There is a moment in the final episode of Bridgerton – which landed on Netflix on Christmas Day and promptly became the festive season’s must-watch television show – where we witness what could be referred to in the period drama genre as ‘the speech’. It sees one half of an inevitable couple-to- be turn to the other, following some row or misunderstanding, to proclaim that they love them, just the way they are. Colin Firth got to say it in Pride & Prejudice. Hugh Grant had the pleasure in Sense & Sensibility. In Bridgerton, however, the honour gets taken out of the hands of the man, and put into those of 25-year-old Phoebe Dynevor, the show’s heroine and lead. Her character, Daphne, may live in Regency London, but she is nevertheless a heroine for our time.
‘I love her coming-of-age story and her sexual awakening,’ Phoebe tells Grazia on the eve of our shoot. ‘I love seeing the female gaze and watching her figure it out for herself. She’s a late bloomer, but it’s not like she can google it.’
In a world where everything depends on how many names you have on your dance card, image matters. For Phoebe, it felt oddly contemporary. ‘My sister is nine years younger than I am,’ she explains. ‘She grew up with social media telling her that she had to be like this or that. Bridgerton might not have social media, but Daphne has to present a filtered version of herself, perfect and prim. You can’t live like that forever.’
Appearance is, after all, everything. Daphne is introduced from the offset as ‘perfectly beautiful’. On meeting Queen Charlotte – played by the formidable Golda Rosheuvel – she is referred to as ‘flawless’, and decreed the ‘diamond of the first water’. A bad hair day, then, was out of the question. Phoebe credits an excellent make-up artist and good lighting for pulling her through a seven-month-long shoot, often with six-day weeks and night shoots. But the pressure took its toll.
‘There is a scene in one episode where Daphne walks down the stairs and everyone is staring at her,’ she recalls. ‘That was one of the hardest scenes to shoot. Everyone has days where they wake up and feel like poo and don’t want to see people, let alone be on camera. It just so happened I was having one of those days then, and felt so out of my comfort zone. Basically, I had a full-blown panic attack.’
You wouldn’t have guessed. Phoebe’s performance is fittingly immaculate. But it is also the result of lots of work behind the scenes. An army of dressmakers, etiquette experts, dance instructors. And an intimacy coordinator, who helped plan her sex scenes with the gorgeous Regé-Jean Page.
‘My first-ever scene was in episode six, where Simon is going down on Daphne,’ she laughs. ‘And it was so great, because it felt safe and fun: you choreograph it like a stunt, or a dance. It’s crazy to me that that hasn’t been there in the past. I’ve done sex scenes before that I can’t believe I did: it was only five or six years ago, but it would not be allowed now.’
The success of Bridgerton could be said to rest on her pale shoulders, with the chemistry between her character, Daphne, and her will-they-won’t-they love interest Simon fuelling proceedings. She and Regé-Jean have a tangible spark. He was hired first, having worked with the show’s producer, Shonda Rhimes, before. Phoebe, then living in LA, was pulled in to see if she had what it took. ‘I had the call the next day and, within two days, I had left with one suitcase. And then we had to spend the next six weeks trying to work on our chemistry.’ How horrible. ‘It was awful,’ Phoebe laughs. ‘He’s very hard to look at.’
Bridgerton is sumptuous, funny and dramatic. It also, importantly, boasts the most diverse cast ever compiled for a show of its kind. It is absolutely about time.
‘We talked about it on set,’ says Phoebe. ‘But it never felt intentional: great people were cast in great roles. There is no one more “Simon” than Regé. It’s perfect casting.’ She is also ready to argue with those who have an all-white version of history and can’t contemplate that Black people walked the streets of Regency London. ‘Will Mondrick, the boxer, is based on a real boxer of the time,’ she explains. ‘And there were lots of rumours – and lots of historians still say – that Queen Charlotte was mixed-race. The fact that we haven’t seen these stories told before seems insane to me.’ In short, Bridgerton is diverse because the period dramas before it have done multi-racial Britain a disservice. For Phoebe, it’s an egregious error.
Phoebe is only 25, but she has been acting for more than a decade. She appeared in BBC serial Waterloo Road, before taking a role opposite Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint in the TV adaptation of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch – ‘it was a bit of a boys’ club’, she says. Then, a run in Darren Star’s creation Younger. But Bridgerton is her biggest role to date. Millions will see her face for the first time. She is prepared, but not necessarily thrilled.
‘There is a potential threat in fame,’ she says, after consideration. ‘I don’t like the idea of it. But I’m so proud of what Bridgerton stands for. I couldn’t think of anything else that I would want people to know me from.’
Luckily, she has a solid role model in her mother, actor Sally Dynevor. Having played Sally Metcalfe née Seddon in Coronation Street since 1986, she has been beamed into millions of people’s homes three nights a week for nigh on 35 years. Phoebe, then, has witnessed first-hand how to walk the tightrope of recognisability.
‘It was just my mum,’ she smiles when I ask if she ever understood her mother’s national fame. ‘She’s always taken it in her stride, and been very chilled and grateful and humble. Gratitude is the most important thing.’ Another lesson she learned? The god-like status of Julie Andrews, the show’s narrator.
‘My mum always tells the story that, when she was pregnant with me, and I was two weeks late, she would watch Mary Poppins over and over again to try and get me to come out,’ Phoebe says with a big smile. ‘That is my relationship with Julie Andrews.’
Bridgerton was the final TV hit of the year. Future seasons seem a certainty, with various cliffhangers firmly setting the scene. But whatever happens, one thing seems clear: the young actor who stepped into 2020 a relative unknown has walked out of it a star. As Queen Charlotte says: ‘Flawless, my dear.’
© Guy Pusey