I was so surprised because I’m normally the very mainstream one and she’s got a more experimental or artistic sensibility,” Prebble says of the friends’ differing tastes. “But it just felt like a very strong idea – of course someone involved in a nude scandal or sex scandal might want restore their reputation by going on quite a big, mainstream commercial dance show. That’s very easy to understand, and that gets me very excited because then I feel I can be quite challenging and weird within it. If the idea isn’t terrifying or too experimental, if it doesn’t push people away, within it I can write and we can create and produce in a way you haven’t seen before. From then, I was like, ‘Yes, this will be great.’”
The pair were also excited by the idea of I Hate Suzie Too airing at Christmas, with a three-part special that sees Suzie starting Dance Crazee in episode one, before episode two follows her experiences on the show and the concluding episode depicts the dance contest’s finale from the lead character’s point of view in real time.
The inclusion of a fictional TV series is just one reason – as well as the rapid writing and production schedules – why Prebble calls I Hate Suzie Too “probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Piper did all of her own dance routines and suffered injuries during what was a physically demanding shoot, while supporting actors who played Suzie’s fellow contestants had to learn numerous dances. Piper and Prebble also had to create a ‘show within a show’ that has its own reality and its own rules based on something that doesn’t already exist.
To make Dance Crazee feel youthful and modern, they included a real-time voting element that would instantly reveal how the show’s viewers rated each contestant.
“It’s difficult enough to make and create that world [of I Hate Suzie], and then we had to build Dance Crazee within it, working out how it works, designing and casting it,” Prebble says. “Then we had to find actors who are prepared to do both things, who are good enough actors to live in I Hate Suzie – a world where we want very naturalistic performers and truthful acting – but who are also prepared to be on stage and learn dances for weeks beforehand, and be compassionate and brave enough to not be very good if we need them to not be very good, which is obviously the point of celebrities doing a dance competition.”
The actors were also called on to do one-shots, where cameras would follow the Crazee contestants backstage, walking back and forth along corridors in one long take.
“So creating a show within a show and finding the people who can exist in both shows and then filming them, it’s a level of ambition you don’t normally see in British telly,” Prebble adds. “There were a lot of times I wished I came up with a different idea, but hopefully it will feel interesting and courageous.”
Working with Sky, Prebble and Piper found themselves afforded the creative freedom to bring their own ideas to a pre-agreed structure that would mean the series could work for everyone involved.
“I’m hugely grateful to Sky for that because they have thoughts, of course, and anybody’s reaction is valuable to me,” Prebble says. “They may not have the solution, but if enough people are saying to me, ‘I get quite bored at this point in episode two,’ I listen to that. It’s not that they don’t give notes, but they trust me and the team to listen to them and then make choices. Solving why someone’s bored is not their job; that’s my job.”
Now, after a busy couple of years working on two shows simultaneously, Prebble is plans to turn her attention to new kinds of projects, such as a novel or a film, where she can work alone without the pressure of a television schedule.
“I never thought I’d say that,” she adds, “because writing can be a very lonely, depressing experience. But that’s how you start writing, alone at night in a little bubble, thinking, ‘I’ll never show this to anyone. I’m just doing it for me.’ There’s a bit of me that’s quite keen to spend some time back there, even if it’s just to refuel and build up again.”