For more than four decades, the MacTaggart lecture has been an event that sets the agenda for the television industry. Taking place at the Edinburgh Television Festival each August, the lecture addresses the concerns facing the TV landscape, usually from the point of view of one of the industry’s gatekeepers. Jeremy Paxman has delivered a MacTaggart lecture. John Humphrys has delivered a MacTaggart lecture. Three separate members of the immediate Murdoch family (Rupert, James and Elisabeth) have each delivered a MacTaggart lecture. You get the idea…
This week, Michaela Coel, the writer and star of Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum, became the fifth-ever woman – and the first-ever black woman – to deliver the lecture. Touching on power, accountability, race and class, her speech was an explosive instruction to the industry: you must do better by women and you must do better by minorities. This week, in Coel’s hands, the MacTaggart lecture became newly urgent, a clarion call to the television industry and a crucial lesson for employers and those who wield power.
Coel outlined the discrimination faced by black actors – on sets and at industry events – recalling the commonplace abuses she and colleagues had been forced to endure: the unequal workplace conditions, the racially charged insults. And she spoke frankly about experiencing sexual assault while working on Chewing Gum, the show that made her famous.
“I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7am,” she said. “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.”
Michaela Coel’s work is all about saying things things we didn’t think we could say. That’s what makes Chewing Gum so brilliant, so funny, so unbearably, awkwardly cringey
Coel was not sexually assaulted at work – “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” – but she suggested that the care shown to her by her employers following the assault fell short. “How do we operate in this family of television when there is 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 … I needed to push back the deadline; it was already tight … I wasn’t sure how damaging it would be to the company, so couldn’t ask.”
She found the courage to ask for an extension on the deadline after receiving advice from a colleague. “I was lucky – someone was transparent with me: ‘They won’t offer you the break,’ a colleague said. ‘That’s not the way it is; you have to take it.’”
Coel’s MacTaggart lecture feels sad and heavy. It is a reminder of the rottenness that still lurks; of the cruelties women, particularly women of colour, still face. But there is a sense of possibility in it, too. In her directness and in her anger, she is clearly demanding that the industry does better. She has risen to the top of television; she is a Bafta winner, a recognised face in the UK and US. And now she is helping to make sure the industry better protects those who come after her. “Why are we platforming misfits, heralding them as newly rich successes whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility?” she asked on Wednesday. “I can’t help usher them into this house if there’s doors within it they can’t open; it feels complicit. What I can do is be transparent about my experiences, because transparency helps.”
Michaela Coel’s work is all about saying things things we didn’t think we could say. That’s what makes Chewing Gum so brilliant, so funny, so unbearably, awkwardly cringey. And now, in saying things we didn’t think we could say about workplaces, she is trying to create a fairer and safer industry.
On Wednesday, the same day Coel delivered the MacTaggart lecture, it was announced that she is making a new show with BBC. Jan 22nd, written by and starring Coel, will explore sexual consent in a “world where gratification is only an app away”. She is making work about gender politics that feels timely, relevant and important. She understands that sex can be funny and complicated and strange and sad. She understands that sex can be about love and lust and power and violence. She understands implicitly how to make work that is right for now, post-#MeToo. (Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey – who, incidentally, delivered the MacTaggart lecture in 2013 – saw the first film released after he faced sexual assault accusations flop dramatically this week.)
Michaela Coel’s MacTaggart lecture was an important lesson in what happens when women get to write the scripts, when women get to tell the stories. But it was also a wake-up call about the industry in which women are writing and telling stories.
Coel has pointed out what needs to change. Now, it must be changed.