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The many faces of Bille Piper over her long, storied career. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The many faces of Bille Piper over her long, storied career. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureSeptember 4, 2020

From Honey to the B to I Hate Suzie: The long career of Billie Piper

The many faces of Bille Piper over her long, storied career. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The many faces of Bille Piper over her long, storied career. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Charting the British actor’s trajectory from teenage pop star to her brilliant turn in I Hate Suzie.

For someone who has been in front of our eyes for 20 years, Billie Piper’s career has been more diverse than many appreciate. From teenage pop star to companion of Doctor Who, to critical acclaim on the screen and stage, Piper’s range is much greater than she’s often given credit for. Her surprisingly varied career has led her to her latest – and most personal – role, I Hate Suzie, streaming on Neon now, a show she co-created and stars in.

Here are the highlights of that career, and spoiler alert: there’s a lot of overlap between her life and the life of her character in I Hate Suzie.

Bangers and smashes

The first thing we have to admit about Billie Piper’s music career is that ‘Because We Want To’ still goes hard. People might laugh if you try to put it on at a party, but it’s an undeniable capital T tune.

The second thing we have to admit is that the rest of it isn’t amazing. But it didn’t really need to be. ‘Because We Want To’ made her the youngest person in history to hit number one on the UK singles chart, and the rest of her singles followed on in its anthemic wake (for what it’s worth, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Honey to the B’ are worth rescuing from the trash pile of pop history).

What’s important is that the aspects of Piper that made her a star later were in full effect here: that huge face with its instantly recognisable Hepburn-like features, that plummy British accent that didn’t suggest the girl next door so much as the girl who lived in the better house next door, and her easy, approachable warmth.

After five years and two albums, Piper decided to stop her music career to focus on acting, and given how well that turned out, it’s hard to blame her.

David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor and Bille Piper as fan favourite Rose Tyler (Photo: BBC)

A real companion

Just like you can’t talk about Billie Piper without talking about her music career, you can’t talk about her without mentioning the role that made her music career essentially a foreword. To call Rose Tyler a fan favourite of Doctor Who would be like calling Jacinda Ardern a member of the Labour Party. Technically true, but kind of downplays her achievement and popularity.

Rose Tyler was key to the success of the Doctor Who reboot, as the companion (Doctor Who’s assistant/sometimes love interest) to the ninth and tenth Doctors. Piper was a relatable human face where Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant were aloof weirdos, and a gateway for more people to enjoy the BBC sci-fi series.

Rose Tyler isn’t the kind of role that stretches an actor, but it’s one that takes a lot of (frankly underrated) skill to inhabit. Tyler isn’t just the gateway for the audience, she has to ground the show’s ridiculous reality in an emotional, human one. It’s only because of Piper’s magnetism that the character became as popular as she did.

By the time her stint had ended, she was more than just a companion. She was a household name – not just a poster in a teenager’s bedroom.

Bille Piper in Simon Stone’s Yerma (Photo: Johan Persson)

Critical acclaim (a lot of it)

After Doctor Who came Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Piper’s first collaboration with Lucy Prebble (whose name will recur quite a bit from here on), the co-creator of I Hate Suzie. The show, compared by many to Sex and the City, revolved around Piper’s Hannah Baxter, who, as the title suggests, lives a secret life as a call girl. The show was a hit for the BBC, running for four seasons, and established Piper as more than just the Doctor’s companion.

She followed that up with a regular role that was, well, anything but regular, as Brona Croft in Penny Dreadful (which you can watch on Neon) and a Bafta Award-nominated turn in Collateral, where she played second fiddle to a stern Carey Mulligan. 

But most of her post-Doctor Who acclaim came from not on-screen but on-stage roles, something that means a lot more in England than it does here (because England is classier/more boring, depending on where you stand). After receiving good reviews in a few plays, Piper went on to star in a hugely acclaimed production of Yerma. She was such a success in the play that she won every acting award she was eligible for, becoming the only actor in British history to do so. That’s in England! Judi Dench lives there, you guys.

Which is all to say: Billie Piper managed to turn child stardom into international fame and then into genuine critical acclaim. That’s a hell of a trajectory, and one that segues nicely into…

Bille Piper as Suzie Pickles in I Hate Suzie, now streaming on Neon (Photo: Supplied)

I Hate Suzie

Piper’s new show is a crystallisation of her career in many ways, some of them quite literal. I Hate Suzie, co-created by Prebble and Piper, revolves around Suzie Pickles, a one-time child star turned sci-fi actress (if that sounds familiar, scroll up!) whose life explodes after her phone is hacked and compromising photos of her are leaked to the press. It’s like a mash-up of Fleabag and Better Things, with the stylistic risks of the former and the emotional truth of the latter. And like both of those shows, it has a towering performance right at the centre, courtesy of Piper.

Not only is Piper channelling her history for the role, it’s also a showcase for what she does best. Her features, as immediately recognisable as they were when she debuted at 13, are accentuated here: big black brows, a messy smoky eye, and overdrawn lips. If her performance weren’t so real and so raw, it would almost be caricature. But she gets down to the bone of what makes Suzie tick; she’s worn down constantly not just by the explosion of her life, but by the constant demands of being a wife, a mother, an actress, a life where everybody seems to rely on her. She’s a pile of shattered glass where everybody wants her to be a stained glass window. 

A star is someone who you’ll watch do anything, and I’d rank Billie Piper among the few there are these days. She’s been in front of our faces for 20 years now, be it as a pop star, a companion or a beloved actress. But where Piper differs from most stars, and I Hate Suzie shows her at the height of her powers, is that she actually rewards you watching her. She’s not just compelling, she’s great.

You can watch I Hate Suzie on Neon right now.

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