‘I Hate Suzie Too’: behind-the-scenes with Billie Piper on TV’s most “stressful” show

You'll cringe, you'll cower and your skin will crawl – telly's chaotic pop queen is back!

Billie Piper knows I Hate Suzie Too can be “very stressful” to watch – that’s kind of the point. When the original I Hate Suzie series premiered in 2020, the show’s co-creator and star said she wanted it to feel “like a literal panic attack”, and that frenetic energy definitely infuses the sequel. Episode one (of three) begins with Piper’s chaotic former child star Suzie Pickles competing on a contrived, Strictly-like light entertainment show called Dance Crazee.

It’s supposed to be her big comeback after the cataclysmic events of season one where, as fans will remember, Suzie’s phone was hacked and a photo of her in a very intimate position with a man who wasn’t her husband went viral. When Suzie says “I’m not a bad mother, I’m not a bad dancer, I’m not a bad person” in the new series, she’s not just trying to prove it to the viewing public, but also to herself.

I Hate Suzie Too
CREDIT: Sky

Anyway, Suzie delivers a fabulously manic dance routine to Crystal Waters’ house banger ‘Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)’, but it doesn’t connect with viewers expecting something gentler and (predictably) more feminine. A one-take scene in which a sweaty Suzie is escorted off the stage by a production assistant and has to process her disastrous performance while various hangers-on hover around her is so stressful, it’ll make your teeth clench.

At the same time, Suzie is stuck in a grubby custody battle with her bullying estranged husband Cob (Daniel Ings). She has the expensive lawyers, but he seems to hold the winning cards when it comes to their son Frank (Matthew Jordan-Caws). Piper says Suzie lets Cob trample all over her partly because she feels “so much guilt for what came out in the first season”. In her eyes, she “basically burned down the family”.

“Suzie feels so much guilt”
– Billie Piper

It all adds up to another compelling, hilarious and yes, very stressful watch. “What I always hope people take away from any of the work I create is a sense of relief, though it might not be immediate relief [in this case] because of the nature of the show,” Piper says with a laugh. “In fact, I’d absolutely love to meet a person who just immediately feels relief after watching this!”

Piper is speaking to NME at a London hotel where I Hate Suzie Too is getting an intense two-day press launch. Her packed schedule reflects the fact that the first series was a huge hit that drew rave reviews: both Piper and Leila Farzad, who plays Suzie’s long-suffering agent/bestie Naomi, earned BAFTA nominations for their raw and nuanced performances.

I Hate Suzie
‘Dance Crazee’ sees Suzie make her big TV comeback. CREDIT: Sky

Of course, Piper is also in demand today because of her unique and still prominent place in pop culture. She’s an enduring source of fascination thanks to a career trajectory like no one else: from teen pop star to Doctor Who companion, and then on to stage success and her current incarnation as an uncommonly daring creator – her directorial debut, last year’s “anti romcom” Rare Beasts, has a similar nerve-shredding energy to I Hate Suzie Too.

Piper spent chunks of her early career as reluctant tabloid fodder, so it feels like a minor miracle that she’s so open today. When NME tells her we found her 2006 memoir Growing Pains harrowing – especially its account of the overwhelming loneliness she felt during her pop years – Piper deadpans: “That’s my life, ha!”

Billie Piper
Piper on-set for ‘I Hate Suzie Too’. CREDIT: Sky

Because of this, it’s touching to find Piper so excited about the dance routines she learned for I Hate Suzie Too. It took her back to her pre-fame days as a kid from Swindon with a huge urge to perform. She even worked with Paul Roberts, her choreographer from the late 1990s.

“Honestly, I just love dancing,” says Piper. “I rejected that part of my life for so many years, probably because on some level it was…” She pauses. “A sort of weird traumatic experience that I’m not fully aware of. [It was] a very unnatural way to live as a teenager in your formative years. For a while, I couldn’t even listen to those songs.”

“For years, I felt so scared of singing”
– Billie Piper

“Those songs” were massive hits. When Piper dropped her breezy debut single ‘Because We Want To’ in 1998, she became, at 15, the youngest female singer ever to enter at Number One. She scored two further chart-toppers with ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Day And Night’ – the latter slaps as hard as Y2K-era Britney Spears – before a combination of burnout, disenchantment and diminishing success made her call time on her music career.

“For years, I couldn’t even really sing,” she says today. “I just felt so scared of singing and I couldn’t watch the videos. But over the years, I’ve been able to share that part of myself with my kids, though they don’t believe it’s me – that’s what’s so funny!” Piper lets out a chuckle. “But there is something really beautiful and joyous about going back to dancing now. And it feels way more on my terms.”

Clown
Billie Piper, as you’ve never seen her before. CREDIT: Sky

In fact, it was Piper who pitched the idea of Suzie in a dance show to Lucy Prebble, the show’s co-creator and writer. “I wasn’t expecting her to say that because it’s quite a mainstream idea,” Prebble tells NME. It’s a fair point given that we’re hardly starved of TV series featuring a viral dance scene – Wednesday gave us one just a couple of weeks ago. “And Billie’s ideas are normally less mainstream than mine and much more experimental,” Prebble continues. “But straight away, I just thought, ‘Oh god, that’s a great idea.'”

Piper and Prebble’s creative partnership is firmly rooted in friendship. Prebble, an award-winning playwright who is also an executive produce and writer on Succession, created Piper’s post-Doctor Who series Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, in which she played a high-end sex worker. The fun, frothy show became a cult hit when it debuted in 2007, but both women have said they could have made something more “interesting” if they had enjoyed greater creative control.

I Hate Suzie
‘I Hate Suzie Too’ is a three-episode anti-Christmas special. CREDIT: Sky

This was never going to happen with I Hate Suzie because they built it from the bottom up. It isn’t autobiographical – Piper describes herself as “exhaustingly self-aware” where Suzie really, really isn’t – but it draws from both women’s lived experiences. Piper says the first series originated from “conversations [Lucy and I] had over seven years” that crystallised into a narrative during a writing holiday. “The most fun part of being a creative person is the fucking around stage,” she says. “We tried some ideas that were completely ludicrous, but most of them we ended up doing!”

She and Prebble always planned to make a second series, but after they finished I Hate Suzie in 2020, they hit a brick wall. “It’s just hard making TV,” Piper says plainly, pointing out that this show features “themes and ideas that are painful to write and then reenact”.

“These new episodes were painful to reenact”
– Billie Piper

“And the reason it’s so tiring,” she continues, “is because it means so much to us. If you don’t feel destroyed at the end of making a TV show, I don’t know what’s going on for you.”

Thankfully, Sky were patient and once Piper and Prebble reignited their creative spark, I Hate Suzie Too seemed to pour out of them. They went away again to write, this time joined by Piper’s youngest child, Tallulah, whose presence helped them settle into a rhythm of working on scripts by morning, then decompressing at the pool in the afternoon.

“Those woman are a force of nature,” says Douglas Hodge, who co-stars in the new season as Bailey, a faded rock star competing on Dance Crazee who also happens to be Suzie’s first ex-husband. “To see the two of them in the corner of the room hatching a plan of what the scene was going to be – and building it as you were rehearsing – was inspiring. And their ideas were always relentlessly honest.”

I Hate Suzie
The sequel series arrives two years after the hit original. CREDIT: Sky

When NME mentions Hodge’s comments to Piper, she gives a typically self-effacing reply. “I think ideally, we’d have all that shit locked months before [rehearsal]. It was just circumstance and logistics,” she says. “It really is just the way the industry works now, which is that everything’s sort of done last minute. I mean, when I did Doctor Who, I would get [script] drafts months in advance.” Why is everything left to the wire these days? “I wonder if it’s a money thing,” Piper replies. “It’s always fucking money.”

In addition to capturing the constant panic attack of Suzie Pickles’ life, the new series cleverly sends up the tropes of reality TV. Episode two features a brilliantly satirical scene in which Dance Crazee‘s producers throw around words like “self-care” in a shallow show of concern for Suzie and her fellow dancers. Given the ongoing conversation about the duty of care owed by reality shows to their contestants, it feels quite close-to-the-knuckle, but Prebble says her target was actually much larger.

“It was more a point about the particular modern obsession with wellness and self-care that has nothing to do with how well you are or how you take care of yourself,” she says. “Quite the opposite: it’s a corporate, capitalist notion to get you to buy more things or work harder. Like, ‘Hey, take a B12 injection, and get back out there!'” Prebble says she wanted to comment on this toxic phenomenon because it “sends people into greater spirals of self-loathing” and heightens the “anxiety” they’re already feeling.

“I hope this show makes people feel a bit less shit about themselves”
– Billie Piper

I Hate Suzie Too also pulls no punches when it shows Piper’s character terminating an unwanted pregnancy. “That was really important to me,” says Prebble, “because at the end of the first series, Suzie is pregnant and I wanted to be honest about what the consequence of that is.” Prebble points out that Suzie is now faced with an unbearably painful binary decision: “either have a child, which is a really awful situation to be committing herself to” given the prevailing chaos of her life, or “terminate the pregancy, which is probably the better option for everyone involved”.

“You don’t get to give your character that choice and then not portray it,” Prebble adds plainly. And the way this show portrays it – unflinching and unsentimental – is unlike anything we’ve seen on screen before. Prebble says she wanted to convey not just the loneliness of the termination, which Suzie conducts at home by herself, but also the “sort of mundanity” of it. “Normally we see abortion [on screen] in a very heightened and emotive way, but I thought it was important to show the practical experience. That’s why [on this show] it’s relentless: sanitary pad, sanitary pad, sanitary pad, bath. There’s a lot of bleeding and it’s just really gruelling.”

Watching Suzie “compartmentalise” her abortion instead of telling anyone about it is heartbreaking. She remains an exasperating character who makes terrible life choices, but also one whose faults don’t define her. Suzie never wallows in self-pity for long, and at times, she displays a strong gut instinct for the machinations of reality TV. You’d expect nothing less from a former child star.

Piper says there’s a “real freedom” in playing someone who “doesn’t entirely have their head screwed on”. “I hope people can watch this show and think, ‘Oh God, I know that feeling’ or ‘that makes me feel a bit less shit about something I did,” she adds. “But actually, even if they just watch it and have a laugh, that’s great. I have things in my life that offer me that, so I realise how important that really is. If people come away from this show with a sense of relief and maybe a few lols, I think we’ve done our job.”

‘I Hate Suzie’ starts December 20 on Sky

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