It’s 18 months since I went to see a play called Chewing Gum Dreams at London’s National Theatre and wrote the following words: “Michaela Coel – remember that name because she’s heading for great things.”
Today I feel totally vindicated because the first episode of Chewing Gum, her new six-part TV comedy series, goes out on E4 at 10pm. It’s funny, rude, pacy and definitely not for the faint-hearted or prudish but the writing is razor-sharp and keenly observed. I’m sure Michaela Coel is going to be one of the top screenwriters of her generation.
While Chewing Gum Dreams told the story of 14-year-old Tracey, a teenager growing up in east London, the TV series is set ten years later. Tracey is now a naïve, Beyonce-obsessed shop girl who’s desperate to lose her virginity. She’s got a bible-bashing boyfriend who takes little interest in her, an uptight sister who constantly wants her to play Ludo and a fearless best friend who can’t wait to introduce her to the seamier side of life.
Michaela Coel wrote the series and also plays Tracey, who she describes as “a girl living on an estate who’s been brought up in a really religious household. At 24 she decides she wants to be a normal person and do the things all the worldly people are doing so it’s about going through adolescence in your mid-20s.”
I saw Chewing Gum at a press screening last month and even though it was a touch too racy for me I was gripped from start to finish. As I sat in the chic basement cinema at Soho House (just like a posh country house slap-bang in the middle of London) I’d never seen anything quite like it.
Michaela Coel says that Chewing Gum goes from “extreme laughter to tears” and she’s right. One moment the audience was chuckling at the embarrassing situations Tracey finds herself in, the next we were worrying whether she’d emerge unscathed.
After the screening Boyd Hilton, Heat magazine’s TV editor, hosted a Q&A with Michaela Coel and he asked what it was like to see herself on the screen.
“Odd,” she replied, before explaining how the TV series came about. After appearing in Chewing Gum Dreams at the National Theatre a writing agent asked her to develop the play into a TV show. She wrote the first draft while she was staying at Lake Tahoe in the US but suddenly realised that her script had ten leads.
“I got told to focus on one,” laughed Michaela. “But I had a lot of freedom, a surprising amount. I was always told by other writers that I’d lose control but it didn’t really happen.”