Proper Charlie

Proper Charlie

By Michael Pickard
August 5, 2020

The Writers Room

Charlie Covell, whose career has spanned acting and writing, speaks about creating The End of the F***ing World and teases her upcoming Netflix series Kaos.

Charlie Covell began her television career on screen, as an actor with parts in Midsomer Murders, The Inbetweeners, Peep Show and Marcella. But it is for her writing that she has become best known, having created acclaimed Channel 4 and Netflix series The End of the F***ing World.

Charlie Covell

The darkly comic drama, which has run for two seasons, follows the relationships between James (Alex Lawther), who believes he is a psychopath and wants to kill someone, and rebellious Alyssa (Jessica Barden), who proposes they run away together, leading to a road trip across England. Last week, season two was named best drama at the Bafta Television Awards 2020, while Naomi Ackie also picked up the best supporting actress prize for her role as Bonnie.

Her latest series, Netflix’s 10-part drama Kaos, was due to begin filming in June but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly described as darkly comic, it is a contemporary reimagining of Greek mythology exploring themes of gender politics, power and life in the underworld.

During the digital edition of French television festival Série Series held last month, Covell spoke about her writing process and influences, and offered advice for aspiring writers.

As a kid, Covell was a “huge show-off” who loved performing and making people laugh…
I started doing plays at school. I went to the National Youth Theatre and then university and was in plays, and then I got an agent. I’d always written short stories but never showed them to anyone. Then when I was in my 20s I got asked to be part of a group of actors and writers and we would just make stuff. There was no money in it, we were just trying stuff out. The first plays I wrote were modern retellings of Greek myths in a contemporary setting — I’ve always been obsessed with greek myths — so the Kaos series is a long held dream of mine. I got some really lucky breaks. It wasn’t planned, but it’s often not for people.

Russell T Davies’ Banana was Covell’s first TV writing job

She had written for Russell T Davies’ Banana, her first television writing job, in which she also starred, when she was invited for an interview about The End of the F***ing World…
Banana was a really amazing experience. Clerkenwell Films and Dominic Buchanan Productions were looking to make The End of the F***ing World for TV. I got sent the graphic novel. Chuck [Charles Forsman] is a brilliant writer and illustrator and I just loved it. I pitched for it and then I wrote all of the first season and all of the second season. It was wonderful. It wasn’t my idea, I can’t take credit for that. I just adapted something really cool.

Season one of The End of the F***ing World was a faithful adaptation, but season two was all invention…
I would outline an episode, I’d get that sent off, I’d write it and get notes from Channel 4 and Netflix. If you don’t have a producer role, the notes come through the production company and there will be internal notes and they’ll come to me when someone’s filtered them. I was an executive producer on season two so then you tend to see notes more broadly. They don’t get filtered. The notes were really great and I find even if you initially balk at something, it’s always what’s behind the note [that’s important]. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with the suggestion, you can find another solution to answer the note. It’s useful to know what people have a problem with and what isn’t landing, because often you think something’s working and it’s not.

Jessica Barden as the rebellious Alyssa in The End of the F***ing World

It was really important to me we credited all the people coming up with the story. For season two, Ed Macdonald, Andy Baker, Emily Harrison and me are credited with the story. We would come up with the ideas together like a mini writers’ room and then I’d go away and write it. It was a very collaborative thing. It felt like it was important to reflect that in the credits.

Kaos will play fast and loose with Greek mythology…
Anyone who is a purest about greek mythology will hate the show and shouldn’t watch it. It uses Greek myths as a jumping off point and we’re playing fast and loose in reinventing stuff. The ideas came from me and lots of the co-executive producers and we have a writers’ room for that show, so we sat and worked things out for nine or 10 weeks. It’s more of a Game of Thrones-style show, it’s a whole world: gods, humans and the underworld. Sometimes we come up with big-picture ideas of how the world should look, what are the rules of the underworld or how does death work. Then you have ideas about particular characters or small story events. I loved Watchmen. The way they do an ‘alternative now’ is so clever and it’s been a huge inspiration.

Naomi Ackie picked up the best supporting actress Bafta

Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylised Romeo & Juliet film has been a big influence on Kaos…
I’ve rewatched it so many times now just to keep the feeling of that film and that world. That’s a reference I give to anyone joining the show. It’s Game of Thrones for scale rather than tone. Wth Kaos, you’re dealing with some inevitably dark or serious themes because it’s about gods and abuse of power. The myths aren’t cheerful, necessarily. We are playing fast and loose with it but the themes are still there. If you look at The End of the F***ing World as a story, it’s really dark and there’s not much levity to it when you just consider what happens but what we were trying to do with the tone, which is what Chuck does in the book, is you use this humour to balance it. If something could deter into becoming too dark or sentimental, you bring it back with a moment of dark or truthful comedy. That can be visual; it’s not just in the script. You’re treading that line and that’s what I hope to do in Kaos. It needs to be fun and playful as well as dark.

At the heart of Kaos are themes of abuse of power…
It feels timely. It’s about people working together, people who have been disenfranchised or othered. There’s a natural elite and people who are suffering. It’s about certain people waking up and wanting to challenge that power structure, that feels important. All sorts of different abuses of power occur in this world and the ways people deal with it or respond to it are different. That’s probably a central theme of the show. It’s always timely but it feels particularly timely at the moment.

While The End of the F***ing World is a more authored piece, Kaos brings together a diverse group of writers…
If you’re trying to do a show [like Kaos] about the whole world, I haven’t got anything near the experience to pull that off. Because it’s a bigger show, you need more voices, you need diverse voices, people who don’t look like me or have my life experience, because the show will be the poorer for it if you don’t do that. It was about finding really excellent writers. They read the pilot I wrote ages ago. The show has moved on a lot since then, but they responded to it and got the tone. It’s quite a big room; there are eight writers in total. I’m writing two scripts, co-writing one and there’s seven other writers. It just felt vital it was a mixed bunch of people.

Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther in The End of the F***ing World

Covell’s advice for upcoming writers is to have lots of projects in the works…
Always have more than one idea if you go to a pitch. If someone doesn’t like one idea, you can always say, ‘Well this is something else I’m working on.’ From my experience, the first time you get knocked back is really galling, but if you have loads of other stuff you’re working on, even if it’s just for you, you have a sense of generating things. If you have all your eggs in one basket, and it gets turned down, it can be quite destabilising because it feels like a rejection of you.

It’s important to try and separate yourself from what you’re writing sometimes. It’s easier as a writer than an actor because when actors get turned down, they’re literally turning you down. Also it takes time. You can be working a long time before someone makes something of yours. I’d recommend watching and reading as much as you possibly can and downloading scripts and reading them alongside watching them. Recently I realised I’m much more interested in how characters feel. I would write a scene where nothing happens, and people go, ‘You have to move the plot. It’s really boring.’ It’s good to spot your weaknesses and your blind spots and try to focus on them. You should also share drafts before they’re ready with people you trust. The only way things get better is by showing them.

She is now excited to see characters always considered to be ‘other’ now becoming protagonists…
In the last 20 or 30 years, you’d never be allowed a gay protagonist in a mainstream show. They were always the best friend, and that’s now become a nonsense. We’re seeing stories that wouldn’t have been told and filmmakers who wouldn’t have been championed. That’s happening more and more – definitely not fast enough but we’re at an exciting point in history where those voices are going to be platformed and championed. There’s going to be an explosion of stories we’ve never heard and that’s really exciting because they’re stories that should be told. I’m excited to hear new voices.

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