A year ago this week , Michaela Coel stood in an ornately gothic private suite in the heart of Bloomsbury, eyeing her assembled troops. The 12 episodes of her show I May Destroy You were to be read aloud in full for the first time by her cast. The production crew jigsawed themselves behind the actors’ table while producers from HBO and the BBC sat tight in anticipation.
At this point, still only 31, Coel had won a Bafta for her debut series, Channel 4’s Chewing Gum, and turned down a £1m deal with Netflix. Now she was in the room as the writer, director, producer and the star in full control of her own show; a semi-fictionalised portrait of her world in London, of sexual assault, friendships and anxiety. A quiet pressure hissed.
“There were about 50 people in the room, which is already a big number,” remembers co-director Sam Miller. “And read-throughs can be strange things. They’re not always successful. The actors are nervous, things can appear funny when they’re not and things can not be funny when they are. But this was extraordinary.”
By the end of the second day, the room was crackling with excitement. Twelve months on, Coel’s work is one of the most talked-about cultural achievements of the year: Could I May Destroy You be the drama of the year? , asked the Guardian; a compelling, richly textured world (Vanity Fair); the most sublimely unsettling show of the year (New York magazine).
Quite how she generated this – the sort of fireworks acclaim that barely fizzles for most – seems remarkable by any standard. For a black woman from an inner-city London estate raised by her single mother it is historic.
Phil Clarke, the former head of comedy at Channel 4 and producer behind Brass Eye, Peep Show, Fresh Meat and more, describes Coel as a real deal artist. “The only other person I’ve worked with the same unquenchable energy and relentless pursuit of excellence was Chris Morris,” he said. “They are both once-in-a-generation talent.”
Born Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson to Ghanian parents, Coel changed her name at 23. Hers was one of only a handful of black families on the council estate she grew up on, bang on the border of Tower Hamlets and the City of London.
On screen, Coel is compelling to watch: face cut like a diamond, eyes and cheekbones dancing in perfect symmetry. Back then, she says, she was called ugly, and felt like an outsider. Curious but a bit lost. Her mother worked as a cleaner and studied for a degree part-time; Coel and her sister were kept occupied with theatre clubs, television and dial-up internet.
A pile of dog excrement was left outside the family’s front door when she was a child. Later, more followed through the letterbox. Coel was the only black pupil in her year at primary school and was bullied – and bullied back.
Throughout her adolescence, racial slurs were casually thrown at her. The n-word was bombed around. True to the spirit of the age, Coel began creating her own bloggy web pages, taking her revenge by spilling her guts to the world. At 18, she fell in love with Jesus and, by her own telling, became “an extreme Christian”.
She dropped out of university twice but at 23, decided drama school was her best bet. Her faith departed almost as energetically as it had arrived when she made a gang of gay friends. “It was difficult not to notice her,” says actor Paapa Essiedu. “For a start, we were the only three black people on the course.”
Essiedu and Coel became tight, but kept their friendship and careers separate early on; Essiedu only got the part of Kwame on I May Destroy You after the casting director put him forward for audition. “She was always very special and always unique,” he says. “To see that celebrated on a large scale now is not a surprise to me.”
Clarke also cottoned on to Coel’s talent early. Producers from FremantleMedia had spotted her one-woman show Chewing Gum Dreams in 2013 and helped her pitch it to Channel 4. Another semi-fictionalised account of Coel’s life, a period of all-consuming hormones and Christian evangelism, Clarke commissioned two series. It got picked up by Netflix in the US.
Several years later Coel turned up unannounced at Clarke’s production company, VAL, to pitch what became I May Destroy You. By all accounts, she wasn’t intimidated by the industry’s social codes and dispensed with received wisdom. She wanted to create a show articulating the truth of a trauma she was still processing.
Coel had been writing into the night finishing a script for the second series of Chewing Gum at Fremantle’s offices when she took a break to meet a friend in a bar. She was drugged and sexually assaulted by strangers and in the early hours came to back at Fremantle trying to write her way through the fogginess. Her deadlines weren’t extended, the matter was kept hushed. The lack of empathy stung hard.
Coel dropped this bombshell when she delivered the industry’s prestigious MacTaggart Lecture in 2018, the keynote speech at Edinburgh’s TV festival. She was the youngest, and first black person, to be offered the platform. It was an hour in when she revealed the racism and assault she had suffered in the industry. Her account was searing and honest and reportedly bought gasps from the audience.
There were laughs and awkward silences, moments of inspired levity when she called out television’s gilded veneer and darker underbelly. “My euphoria from being liked made me so happy,” she said. “I was suddenly fitting in, I went to press nights and parties, and tried cocaine. I had no job to wake up to, so I’d go to more parties in the night time. Where I’d have more cocaine.”
She pleaded for the house to be more transparent, to open up to people like her, to not chew them up and spit them out.
A month later, she was promoting her first dramatic role in Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising, another HBO-BBC production on the 1994 Rwandan conflict. Speaking to the Observer, she played down the impact she had in Edinburgh. “I was out of radio contact afterwards … I would just hope that people get to see the whole story and not just snippets.”
She was always special and unique. To see that celebrated and heralded on a large scale now is not a surprise to me
Friends who didn’t want to give their names describe her “spectacular warmth” and “insane work ethic”. Coel frequently disappears to write in lake cabins in the US and Switzerland, or the second homes of wealthy patrons – wherever she can find isolated periods of quiet.
“She has undeniable presence and she can’t stop herself from trying to love everybody,” says one friend. “You’ll be like, this is insane, we have to get you in this car, but she is open when people approach her. She does take distance when she needs it, sometimes you won’t get a text back for months when she’s taking care of herself or working. But when you’re with her, you only ever have really interesting conversations.”
Another elaborates: “She’s a sponge, it’s not like she’ll be, ‘ooohh I could write about this’ but you can just see her brain ticking, taking it all in. She never stops creating.”
Clarke agrees. “She always asked questions, why this and why not this,” he says. “And it reflects her as a writer. There are so many layers and reasons for why this is said or that is done in her scripts. It’s much more than what you read on the page, you can always find something else. Dare I say it, it’s Shakespearean.”
Coel wheeled through a reported 191 drafts of I May Destroy You, unprecious about her words, striving to make something that felt and sounded true. She ran a 96-day shoot up to this January, breaking down the usual on-set hierarchies. “She had a remarkable 360 vision,” says Miller. “I thought of my job as protecting her from production baggage, allowing her to be loose and free as an actress, but she didn’t need it that much. I’m in awe, really.”