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Michaela Coel – Total Transparency
Photography Anna Rosova, Make-up Julia Edwards

Michaela Coel shares stories of racist incidents on set of Chewing Gum

The writer and actor reveals how she felt sidelined by producers of the Channel 4 sitcom

As the TL still buzzes with talk of Michaela Coel’s powerful new drama, I May Destroy You, which first aired last month, the writer and actor has shared stories of racist incidents suffered by the cast on the set of her 2015 show, Chewing Gum.

In a new interview with Vulture, Coel discusses her experience, revealing how she felt sidelined by producers. Although she wrote and starred in the Channel 4 sitcom, distributor Fremantle refused to make Coel an executive producer. “The production office felt like the place I had no access to,” she said, “the curtain rod behind where Jesus is dwelling. You come to my trailer whenever you need something, but I can’t access you.”

As well as feeling isolated from the outset, Coel describes an incident in which five Black cast members were confined to a single trailer, while a white actor had one to herself, a moment which the writer said looked like “a fucking slave ship”. Coel stormed into the production office to complain, explaining: “In that moment, I was like, ‘This is disgraceful’. While the mess is going on outside, you sat here, clueless.”

Another incident arose when Coel found out that director Tom Marshall had been referring to actors Cynthia Erivo and Ronke Adekoluejo as “the twins” instead of using their names. When Coel attempted to confront Marshall, her co-star Kadiff Kirwan said “he screamed at her like she was a naughty school child, to the point where she physically got upset and left set”. 

Reflecting on that moment, Coel added: “It felt as if every single day that I had spent earning the respect of the crew and the cast had just disappeared.”

Coel was eventually made a co-producer on Chewing Gum’s second season, though Fremantle continued to deny her the title of executive producer. “You’re trying to pawn her off with this little crumb,” Kirwan told Vulture. “It’s like she built this house and gave the keys to someone, and they locked her out of different rooms in her own house, which is absolute bullshit.”

Addressing Coel’s claims in a statement to The Independent, Marshall said: “It was an intensive and, sometimes, challenging shoot, but I will say that we all (myself included) learnt a lot in the process. Crossed wires on set that day were resolved quickly and calmly, and I was thrilled to be re-hired by Michaela and the other producers to work again on the second series of the show a year later.”

Coel’s new series, which fictionalises the story of her sexual assault, I May Destroy You is currently available on BBC iPlayer. Read why the show’s character Kwame honours the Black British gay male experience, and is a vital starting point for lives rarely explored in all their complexities on TV, here.