Chewing Gum writer Michaela Coel talks race, class, comedy sex…and more sex

“When I grew up, my race was not a thing. My identity was in my class”

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When she was writing her sensationally funny new E4 comedy Chewing Gum Michaela Coel said she did censor herself. Once.

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“I decided not to show my boobs,” she laughs. “When I see t*ts on TV they are always very upright and firm. I have super saggy t*ts. I just want to contribute to the idea of real boobs. I thought about it then I decided…no.  I will do it one day though.”

Apart from that, well it’s pretty much no-holds-barred explicitness in this rip-roaring comedy which takes us into the world of Tracey Gordon as she discovers the meaning of life on her London council estate.

When we meet her, Coel’s Tracey is a 24 year old virgin with a strictly Christian boyfriend, a sister (Susie Wokoma’s Cynthia) whose only pleasure in life is playing Ludo. There’s also a boy next door (Robert Lonsdale’s Connor) ardently pursued by Tracey.

And, perhaps most unforgettably, there best friend Candice (Danielle Walters, below), a sexy, weapons-grade mouth on legs with a heart of gold. Candice is possibly the frankest person in the whole comedy, which, believe you me, is saying something. Where did all this come from?

Coel laughs: “I don’t see enough of people like Candice on TV, really super commercially pretty girls who are strong. I see commercially pretty girls who play someone’s girlfriend on the side someone who is sexy but sweet and bats her eyes.”

There’s no danger of that sort of thing happening in a comedy which Coel herself describes as “sex central” and does so proudly.

“I have always delved into the world of online sex since I was 12, being caught by my Mum, having gooogled S E X. We all do it, we just don’t always talk about it.  For me it’s maybe a flaw, maybe a blessing, I talk about these things quite a lot.”

But there are important themes and subjects playing out here, not least the sexual repression Tracey experiences at the hands of her religious Mum. Coel herself was in reality a teenage Christian convert – bringing the rest of the family into the fold. They remain believers, but she isn’t any more. 

“I did five years,” she says, admitting that she does make it sound like a prison sentence. “I then went to drama school. I didn’t feel I could tell people they needed Jesus because I needed them, they were the amazing people I could learn a lot from.”

But she is not bitter or even regretful about her flirtation with Christianity.

“I feel angry with myself the way I handled the Bible and Christianity. A lot more people are more normal with Christianity. I was crazy…telling people you will go to hell. I lost all my friends because of my militant faith.”

She is, she says (and who am I to argue?) an “extreme sort of person” and that energy has poured into Chewing Gum, a project of which she is (justifiably) immensely proud of and which she worked on obsessively.

“It’s like I’m an army kind of extremist. If my deadline is this, I think how many hours are on the clock… that means I have to stay awake for two days…and I will sit at my laptop and I will write. I don’t know what it is, man, where I get that from.

“I do not sleep, I stay up and I stay upright and I type through the night. I am not an insomniac; I have got f****ng deadlines, man. I will watch waitresses come in and do their shift. I will go to a 24-hour café in Bloomsbury and watch them on Tottenham Court Road and I would write there. I have put in a lot of work into this, a lot of fighting for creative control.”

In fact Coel was so overwhelmed with the idea of showing her programme to the world – and of letting it go – that she cried before the press screening of the show.

“It feels like saying goodbye. It’s not my secret now. It’s the end of a lot of work. Oh my word. It’s that feeling I know it’s just the beginning…”.

And that includes giving interviews to people like me, which she admits has its pitfalls.

Chewing Gum also seems, rather brilliantly, colour blind, barely discussing the subject of race. But that didn’t stop a journalist asking her “what is it like being black?”. She laughs: “It didn’t happen, you know, I didn’t have a car crash and wake up being black. I mean, would you ask ‘what’s it like being a white actor?’

“Chewing Gum is the London that I know. When I grew up, my race was not a thing. My identity was in my class. It was not about colour on my estate.”

The question of ethnic representation on TV is, she says, important, and things, she says, need to be done. But not by her.

“My job is to to go around campaigning or complaining, that’s not my bag. I just want to be positive and think about what I can do. The thing is to go and write those parts.

“I think something in me writes so that other people who feel like they are very different to people who live on that estate recognises that they are the same.

“If you see a rude girl on that estate you might walk on the other side of the street. I want people to think, could I have a coffee with her, maybe she’s a bit quirky… If you approach something differently like that life is so much better.”

And here’s a clip (Warning: Graphic content)

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Chewing Gum starts on E4 at 10pm on Tuesday October 6