Coel rules the Baftas

Coel rules the Baftas

By Michael Pickard
June 7, 2021

Editor's note

I May Destroy You writer and star Michaela Coel hailed the work of the show’s intimacy coordinator after picking up two prizes at last night’s Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2021, where DQ was on hand to hear from Coel and other winners.

What began as one of the most competitive awards races ever ended in triumph for Michaela Coel at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2021, with the writer and actor picking up two prizes for her acclaimed drama I May Destroy You.

The series – about a woman who seeks to rebuild her life after a sexual assault – overcame strong competition in the Miniseries category from Adult Material, Normal People and Small Axe, while Coel beat Billie Piper (I Hate Suzie), Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People), Hayley Squires (Adult Material), Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) and Letitia Wright (Small Axe) to win the Leading Actress category.

The two prizes gave Coel a clean sweep at this year’s television Baftas, after she last month won awards for Director: Fiction (shared with Sam Miller) and Writer: Drama at the British Academy Television Craft Awards, where the show’s editing team also won the Editing: Fiction prize.

Coel dedicated her acting award to I May Destroy You intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, who has become one of the industry’s leading intimacy coaches and also worked on Bafta nominees Normal People, I Hate Suzie, The Third Day, Gangs of London and Sex Education.

Lennie James in Sky drama Save Me Too

In her Leading Actress acceptance speech, Coel said: “Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe, for creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power, without being exploited or abused in the process. I know what it’s like to shoot without an intimacy director – the messy, embarrassing feeling for the crew, the internal devastation for the actor. Your direction was essential to my show, and I believe essential for every production company that wants to make work exploring themes of consent.”

After winning five craft awards, Steve McQueen’s anthology Small Axe – about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London between the 1960s and 1980s – picked up one further Bafta, with first-time winner Malachi Kirby topping the Supporting Actor category.

In other acting categories, Normal People’s Paul Mescal won the Leading Actor prize and Rakie Ayola won in the Supporting Actress category for her performance in single drama Anthony.

Aimee Lou Wood won Female Performance in a Comedy Programme for playing Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education, while Male Performance in a Comedy Programme went to Charlie Cooper for his performance in This Country.

Save Me Too, written by and starring Lennie James, received the Bafta for Drama Series and Sitting in Limbo won for Single Drama, the Scripted Comedy award went to Inside No 9, and Casualty was awarded the Bafta for Soap & Continuing Drama, its first since 2018.

Following the part-live, part-online ceremony hosted last night by Richard Ayoade, DQ heard from some of the scripted category winners.

Michaela Coel
Coel wrote, co-directed, executive produced and starred in BBC and HBO series I May Destroy You, which is based on her own experiences. She played Arabella, a carefree writer whose life changes irreversibly when she is sexually assaulted in a nightclub, leading her on a journey of self-discovery as she comes to terms with what happened to her.

“[Making the series] was incredible. It really helped get past some troubling stuff and what it enabled me to do was pair something quite tragic with something quite beautiful, and that was being able to make a show and create opportunities and see everybody’s talents come together. It replaced bad memories with really nice ones.

“I wasn’t expecting so many people to identify with the show or the characters. I wasn’t expecting people to feel like i represented them and they saw the show as a mirror onto themselves. There isn’t really a word for that feeling.

“I’ve shot without intimacy directors and I’ve shot with Ita [O’Brien] and team members Ita’s trained, and the confidence it gives you to be able to really tell a story that looks harrowing, that looks inappropriate, while being totally appropriate, while being protected, means you’re able to properly tell that story. I also think it’s a very vulnerable place not just for actors but the crew as well, because the crew might have had experiences and it triggers things for them. So to have her there protects everybody. If you don’t have people like Ita on set shooting things like that, it’s quite thoughtless and inconsiderate and it shows a lack of mindfulness.

“There definitely won’t be a second season of I May Destroy You. It’s been so huge it’s destroyed itself! It’s over. But we’ll continue to do other things. For me, it does make it strange when people say what’s next? The lovely thing is the BBC and HBO have been so, ‘Just chill out, Michaela, for a little bit,’ and I’m the one that’s raring to go. They’re like, ‘Just calm down, sit down. It’s been a big thing,’ so that’s quite nice. There isn’t any pressure, which is good as a creative.

“I would like for people to search themselves a bit and be a bit more curious than they already are. What helped me over the two years making the show is being curious and thinking about uncomfortable parts of myself, uncomfortable experiences and not being afraid to ask myself questions.”

Lennie James
James created, wrote and starred in Sky’s Save Me Too, which won the drama series category. In the show, a sequel to 2018’s Save Me, James plays Nelson ‘Nelly’ Rowe, whose life is turned upside down when his estranged daughter Jody mysteriously disappears.

“I’m a little dumbstruck [about winning] to be absolutely honest. I’m not easily surprised but I’m genuinely surprised by this one. There was some stiff competition and any one of them could have won. The good money probably wasn’t on us.

“To say [making Save Me Too] wasn’t tough wouldn’t necessarily be true but it wasn’t really hugely difficult. I already knew what I wanted to do while I was doing the first season; I knew what I was going to do in the second season should we get one. The difficulty was shutting out all the noise about the first Save Me and trusting in the story and not making changes based on what was popular or not popular in the first one.

“Knowing the cast was a gift, actually, to know what the characters actually sounded like and looked like and they weren’t figments of my imagination and they were fully rounded by the fantastic cast we had. It was a dream to know what Melon [Stephen Graham] and Goz [Thomas Coombes] looked like and to have Suranne [Jones] as [Nelly’s ex] Claire. It was an absolute gift. Then to write the part of Jennifer [Charles, the wife of paedophile ringleader Gideon] and get the actress you wanted for it [Lesley Manville] was gravy.

“The third season has got a boost today, that’s for sure. I’m working on it. I just want it to be a faithful third season. I’m getting it done. But the good thing is, with this happening, there won’t be any pressure on it!

Paul Mescal
Mescal won the Leading Actor award for his turn as Connell in BBC and Hulu drama Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name. The story follows the ups and downs of the relationship between Connell and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as they leave school and start university together.

“It’s a role that totally changed my life and has given me the opportunity to continue doing the job I love. It has introduced me to my best friend in Daisy and Lenny [Abrahamson, director] and people I’m obsessed with. Connell himself is someone who is hugely important to me.

“Normal People was a hit with viewers because it is a show that focuses on normal human society and treats their joys and traumas and tribulations with utter respect. It struck a chord because it’s seeing two people who people can relate to and seeing how they navigate life. It’s quite a simple premise and trusts an audience to engage and be challenged by it.

“I would love to do Normal People season two. I would work with Daisy again in a heartbeat and, regardless of work, I’m just really excited to see her. At the moment, there’s nothing at all in the pipeline [for season two].”

Malachi Kirby
Kirby won the Supporting Actor award for his role as activist Darcus Howe in Mangrove, the first film in Steve McQueen’s BBC and Amazon anthology Small Axe. Mangrove centres on Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant of the same name and the nine men and women – including Howe – who were wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot after a peaceful protest in 1970.

“As soon as I read the script, I knew it was something special and it was something I wanted to be a part of. I had no idea the effect it would have on the audience, and this was before 2020 and everything that happened [such as the Black Lives Matters movement], but I knew this was an important project.

“Working with Steve McQueen was incredible. I probably should have thanked him in the [acceptance] speech because I wouldn’t have had the performance I did without him. What he brought out of all of us was just incredible. He’s a beautiful person to work with. It was amazing.

“It’s not every project I shout about, but this one was one of those projects. It’s definitely something I’m proud to be a part of and everyone should see. These stories being told are really important.”

Aimee Lou Wood
The winner of the Female Performance in a Comedy Programme award, Wood plays Aimee Gibbs in Netflix series Sex Education. In season two, her character was at the centre of a sexual assault storyline.

“A lot of the messages I got when it came out were so moving. It really has helped people and I feel so honoured to have been a part of that. It was Laurie [Nunn, series creator]’s personal story so it’s really special to me.

“The Sex Education phenomenon is bizarre; I’m still getting my head around it all. I’m still learning. I think that’s the weird thing: something gets really big, we didn’t expect it at all and then you’re expected to know how to deal with all of it, and really I don’t. I pretended for a long time that I did but now I’m like, ‘I have no clue.’ I’m still getting my head around it but it is amazing.

“Our costume director said the ending [to the upcoming third season] is going to be a surprise and a bit shocking to everyone, so I can confirm it will be. Aimee’s storyline in season two is handled beautifully throughout season three as well. It’s good.”

Rakie Ayola
Ayola won the Supporting Actress award for Anthony, a BBC single drama written by Jimmy McGovern that imagines the life Anthony Walker could have lived had he not been murdered in a racist attack in 2005 when he was 18 years old. Ayola plays Anthony’s mother, Gee Walker.

“Anthony was a career highlight because we were telling what I thought was an important story and Jimmy McGovern had written it so beautifully so we were telling Anthony Walker’s story poetically for his mother, Gee Walker. It was huge. It was one of the most emotionally challenging things I’ve ever done. I was exhausted by it, but in a good way.

“Winning the Bafta means I get the chance to say Gee Walker’s name and Anthony Walker’s name again and again so they stay in the room, they stay in the air and Anthony stays in the air, which is massively important to his mother. It means she knows people are interested in his story, but also that people were interested in the story of the young man he could have been. That’s what Anthony’s about. This is the person his mother lost, his family lost, his community lost. Every time this happens, we lose somebody and we lose their potential, we lose their love, the good in them, all of it is lost. That’s what this project was about, about loss and what could have been.

“It was such a privilege to be a part of. If someone had said why don’t you write down exactly how you want things to go, it would have been playing Gee Walker and this [winning the Bafta], and it happened.”

Inside No 9
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (pictured) previously won Bafta awards for Comedy Writing  and Male Performance in a Comedy Programme (for Pemberton) for their acclaimed BBC anthology series, which mixes dark humour with genres such as crime and horror. This award, for season five, marks the first time it has won the prize for Scripted Comedy Programme.

Pemberton: “There’s always an appetite for dark and grim humour [even in a pandemic]. Any kind of humour has been good. But Inside No 9 was almost a pre-Covid show in that we focused on small groups of characters who were trapped together. So we were ahead of the curve on that one, and it seems from the sixth season going out now that people are still up for it.

“We’re always thinking creatively; that’s all we ever do. We’re going to film season seven this summer. We just focus on one season at a time and one episode at a time because each episode we finish writing, we immediately have to create a whole new world afterwards. We don’t have a particular end point in mind but the fact it’s called Inside No 9, I think number nine has got to be in there somewhere.”

Shearsmith: “Inside No 9 is made for lockdown times. We did think about doing something contained and on Zoom or about people in lockdown, but then we thought maybe that’s the last thing you want to do, so we were slightly cautious of rubbing people’s faces in it. So we’ve gone the other way and tried to write the world as it used to be.”

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