Chewing Gum returns to E4 this week. Hannah Dunleavy tells us why we all need a bit of Michaela Coel in our lives.
Last year’s TV Baftas was one of those affairs where everyone (including the now-Sir Mark Rylance) gave one of those tub-thumping speeches about those rotten old sods trying to take money from the arts. And fair enough.
But the speech of the night – for me at least – was a lot more low-key. It came from the winner of the female performance in a comedy programme, Michaela Coel, who paid tribute to Victoria Wood, thanked the people who encouraged her when she started out and then reminded anyone trying to break into the arts “who looks a bit like me, or feels a little bit out of place”* to keep the faith. If you were looking for a role model for your daughter, you probably called off the search right there.
*I get what she’s saying here, but it can’t go without mention that Coel, who was wearing a dress made by her mum, looked m-a-g-n-i-f-i-c-e-n-t that evening.
If none of this was enough to make you check out Chewing Gum, which is written by and stars Coel, then I’m not sure what I can say to change that.
The riotously filthy but quietly subversive E4 comedy, which starts a second series on Thursday, is funny, right enough, but it’s a lot of other things besides.
Though the topics covered in Chewing Gum are broadly the norm for comedies about the under 30s – sex, money, drugs, dissatisfaction – it frames them around a young woman (Coel’s Tracey) attempting to escape the state of arrested development resulting from her mother’s firebrand religious beliefs. (“Woman in wheelchair,” the brilliant Shola Adewusi shouts from a street corner, “God will grow you leg back!”)
“A huge amount of the show’s appeal, comes from Coel herself, who is so delightful, she prompts that kind of perma-smile I only usually get when watching someone I know perform.”
The conflict between Tracey’s deeply Christian home life and her time with her best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) and her sexually explicit grandmother (who once starts a conversation, “I have to say, that I am partial to a bit of cunt…”) provides the springboard for much of the comedy.
It’s pretty filthy, but it’s filthy in a novel way – putting the desires and needs of women centre stage and talking about their bodies in a way rarely seen on television. Moreover, it’s quite possibly the only programme I can remember acknowledging the fact that women bleed without treating that as something to be embarrassed of or disgusted by.
And when you consider the ethnic, age and body-type diversity of its cast and the fact it’s about – and hold on to the table when I tell you this – WORKING-CLASS women, it’s hard to view it as anything other than completely groundbreaking, a tag that’s been applied to so many lesser comedy series recently.
She’s a remarkably adept physical comedian, probably best displayed in the rampage-while-accidentally-high that she takes through a corporate do, a performance so perfect of stagger and slur, it’s worthy of the great Tanya Franks (who herself explodes into the first series like a comedy bomb in episode two.)
Much like Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe, Coel seems without vanity, writing herself more and more squirm-worthy stuff to perform. And she pulls it all off (often, as it very much were) with style.
Welcome back Chewing Gum, you’ve been missed.
Chewing Gum is on E4, Thursdays, 10pm.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.