Having watched two superb (and very rude) episodes from the new series I simply had to talk to Michaela Coel about the series.
Last year, I was first introduced to the talented Michaela Coel when I stumbled across two very funny Chewing Gum clips as part of Channel 4's Comedy Blaps season.
There are many strings to her bow, she's an actress, a writer, an award-winning playwright, a singer and last but not least a poet. So I think it's fair to say that Michaela Coel is one very talented young lady.
Based on her semi-autobiographical monologue Chewing Gum Dreams, Chewing Gum was very quickly picked up by Channel 4 for a six-part series, which begins soon on E4.
She plays Tracey Gordon, a religious Beyoncé-obsessed 24-year-old who is fast finding out that the more she learns about the world, the less she understands.
How did Chewing Gum first come about? It was a play first right?
Yeah, which I wrote in my final year at drama school. I ended up just writing and writing about things I remembered from school, then found a story which could work as a short 15-minute play.
I then saw that there was this place called The Yard Theatre, a pop-up theatre in an industrial estate in Hackney, and they were open for submissions, so I left school and decided to put on my play there. I extended it, made it an hour, built the set design myself, printed the flyers, handed them out.
It wasn’t paid, you just got half of the door fee, and it went on for 5 days and I sold out every single day. Seeing the audience react, cry then laugh, then cry then laugh, made me realise that this is what I want to do forever and ever and ever!
That’s brilliant, so then how did the move from stage to television happen?
It then got into the right hands and ended up being developed in to a television show. A woman called Kelly McGolpin who’s my producer, read the script, we had coffee and she asked me if I’d like to write a TV version and develop it into a TV show.
I said yes, so I made a 20-minute taster with about 12 different people, some of whom aren’t in the series, and that’s when Channel 4 gave us the money to make the two comedy blaps.
When that came out, I guess they saw a reaction, and offered me an entire series and that was that. That was in September!
How much of what’s in the series is in the play? Or is it all new material?
It’s all totally new. There are a lot of characters who weren’t in the play but are in the TV show. So there are loads of new stories.
The nice thing about a TV show is that you are able to just cut to the next person, we get that it’s the next person, whereas in a one woman show there’s just one person talking, so I got to do a lot more which was nice.
I’ve seen two episodes from the series, and there’s a strong emphasis on sex. Is that true for the whole series?
No actually! (Laughs) To see them both together I was a bit like “Whoa!” but no no no... there’s an episode where she tries to get a job, and an episode centres around a family dinner. Obviously sex plays a massive part in it because it’s a story I wanted to tell, a story of a young girl’s sexual journey and actually by the end of it, she is still a virgin.
Did you have any comedy influences when you were creating Chewing Gum?
I’ll be honest, mainly my growing up. I started off as a performance poet, so talking to people in the audience is something that I did, I didn’t do it any other way. In fact it was very hard for me becoming an actor because I wasn’t very good at talking to other actors.
And obviously the play, Chewing Gum Dreams was all talking to the audience so that’s naturally how it ended up being that way.
How would you best describe Tracey?
Curious. Naive. Brave. Strong. You see in the first episode, she's very subservient, quite timid and desperate to please. Then she breaks out of that and you see she's got fire. She's likeable but not perfect. She makes mistakes, tells lies, she's jealous, envious, insecure. But she's happy with her life, happy to spend it wishing she looked like Beyoncé.
Would you say there are any similarities between yourself and Tracey?
Hmm... I don’t know. What I find funny is kind of what I wrote. I laugh at Tracey. Yes I’ve had a sort of complicated relationship with God, and I think Tracey certainly does.
Her curiosity is probably something that I share with her, in many ways I feel like I’m writing who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be anymore. In many ways she’s very loving and I love the fact that she’s so open. I’m often very guarded, so in many ways she inspires me, I want to be like that. I guess she’s like an alter ego.
At the moment Lenny Henry is pushing for more BAME representation in the television industry. Have you found it difficult breaking into the industry and do you think there needs to be more BAME representation on our screens?
Have I found it difficult? No. I feel like I’ve been very lucky, but I do also feel like... I don’t see overweight people on my screen, I don’t see people that are not commercially attractive on my screen... there are a lot of people I don’t see on my screen, and it has sucked for a very long time, but I kind of feel like we’re getting to a place where it’s changing. I don’t know if I’m just living ahead of time.
Being on TV for me, wasn’t something I was looking for. I went to drama school, and was more about the stage. I then had an audition for Top Boy, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it, but then it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. I love to write, I love to perform and that led me into television.
I feel like telling all the people who look like me to start trying to write. You don't know it's possible to do because it's not often in front of you. If there was some tannoy I could use to say, “hey, try and write – see if you're any good!”, I would. A lot of it's about schools. I had a really good English teacher and that informed where I am now.
So if I’m thinking from a selfish perspective, I’ve been very lucky. If I think from a wider, political perspective, I think generally we need to see more diversity on TV. That’s not just racial diversity, that’s women, that’s disable people, that’s size, it’s everyone.
Finally, you’re about to go off to shoot new E4 comedy drama Aliens aren't you?
Yeah!!! We have started filming, it’s going really really well man. I’m getting to know my character more and more. Jonathan van Tulleken who directed Top Boy is directing the first block, and he’s fantastic. Michael Socha is lovely, Ashley Walters is there so it’s been really really good so far.
The scripts are brilliant. It’s really challenging for me. It’s a very different role for me, I’ve never had a role like this before, I’ve never even auditioned for a role like this before. But I’m really glad that I got it, I read the scripts and I thought - “Ooh. I want that part so much."