Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Misfits, by Michaela Coel

This short book is an extended version of Michaela Coel's 2018 MacTaggart lecture, an outsider's view of the television industry,. I'd seen that at the time but it's interesting to revisit given the stuff on early British television that I've been reading (The Intimate Screen and Writing for Television (1955)), about the variety, the diversity, of what gets put on TV - and who decides what gets put there.

Coel charts her life growing up on an estate opposite the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of many striking juxtapositions. There's violence at school, she drops out of college and then ends up writing bits of her life and perspective that get the attention of Channel 4. This leads to her extraordinary Chewing Gum and, after a horrific assault, the even more extraordinary I Will Destroy You. She learns lessons, gets things wrong, and some of her experience is harrowing. Yet, bold, defiantly, she endeavours to be honest, to open things up: her point being that Television will only get its house in order if we can be transparent.

It's an often funny, often very uncomfortable read. Coel is a brilliant writer. An early passage about moths seems to lose its way - but it's a kind of promise, just as when a TV drama opens "cold" on something odd and unclear. It's the writer asking for the trust of the viewer/reader that all will be explained. The final pages, when Coel returns to the moths, will echo in my head for some time. 

There's lots here to mull over, not least her call to arms to put the wrong things right: "What part can I play? What can I contribute or say to help?" (p. 98). And I'm struck by her response to the relative imbalance of power between creatives and those in charge.

"I've often been told by people in our industry that many producers, in many companies, 'test the waters' to see what they can get away with. I told them the opposite of what I'd learned in drama school: the only power we have is the power to say 'no'." (p. 64)

I've often heard something like this said in relation to the choices we make as writers about what to write, a recognition of our relative lack of power when producers and commissioning editors are the ones who decide what to green light. All we can do to steer our careers is to decline an invitation when it doesn't feel right, to take a small step backwards.

Coel's version is about stepping forward

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