What’s the rudest thing you’ve seen recently? While you’re thinking about that, let me tell you mine. I think it was the moment in a preview screening of upcoming E4 comedy Chewing Gum when an elderly woman interrupted a family natter to say…well. I probably can’t say what she said. Not on a family website. It came totally out of the blue, was about sex and one of her words began with ‘c’ and had four letters. I couldn’t quite believe my ears.
Chewing Gum is a hot, explicit, sassy new E4 comedy by Michaela Coel, an energetic 25-year-old Londoner who takes you into the life of Tracey Gordon, a version of herself discovering sex, friendship and the meaning of life on her council estate.
And she has a lot to discover. Tracey has not been taught anything about the facts of life by her strictly religious mother. She is 24, a virgin and working in a corner shop. And she doesn’t even know what a threesome is. Worse still, if she ever does start getting sexually aroused, her nose starts bleeding…
Adapted from her 2012 National Theatre stage play Chewing Gum Dreams, Coel has extruded a lot of the darkness from that piece and distilled the anarchic comedy. It’s clearly very personal and Coel – who was a Christian herself in her teenage years, something she abandoned when she went to drama school – admits that much of her early life growing up in Hackney seeps into the character.
The various people in Tracey’s life also make it a rather surreal high-octane ride. There is her strictly Christian boyfriend (soon discarded, thank God), a sister (Susie Wokoma’s Cynthia) whose only pleasure in life is playing Ludo with her sibling. And there’s also Connor (Robert Lonsdale) the boy next door Tracey gets the hots for.
A particularly memorable character is Candice (Danielle Walters), Tracey’s fast-talking (this is an understatement by the way) friend who is familiar with Tinder and – how shall I put it? – the ways round the bodies of men. This helps make for a bizarre and yet intoxicating mixture of the rough, worldly urban world we oldies assume all young people live in, but told by a genuine innocent shielded by her mother from these realities.
Another unforgettable character is Connor’s hard-nosed Mum played by Tanya Franks (EastEnders’ Rainie Cross) who doesn’t think twice before intruding on Tracey and her son in the bedroom.
Coel is the star and the writer and the comedy is really lifted by her stellar performance. She is a very fine actress and is particularly good at giving wry asides to the camera while also capturing her character’s abiding innocence. It may be hard to believe that someone could be 25, live in London and not have ever had a sexual experience, but Coel’s Tracey really does seem to be that person.
Most broadcasters, as someone from Channel 4 told me at Friday’s preview screening, stop at the bedroom door in their comedies. But C4 is here to take you through those hallowed portals and show what goes on in as funny a way as possible (think early Peep Show which has given me images of Jez and Mark’s sexual encounters that I really would like to forget). Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls did a similar thing and so does Chewing Gum, often to great comedic effect.
It really does deal with sex and growing up in as frank and uncompromising way as you could get without antagonising Ofcom and it should, I feel, be a hit. If the TV viewing public is ready for this sort of thing, that is…