Michaela Coel reveals she was sexually assaulted while writing TV show

The Chewing Gum writer and actress discusses the experience for the first time during her MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh TV Festival

Michaela Coel, Getty

Creator and star of Channel 4 series Chewing Gum Michaela Coel has revealed that she has been a victim of a sexual assault.

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The star says that the assault happened when she was working overnight on a script deadline.

In her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, she says: “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. The first people I called after the police, before my own family, were the producers.

“How do we operate in this family of television when there is in an emergency? 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.

“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 adds, “I asked to push the deadline back and for the channel to be informed as to why”, but explains that while it was extended, “the Head of Comedy never found out why.”

She continues: “I’ve been invited here to speak to you as producers, from a creative perspective. As I’ve only made one TV show as a creator/actor and acted in some other roles, I can only speak from my experience – I’m not intending to single anyone out.

“I would also like to add to that this company did send me to a private clinic; a service they offer to staff when in need. The company funded my therapy there until the end of the shoot. I would like to stress: I was not raped within the offices of the company and I have never been raped by anyone at the company.”

Coel says that the trauma of the attack affected her work on the show and called on the industry in general to be mindful of its duty of care to employees.

“For survivors of such trauma, therapy’s great. And you can get it for free. There are many specialist centres; like The Havens in London, and Survivors Trust UK, an inclusive service for sexual assault survivors who welcome those who identify as male, trans, non-binary. Anyone who feels like they’re struggling can get free therapy on the NHS. My Mum has been a mental health specialist there for a decade, that’s why I know.  It’s good to talk, and engage with someone else, transparently. I believe in treating our minds like we treat cars for MOT’s, it’s probably fine but check in, just in case.

“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.  And be able to share it with you, as part of a fictional drama on television, because I think transparency helps.

“Many of us in this industry, this world, are on creaking ladders, climbing, surrounded by noise, stress, and nothing real, not even the ladder itself; it can make the future feel bleak and devoid of peace, leaving some feeling isolated to the point of suicide. I think of Antony Bordain who ended his life on June 8th while shooting a series. I think of Alex Becket, an actor who ended his life April 12th mid a theatre run, I’d worked with him, in that place far away. Is there care for anyone’s mind?”

Prior to delivering her speech the BBC disclosed that it had commissioned a drama series from Coel about the subject of subject of sexual consent in contemporary life.

The “fearless, frank and provocative series” for BBC2 is called Jan 22nd and sees Coel as Londoner Arabella. Arabella’s “personal experience of consent sits at the heart of the story”, which is “set in a world where gratification is only an app away” according to the BBC.

In response to Coel’s speech, Channel 4  issued a statement which said: “Michaela’s MacTaggart is a powerful and important wake-up call. She has raised vital questions about opportunity, support, transparency and inclusion that as an industry we must all address with urgency. The experiences she has described in her lecture are not what we would want for anyone working with Channel 4 or any part of our industry.

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“She has opened an honest debate about how we ensure that writers and performers, whatever their backgrounds, feel respected and heard. We want an industry that truly celebrates difference and is accessible to all, so broadcasters and producers now need to work in partnership to act on the issues she has raised.”