“They went back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is and not knowing what empathy is at all,” recalls Michaela Coel.
During a lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Michaela Coel revealed that she had been sexually assaulted during the writing of her British comedy Chewing Gum.
The youngest and first non-white industry figure to deliver the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in the festival’s 43-year history, the Black Mirror and Chewing Gum star used her platform to talk about the horrific experience for the first time, explaining: “I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7 am.”
Coel went on to describe blacking out and coming to consciousness hours later as she worked on the episode. “I took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two, many hours later. I was lucky. I had a flashback. It turned out I’d been sexually assaulted by strangers.”
Coel was quick to add that she wasn’t assaulted within the production company’s offices, or by an employee. However, she did address how her producers at Retort, which is owned by FreemantleMedia, reacted when she told them about the incident.
“Overnight, I saw them morph into an anxious team of employers and employees alike; teetering back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is and not knowing what empathy is at all,” she said
“When there are police involved, and footage, of people carrying your sleeping writer into dangerous places, when cuts are found, when there’s blood … what is your job?”
Coel said she was “not sure how damaging it would be to the company” to ask to push back her deadline, revealing: “I was lucky, someone was transparent with me: ‘They won’t offer you the break,’ a colleague said, ‘that’s not the way it is, you have to take it.’”
She asked for the deadline to be pushed back and for her employers to be “informed as to why”, and that her request was met. The company also sent her to a private clinic, “a service they offer to staff when in need”, and that they funded her therapy.
Urging production companies to take better care of their young writers, Coel vowed to “try to be my best; to be transparent; and to play whatever part I can, to help fix this house.”
She then challenged her audience: “What part will you play?”
Coel’s speech came hours after the BBC confirmed that she will write and star in a new drama that will explore the issue of sexual consent.
The series, which has a working title of Jan 22nd, will see Coel play Arabella, whose raw and personal experience of consent sits at the heart of the story.
“Like any other experience I’ve found traumatic, it’s been therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into one of hope, and even humour,” the actress shared.
“And be able to share it with you, as part of a fictional drama on television, because I think transparency helps.”