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An Interview with Ash Atalla, British Comedy's Master Puppeteer

We spoke to the producer of The Office and People Just Do Nothing about telly, disability and the importance of youth.
April 19, 2016, 3:00pm

Ash Atalla (photo courtesy Franklin Rae)

Ash Atalla has managed, so far, to bookend his career with two fantastic pieces of work. First there was the game-changing The Office, way back in 2003, and now his fingers are in the THC-addled pie of BBC3's People Just Do Nothing, the acclaimed and, more importantly, much loved sitcom about a west London pirate radio station.

Born in Cairo in 1972 to two doctors, Atalla contracted polio as a child, and was moved to Northern Ireland, as his parents decided that if he were to be in a wheelchair, he would be better off somewhere that it "didn't mean you'd have to beg for money on street corners".


After a brief dalliance in the City, Atalla found his niche in comedy, and after over a decade of success now runs his own production company, Roughcut. We sat down with him to talk about youth, comedy, British culture and being stuck in the rigmarole of corporate life.

VICE: Wikipedia tells me you'll be 43 this year. You worked on The Office when you were 27 in 2003, and since then you've been constantly working. You had a jam-packed 30s.
Ash Atalla: I think I only really found my feet in my 30s. When I did The Office, it unleashed this kind of fertile hope, and I'm still going after 13 years. One thing I definitely think, and you hear a lot of people say, is when they look back at this kind of crazy early success, they wish they'd enjoyed it more, they wished they'd taken a breath or known what to do with it. In my case, it's brought on lots of great things and among them is this sort of endless restlessness to do the next thing. You know - classic GCSE psychology – but the fear of standing still, but the fear of that being the last thing you ever do. Its been quite energising, actually. In a weird way, it's been the opposite of contentment, like, 'Okay, this has happened. This has afforded me all these opportunities, the door has opened, what do I get to do with that.'

Could you tell me a bit about what a comedy producer does?
Comedy is a producer and a writer's medium. More so than a director's medium. In the world of film, a producer is a finance person. In the world of television, finance is now becoming more complicated. Up until a few years ago, you'd get a show commissioned by Channel 4 and they would give you the money, so you wouldn't have to go and piece together this complex jigsaw. The producer's job in comedy is to sometimes come up with the show, then you employ the director, often at the last minute. So we are at the heart of the creative process. At my company now, Roughcut, we often come up with shows and then go and look for writers that might [work]. It's not a passive process. I'm always thinking about where I would like to see a comedy. What backdrop would be interesting to me?


You seem to have a fixation with on everyday life: The Office, People Just Do Nothing, Trollied
Even The IT Crowd, actually. It's heightened in its execution, but the starting point which is that people in companies only talk to the IT people when their computer's fucked. It's all very 'everyday observations'.

Where does that stem from?
I was always, always obsessed with everyday life. Always obsessed with the little moments. You could look at it as a boy who didn't understand Star Wars; the big concept sci-fis and stuff leave me very cold. Sometimes I don't even understand what's wrong with Luke Skywalker or any of them. It's so alien to me. Whereas if you put me in a McDonald's, I could watch for hours. How people are interacting. I'm not quite sure where that comes from. I like people, I like interactions, I like to talk to the taxi driver and I like to talk to the prince. The corporate world is insanely interesting and I think quite a few of my shows have been in and around that, a little bit. The fact you walk out of your front door and you're a dad, a mum, a sister, a lover, whatever, and you walk in the front door to this reception and as you cross that threshold, you snap into your hierarchy, you snap into whatever it is you do. Whether you're the head of marketing or the cleaner, through those automatic doors life changes and it's like suddenly the hierarchy kicks in. I love that thought.


Everyone's got a designated role and they don't diverge from it.
You go and you play it. So imagine it you went one day and you decided that after today, you're gonna be the Managing Director. You'd be fired, because you can't, because you're not. It doesn't work that way, and I love people working within their confines.

And being stuck in them as well.
Totally. And that's what The Office is about.

You're probably the most visible behind-the-scenes person in the TV business who has a physical disability, and is non-white. Wa s there a moment where you thought 'I want to prove that it can be done'?
I think my ambition and drive probably comes from that moment somewhere, for sure. Definitely as a child. I had very supportive and ambitious parents, and there was a need in me to be seen as something other than 'the bloke in a wheelchair'. But then once within the industry, I think I have been very careful to not get involved in disability politics or disability television or anything like that. At the start of my career, that would have been the path of least resistance. It's a tough business to get into, television. I thought it would be too easy to become defined by this. In the words of my over-ambitious Egyptian father, 'Be good or be better than the others' – classic second-generation mentality. What can you say after that? Of course you're visible because you look different. I'm really fine with that, but at least I became visible for other things, and that was, sort of, an aim. Something you want but you can't just fulfil it. You can't just go, alright now know me for this.


I'm actually not hugely interested in disability, really. I don't have a huge amount to say on it. When people say 'What's it like being in a wheelchair?' I go, 'It's quite difficult getting up stairs,' and beyond that I don't think about it too much.

Do you think making good comedy is a responsibility, because there's so much shit comedy around?
That's a nice way of looking at it. I don't wanna say we're on any kind of crusade to save the industry – I don't think it's an industry that needs saving. The only responsibility that I feel is a responsibility to make something good for ourselves, to not let down the company's reputation. If we put out a stinker, it would be the one thing I talk about for the rest of my life and I would forget all the good bits. When the People Just Do Nothing guys came to Roughcut, I felt a responsibility to those boys and girls. We fell in love with it in about four seconds.

I remember watching it on YouTube a couple of years ago.
Right. And Seapa (Allan Mustafa), we've now changed his name to Grindah, but… What was he called before?

Sniper! Very aggressive. I fell in love with it so wholeheartedly, so quickly, that I did feel a responsibility that we would get it right, and I would hate to have thought something with so much promise would have got ruined in the wrong hands. I don't think there would have been a better company to bring that show through, and they're also immensely talented. Their talent allowed us to do what we're doing with them.


Where do you think British comedy currently sits?
There are some highlights, but I think we're losing out to money. In the world of scripted shows, there's a lot of talk about drama and the global dominance of drama and the rise of those big juggernaut boxsets. Comedy hasn't got on that train, and it's in danger of being left behind, as a scripted force. Comedy doesn't need explosions and car chases, cos they're not necessarily funny… But there is a lot of comedy that would benefit from more money and feeling bigger, to make it feel like it earns it place in this new world. And we don't really have that in this country, while drama has had, and is getting, those levels of investment. And you know, you watch The Night Manager and you know that whether it's for you or not for you, it's a big lavish production. And that's not happening in comedy, so comedy is getting stuck in what you might call a slightly old-fashioned milieu of family sitcoms. I worry that eventually people will fall out of love with that.

Do you think people are less willing to invest in comedy because it's harder to get right?
It's always been the case. The BBC, whom my heart genuinely bleeds for, are under enormous pressure, so they try to protect their comedy budget. No one's ever going to say, 'We are not making any more comedy.' But drama has had the money to reinvent itself, and comedy hasn't.

Do you have any opinion on the David Brent film? We ran an article recently about how auteurs have a tendency to destroy their own creations.
I can genuinely say I've only seen the trailer. Yet, I would say… When something is deemed to be perfect, people always make references to Fawlty Towers, The Office , etc etc, [and say] that you shouldn't do too much of it. And in truth, I'm not sure I agree. You look back at The Office, and fine, it was in retrospect a perfect 14 episodes, but there could have been another series of The Office, there could have been another two series of The Office. Some of the more perfect US shows, you know, Seinfeld, Larry SandersCurb Your Enthusiasm has probably done about 80 episodes. I think it's a rather British thing to feel we've had our fill of something brilliant. You translate that to the David Brent film - well, there is no reason why it should not be good. I would just say, 'Please let it be good.'


You say you have a very young team at Roughcut. Does that mean you're know about comedy online, how it's evolving on YouTube and Vine and the rest?
100%, but via them. You might say it was ageist, but I really wanted to build a very young team and do that as organically as possible. I would always give jobs to bright people with no experience, cos experience you can get, but taste, you can't.

You've had the classic TV shows, you have a production company and continued success; where do you go from here?
I'm 43, I think I'm old enough and young enough. I'll probably want to get on with doing a bit more, then probably have a rest in a few years.

We're working in America quite a lot. We have a deal with HBO, so we're talking to them about some things and we are looking at long form. But even so, I still love the world of British sitcom. I feel very British. I don't think I would move to LA. British comedy is what I grew up in, I'll always be involved in it, but it's like a train set, and the train set has gotten much, much bigger.


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