Michaela Coel, the writer and actor behind comedy series Chewing Gum, has revealed she was sexually assaulted while working on the show.
Delivering the Edinburgh TV Festival’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture – she is the youngest and only non-white person to have done so in its 43-year history – she called on the entertainment industry to do more to protect those who have been harassed or abused.
Speaking to an audience of made up of leading TV industry figures, Coel said she was attacked while writing the second series of Chewing Gum for Channel 4, a sitcom that was developed from her play Chewing Gum Dreams, which ran at the National Theatre.
She said: “I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7am. 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.”
Coel went on to say that she told the producers before telling her own family, and described them as “teetering back and forth between the line of knowing what normal human empathy is and not knowing what empathy is at all”.
Coel said she eventually received therapy at the expense of the production company, and stressed she had not been assaulted at the company’s offices or by anyone working there.
She continued: “Like any other experience I’ve found traumatic, it’s been therapeutic to write about, and actively twist a narrative of pain into one of hope, and even humour.”
Coel is writing a drama series for the BBC exploring sexual consent, which will air next year.
She called on the industry to do more to protect those who have experienced harassment and abuse, rather than focusing on exposing perpetrators.
“Being more transparent in our industry has led those accused of misconduct to courts. We know this because they’re powerful people, who generate click bait, it makes the papers. Are we protecting those abused by these producers?,” she asked.
Responding to Coel’s keynote speech, BECTU’s national secretary Sarah Ward said: “Unfortunately we’re still hearing of far too many experiences of sexual harassment across the industry.
“We have one very clear message in our industry: this has to change. This will require all of us working together, establishing professional workplaces, calling out inappropriate behaviour and – most importantly – listening to and supporting anyone who has experienced harassment.”
During the lecture, on August 22, Coel also described the racism she has been subjected to in her career as a writer and actor, including being called a “nigger” twice at drama school.
Channel 4’s director of programmes, Ian Katz, later tweeted that Coel’s lecture was “a hugely powerful challenge to the TV industry over its failure to embrace and support “misfit” voices”.
“It will, and should, trigger a lot of soul-searching,” he said.
The lecture can be viewed in full here