In 2018, actor and screenwriter Michaela Coel addressed the bigwigs of the television industry at the Edinburgh Festival. She had been invited to deliver the 43rd MacTaggart Lecture, a prestigious seat previously reserved for Dennis Potter, John Humphrys, Greg Dyke and three Murdochs: Rupert, James and Elisabeth. In 43 years, Coel was only the fifth woman to step on the podium and the first person of color. It’s not for nothing that event president and Sky Arts director Philip Edgar-Jones noticed how his presence “makes you wonder what we’ve been doing all these years.”
Coel’s speech is the centerpiece of Unsuitable, a little book with big ideas that provides revealing snapshots of a television career from an outsider’s perspective. Before being invited to speak, she had never heard of the MacTaggart lecture – “Again, at the time, I had never heard of Depeche Mode or Sarajevo, so no shadow to behold. the conference – she just hadn’t beamed on my radar. ”The success of her first drama Chewing gum and its hits follow-up I can destroy you means Coel beamed onto the radars of viewers around the world. Even so, as a working-class black woman operating in an industry dominated largely by middle-class white men, she remains on the outside looking – or, as she calls herself, a “Unsuitable”.
Coel has been making his way to television since he was a child in London’s Tower Hamlets, where strangers pushed dog poop into his letterbox, while relying on “the resilience born of the lack of a safety net” . At 23, after dropping out of two universities, she entered drama school where she was the first black woman to enroll in five years, and where a teacher called her a racial insult during a improvised exercise.
She reveals her mistreatment at the hands of the TV industry, describing a meeting with an anonymous producer who, shortly after winning an award, said: “Do you know how badly I want to fuck you right now? ? ” She also remembers being drugged and sexually assaulted by strangers and how “the first people I called after the police, before my own family, were the producers”. It was not greeted with empathy but with awkwardness. She requested that her writing deadline be extended and that the channel be notified. “The deadline has been pushed back,” she reveals, “but the comedy manager never knew why.”
Elsewhere, Coel talks about reminders of his ‘unsuitable’ status, such as the gift bags handed out at his first awards show that contained dry shampoo, tanning lotion “and a foundation that even Kim Kardashian was too dark. (A reminder: this is not your house.) ”While filming“ in a place very, very far away, ”she and a colleague were carrying groceries home when men started following them and throwing stones. . “Producers viewed filming ‘there’ as a low-cost haven. They didn’t consider the experiences of the Brown and Black actors to meet the moral of their diversity compass because they didn’t see it from our point of view.
When faced with obstacles, Coel was often said “that’s the way it is,” a way of thinking invariably used to justify bad decisions while preserving the status quo. His goal with his speech, and this lively and well-articulated book, is to ask why things are the way they are, to fix the “broken house” that is the television industry and to advocate for new perspectives, both behind and in front of the camera.
This common sense and instinctively questioning nature approach extends to the very existence of Unsuitable. Is, she wondered in the New York Times last month, really make up a book? This is a valid question, not least because videos and transcripts of his original speech have long been available online. While the text has been updated and supplemented with additional thoughts and reflections (including a long and not always convincing metaphor involving moths), this is not new work. Nevertheless, the problems he exposes – sexism, racism, blatant complacency – remain extremely topical. That Coel’s original speech didn’t spark an instant revolution in the industry would surely justify its transformation into a book.
Bringing about change can be a slow endeavor, but in his 33 years Coel has already accomplished more than most. No one else creates the kind of television that breaks taboos and changes paradigms that it is, and few have fought so hard and compromised so little to create it on their own terms. Coel’s speech was initially addressed to those in charge of our television networks, but for the rest of us it offers a startling glimpse into the mind and practices of remarkable talent.