Ash Atalla interview: 'Sometimes I feel like Rambo in the woods'

He made his name as the producer of The Office – but he's not here to push boundaries, just to make people laugh

Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, had just delivered the prestigious MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh when some of the media's biggest brains were invited to put a question to one of the biggest of them all.

Ash Atalla, former producer of The Office, had a query. Would the internet break, he asked, if you typed Google into Google?

Schmidt's answer was as deadpan as it was (presumably unintentionally) hilarious. "That's an example in computer science of recursion," he told the audience. "And the answer is 'no'." So now we knew.

Atalla describes himself as a "low-level, ineffectual trouble-maker … I'm happy to operate on that level," he says. "I need something to push against all the time. Sometimes I have to create a false enemy in my mind to keep myself interested in things."

Atalla went on to make Graham Linehan's The IT Crowd for Channel 4 and other shows including the science spoof Look Around You and the sketch show Man Stroke Woman, before setting up his own company, Roughcut Television, currently producing the Sky1 sitcom Trollied.

His sitcoms were described by one critic as "a slightly edgy look at the utterly commonplace". It is an apt take on Trollied, a supermarket-set comedy starring Jane Horrocks and Mark Addy, which Sky recommissioned for another 26 episodes (starting later this month) after a successful first run.

"It's not the only thing I like to look at but I'm fascinated by the ordinary," says Atalla. "It's quite hard to do the ordinary well. It's like real life but funny, but it can't be too funny because then you break the reality of it. Sometimes you have to cut your funny stuff."

Other Roughcut shows include People Just Do Nothing, a mockumentary comedy about a pirate radio station that was shown on Friday on BBC3; Anna & Katy, a sketch show for Channel 4 with Anna Crilly and Katy Wix; and the BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo, which will star Greg Davies and Helen Baxendale as a couple who are horrified when their daughter marries a self-appointed spiritual ninja, played by Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg.

But Fun Police, starring Vic Reeves and Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby, set in a council's health and safety department, was not picked up by Channel 4 after being piloted as part of its Comedy Showcase season last year.

"It got turned down by Channel 4 but I just adore it," says Atalla. "It's a slightly hackneyed mantra from comedy producers that things need a little bit of time. I'm pretty sure the biggest successes I have had in my career would have been killed by research at the pilot stage.

"I'm not of the generation that says all research is hokum, but I have to combine it with my own instincts, and sometimes I feel like Rambo in the woods: they are all wrong, everyone is wrong!"

Atalla is keen to take the comedy elsewhere, including the US, where Roughcut has just signed a first-look deal with Lionsgate Television, producer of Mad Men and The Hunger Games. "We're developing shows from London directly for America," he says. "Lionsgate is a kindred spirit."

It is 11 years since the first series of The Office, the show that Atalla championed when it was still a short film based on the "sleazy boss" character Ricky Gervais had developed while he was working at the London radio station Xfm.

When he was first told about The Office's Golden Globes nominations Atalla emailed back: "Brilliant. What are the Golden Globes?"

"Everything that's good that's happened in my career came from that moment," says Atalla. "I hope I have moved on. After I did The Office I did The IT Crowd, which was right in the other corner of the ring, it was knockabout, stupid and about as unnaturalistic as you could get."

If The Office turned Gervais into a national treasure, then more recently he has been its wind-up merchant in chief, dividing opinion with BBC2's Life's Too Short (and Channel 4's Derek) and prompting occasional outrage on Twitter.

Atalla declines to comment on Gervais, but addresses the point more generally. "I think there's a misconception when people say the job of comedy is to push boundaries," he says. "I disagree – the job of comedy is to make people laugh. Pushing boundaries is one lever you can pull, but when that becomes your goal I think you have taken your eye off the ball."

He uses a wheelchair, after developing polio as a baby in Egypt – he came to London as a boy when his father's job moved – but Atalla chose not to be a champion of disability rights (except, perhaps, by example).

"I can understand people might think it's a selfish position, perhaps it's something I ought to re-examine, but it's not what fires me up," he says. "We work in an industry where people love to compartmentalise and I have worked hard to be compartmentalised as a sitcom producer – that's the box I strive to stay in."

He's struck, though, by the lack of improvement in the number of people with disabilities working in the TV industry. "I don't detect a massive upswing in front or behind the camera. I imagine there's a will, because there's a lot of smart, erudite and thoughtful people in our industry and as an aim it feels like a good one.

"I don't imagine there are people deliberately quashing it. I can only answer your question in anecdotal terms: I haven't seen it."

Atalla set up Roughcut in 2007, with Tim Sealey, his head of production, after three years as head of comedy at Talkback Thames. Roughcut's credits also include BBC3's Jonathan Pryce comedy Clone and the ITV2 college drama Trinity.

Asked about suggestions that we are living in a golden age of TV comedy, Atalla replies that it's too early to judge. "It's a boom time in terms of hours being made, but how good they've all been? We don't yet have the distance."

Atalla now identifies an emerging crisis for comedy writers, whose budgets have been stretched to breaking point.

"Writers are underpaid and we are reaching danger levels with the BBC," he says. "I know they have had to take a hammering but we are almost at the point where you wouldn't blame them for walking away."

He declines to go into figures, but Jon Plowman, the former head of BBC comedy, said in June that the going rates for writers were about £6,000 an episode, or £36,000 for a six-part series, which can take a year to complete (and usually involves a pair of writers).

"It's out of control," says Atalla. "So much pressure is put on production companies and we have to pass it down the line. It's getting to the point where somebody needs to blow a whistle and say 'We need to talk about this'. It's an issue across the industry, but it's particularly bad at the BBC.

"It probably works out below the minimum wage per hour."

Television is Atalla's second career after a brief stint as a stockbroker. "My career in the City collapsed under the weight of me having no idea about maths at a high enough level."

When he joined the BBC, he did unpaid work on Watchdog and then filled a variety of roles, including (briefly) reading the business news on BBC News 24 before being seconded to the comedy unit. He also presented Channel 4's Freak Out.

"I hit quite an unexpected iceberg with the whole City thing not working out for me," says Atalla. "From the minute that went wrong, I had quite a difficult three years trying to cling on at the BBC. When I landed at the comedy department, it was the first time since I sat my A-levels that I knew what I was doing."


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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