‘I am a vessel for the story to come through’

Warmth from Coel: A friend says she “can’t stop herself from trying to love everybody”. © Getty

Is the best writing based on experience? Michaela Coel has established herself as one of the most exciting talents in TV today, partly by drawing on traumatic events in her own life.

It was the biggest night of the year for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Although social distancing meant that the auditorium was far from full, excitement still ran high. And at the end of the evening, it was clear who the star of the event had been: a remarkable woman raised on a racially hostile London council estate by a Ghanaian single mother.

Michaela Coel carried off two trophies for her series I May Destroy You: best actress and best mini-series. A fortnight earlier she had won two more at BAFTA’s Craft Awards: best writer of fiction and best director. At Sunday night’s press conference she broke down in tears, saying that the series had helped her “get past some troubling stuff”.

I May Destroy You is based on a traumatic experience from five years ago. While working one evening, she took a break to meet a friend in a bar. When she woke up the next morning she felt weird and found that her phone had been smashed. Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, she realised what had happened: her drink had been spiked and she had been sexually assaulted.

In I May Destroy You, this happens to Arabella, a writer with a huge Twitter following. Coel is reputed to have written 191 drafts of the script, for which Netflix offered her $1m. But when they refused to give her a share of the streaming rights, she turned them down. The BBC got the series instead.

Coel was brought up on the edge of Tower Hamlets. Her parents separated before she was born, and her mother worked as a cleaner to support her and her older sister. There were few other Black people on the estate, and it was only in secondary school that she met and made friends with others her own age.

“They were the people who were not cool enough to love or hate,” she remembers. “We were just there having fun, making up songs, being stupid.” At 18 she joined a dance group linked to the Pentecostal Church, and became so devout that she dropped out of Birmingham University to help spread its message.

One expression of this was spoken-word poetry, which she started performing in clubs and cafés. In one, she was spotted by the playwright Ché Walker, who persuaded her to take acting classes. Having returned to university, she dropped out again to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was the only member of her class whose family did not own their house.

“The way I looked at myself and my life shifted,” she says. “My family has rented our whole lives… It gives you a drive, an ambition, because nothing is certain. That is a resilience no person with stability can replicate. You can’t forget it. There’s blessings to the struggle.”

In her final year she wrote a one-woman show about a schoolgirl in Hackney. It was so well received that she was invited to perform it at the National Theatre and adapt it for TV. Chewing Gum went on to win her BAFTAs both for her writing and for her performance. Michaela Coel had arrived.

Is the best writing based on experience?

Real deal

Some say, yes. Great writing comes from the heart, and you can only bring real emotion and understanding to a subject if you have been through it yourself. I May Destroy You is a brilliant drama because Michaela Coel used it to explore her own trauma, just as George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia is a great book because it describes his own experience of the Spanish Civil War.

Others argue that the most vital thing in writing is imagination, which allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes whether your life is similar to theirs or not. Shakespeare is considered the greatest of all writers because he immersed himself completely in his characters and saw the world through their eyes. George Orwell’s best books are his most imaginative ones, Animal Farm and 1984.

You Decide

  1. What is the most imaginative book or drama you have come across?
  2. Can fiction ever be considered truer than non-fiction?

Activities

  1. Write a story about a family completely different to your own.
  2. In pairs, write a one-act drama based on a real experience.

Some People Say...

“We are the generation that decided, if you won’t look at us, we’ll look at ourselves.”

Michaela Coel (1987 – ), British writer, director and actress

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that sexual assault is a massive problem, made worse by the availability of drugs that make victims helpless. In England and Wales, an estimated 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault after the age of 16. A BBC investigation also found that of more than 2,600 reports of drink-spiking incidents in England and Wales between 2015 and 2019, 72% of the victims were female.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what makes Coel so special. Ché Walker detected “a tremendous self-belief. She was very watchful, like she was seeing all the things you don’t want anyone else to see.” TV producer Phil Clarke notes that “She always asked questions… There are so many layers and reasons for why this is said or that is done in her scripts. It’s much more than what you read on the page – you can always find something else. Dare I say it, it’s Shakespearean.”

Word Watch

British Academy of Film and Television Arts
Founded in 1947 as the British Film Academy by some of Britain’s greatest directors. Its TV awards were instituted eight years later.
Tower Hamlets
Part of London’s East End, it has a higher rate of poverty and unemployment than any other borough in the city.
Pentecostal Church
A Christian movement which emphasises direct experience of God. It has over 700 different denominations.
Devout
Earnestly religious.
Ché Walker
Also an actor and director, he is best known for his musical Been So Long, which was made into a film starring Michaela Cole.
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
One of the world’s best colleges for the performing arts, it counts Daniel Craig, Paapa Essiedu and Jodie Whittaker among its former students.
Hackney
An area of London that neighbours Tower Hamlets.

Subjects

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