Ash Atalla has shows lined up for Sky, the BBC, Channel 4 and is looking at US remakes of Roughcut Television’s series. Having redefined comedy by co-creating The Office, Atalla tells TBI about the business, his career and plans
TBI: Which executive helped shape your career?
AA: One is Clare Pizey, a BBC exec (eds note: currently head of factual entertainment at the pubcaster) who has nothing to do with comedy, but who I used to work with on a show called Mysteries with Carol Vorderman. It was Claire who thought my skills would be better suited to comedy, and she helped me secure an internal placement at BBC Comedy. She thought that’s what I would do better, but she was probably trying to get rid of me from her own department! She said, ‘you don’t seem dry enough for this world of factual television’.
Who did you look up to when you created Roughcut?
I guess with Roughcut I wanted to emulate two production companies I knew from when I was younger: Hat Trick and Talkback. They were the ones that looked like they were doing all the cool stuff, they were the names that would come up at the end of all the shows I would watch, and I quite simply wanted to have a company like that.
You have a public profile. Is that a help or a hindrance?
The truth is it’s just the right level of profile, as it helps me get things done. I’m 100% not famous, but it is about whether people will take your calls, whether it brings benefit to our staff who need to get hold of someone, and if I can help to open doors. When I can it makes sense to do that. It’s not the blind alley of ego.
Is it important to bring through new talent, on screen and behind the camera?
I do bring the young generation through and promote quickly from within. That’s something I take seriously because it’s such a hard business to move around in, it’s so incredibly fluid. There’s no structure or plan to it. We’re not surgeons or lawyers who need years of track record under their belts; I produced a pilot of The Office when I was 26, so you can be young and successful.
At what point did you realise how big The Office was?
It’s only in retrospect that I realised that it has had a long lasting impact on my life, and the opportunity it gave me and everyone in it. We were all young, none of us had done very much before. I’d never produced anything, Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] had never written anything, we were really a bunch of first timers. To go from that to being able to get your calls returned overnight was something that felt different.
It only ran to twelve episodes and two specials. Did it end too soon?
There was another way of configuring the two Christmas specials – into a series – but there is no sense of longing for what we didn’t do on that show. I look back now and it feels a complete and finished body of work. What I don’t wear as a badge of pride, especially now I run a company, is this sort of ‘only a short run can be perfect’ mentality. I think that’s a very British angle and the Americans were baffled by it.
Have the US and UK comedy production styles moved on since that point?
The world has got smaller, and the Americans, with the rise of the premium cable business and on-demand with Netflix and Amazon, have become more used to that British model, or the two are meeting in the middle at least.
At Roughcut, we take a much more international approach. A lot of out shows are writing-room written: Trollied on Sky 1 has now gone through a lot of episodes, and I think Cuckoo will end up being a five-season show. Then there is a show like People Just Do Nothing, which has such a specific voice. If you put it in a writer’s room, could you make 40-50 eps that would capture that? Maybe with a strong showrunner.
But I think it is very British to say if it has a distinct voice it can only come from one person. I don’t buy that. Some of those American shows, the Seinfelds and the Curb Your Enthusiasms, were written by multiple writers and had multiple showrunners over different series, but felt very specific bits of work.
Has Netflix changed the game?
They buy our shows, they show Cuckoo (above) and People Just Do Nothing, but in terms of British originations not so much. There is some coproduction activity – Amazon with Fleabag, for example – but I thought there might be more in that space.
What Netflix has done is allowed American writers to make the kind of comedy show that they used to envy us Brits for: the more offbeat stuff, short runs, and things that feel more niche.
Cuckoo was piloted for NBC in the US. What are your US plans now?
There are a couple of our UK shows that I think lend themselves to a US format. We want another go at Cuckoo and we’re also interested in adapting People Just Do Nothing. People might say it is one of the more English shows we make, but they said that of The Office as well. I do think there is an American version and we’re doing a bit of work on how that might look.
Is there a through-line to the shows you make?
In the early days it was observing the everyday. I would think about the rooms that we as humans spend most of our time in, and how much time is spent in supermarkets, school, the family home or hospitals.
Trollied, which is based in a supermarket, came out of that. I was surprised there wasn’t a definitive sitcom based in that world. You don’t, however, want to repeat yourself in your career, and we don’t need to make one type of show.
Where next for you and for Roughcut?
There are other genres we can push into. The lines between factual television and what we do have become much more blurred. If you look at a show like The Call Centre on BBC One, and shows like The Only Way is Essex, these are real-life semi-constructed stories. I think that’s an interesting area for us at Roughcut, so we’re pushing into entertainment.
You have also moved into film. What can we expect?
If we make a film we have international aspirations, so we wouldn’t want to make a small British comedy. We would want to emulate the early work of Judd Apatow, for instance. At a time when everyone is moving from the world of film into television, our calculation is we are already in television, so let’s push the other way and see where we get to.
Does it follow you could start producing television drama?
It completely makes sense, and we wouldn’t fear straight drama. In the comedy business we can think drama is easy because you don’t have to make people laugh, but the skills required are very transferable in terms of telling stories and working with material.
This is a golden age of television drama. Can the same be said of TV comedy?
Comedy and drama have separated a little bit and I don’t know if I do feel this is golden age for comedy. Everyone knows about these big international drama juggernauts and the money that has gone into them. It’s almost movie money, and that just hasn’t happened in comedy, although you could argue comedy doesn’t need it, that there is something about scale that isn’t necessarily funny.
Drama has reinvented itself, and so what people expect from drama has changed, and that’s to do with that international financing and money. I don’t think comedy has yet had its reinvention in same way and that slightly worries me.
There was a moment when The Office and a few others around at that time brought in that doc feel, and People Just Do Nothing (above) is in that tradition. Beyond that I don’t think there’s been a particularly big reinvention of comedy, and I think we have to watch that we don’t begin to look too old fashioned in the ways we make comedy, and that the work doesn’t feel too contrived.
There will be more People Just Do Nothing and we hope it’s not the end for Trollied. We also have Carters Get Rich [with James Van Der Beek] for Sky, Hospital People for BBC One, and Stath for Channel 4, which is about the world of shitty property lettings. We’re also working with a big American showrunner on something new.
If I went under a bus, we have a very strong team and slate of shows… Roughcut would survive.
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