Ash Atalla: white middle class 'swept away' decision to close BBC3

The former BBC producer also unveiled plans for a ‘big romcom’ in America

As the producer of The Office and The IT Crowd, Ash Atalla is familiar with awkward situations and how to get a laugh out of them. That was what he did on Newsnight in 2014 when he likened the decision to make BBC3 online only to “a 60-year-old man wearing a golf jumper has just walked into a really good nightclub and turned the music off”.

Yet although his company Roughcut TV is still making shows for BBC3, time has only made Atalla angrier about the TV channel closure.

“Now you’ve got all these BBC3 shows trying to repeat on BBC2 and that’s a jam,” he says. “You’ve taken away somewhere that young people knew there was stuff for them … and it was the BBC’s most ethnically diverse channel.

“Also the financial saving wasn’t huge in the end. It was easy for the white middle class to sweep that decision away, and they did.”

It’s not the only issue he has been outspoken about. In TV, he is renowned for his comedic candour and eloquence when shining a light on industry issues.

On diversity he says: “From my point of view you’re pushing on an open door.” Roughcut has taken on trainees from diverse backgrounds and in its new Sky comedy Carters Get Rich, featuring Dawson’s Creek’s James Van der Beek, he “deliberately” chose a more multicultural family.

He adds: “I wouldn’t be more opposed to more rigorous quotas, behind and in front of the camera, if we as a production company were forced by some kind of statute. Regionality [quotas] is a case in point…we make Trollied [a Sky 1 supermarket sitcom] in Bristol. Our forthcoming first BBC1 sitcom Hospital People is a regional commission from the north.”

It is ten years since Atalla set up Roughcut, which makes hits such as the Greg Davies comedy Cuckoo, People Just Do Nothing, the mockumentary about Brentford garage-dedicated pirate radio station Kurupt FM and A Brief History of Tim, starring Tim Renkow, who has cerebral palsy, all of which are on BBC3.

The company had, Atalla says, a painful start. Its first BBC3 show, Clone, sank (“I saved my first failure for my own company”) and another went on the back burner due to the 2007 financial crisis. Atalla and his team locked the doors (“Nobody wanted to come in anyway”) did lots of development and came up with Cuckoo and Trollied.

That set the bedrock for success, which he hopes he has achieved “without being a dick”, and now Roughcut is on a high, picking up Bafta nominations. It has also, with its former comedy head Dan Hine, set up a film and drama company called Who’s On First, which is making a film called & Mrs – backed by Jeffrey Soros’ Los Angeles Media Fund – plus a high concept show written by Fleabag director Vicky Jones.

“We wanted to set up Who’s On First with scale,” says Atalla. “I don’t want to make a British comedy set in Camden. I want to make a big romcom … Brits do it too small and too apologetically too often.

“You only realise how shy we are here when you go to America. It brings it into sharp focus how apologetic we are about our work. I try and go about my work with a genuine humility but I don’t mind saying that I work hard to succeed.”

He is surprised there is not a big British comedy studio: “The closest we got to it was Richard Curtis then you go back to Ealing Studios and Nira Park and Hot Fuzz etc. Where is that kind of DNA of early Judd Apatow in this country?”

Egyptian-born Atalla provided the kind of laughs Apatow does when he took part in a TV executives version of Big Brother for the Edinburgh Television Festival last year.

Atalla (centre) won a Bafta in 2004 for his work on The Office.
Atalla (centre) won a Bafta in 2004 for his work on The Office. Photograph: Gareth Davies/Getty Images

He purposely got quiz answers wrong so colleagues were given electric shocks and brought the house done after Celebrity Juice executive producer Dan Baldwin helped Atalla out of his wheelchair (he contracted polio as a child) into bed and told him not to creep into his bed during the night. Atalla responded: “Mate, if I come over to you, you should let me fuck you cos that would be a miracle.”

Although the BBC has begun tendering out some of its own shows to the independent sector, such as Songs of Praise, Atalla says he feels “uncomfortable at the thought of commercial companies like ours raiding successful BBC shows. I’d much prefer us to create our own shows and IPs.”

They include new Channel 4 sitcom, Stath, a comedy about a lettings agent starring Jamie Demetriou. Atalla acknowledges the channel has less money than the BBC – saving it “for baking powder” for Great British Bake Off – but says the threat of privatisation “feels like solving a problem that doesn’t exist … there is no sense that [Channel 4] is wasteful or inefficient. There are other problems in this world that need looking at first.”

One of these is comedy funding. Drama and comedy were level-pegging, money-wise, a few years ago he says, but now drama has “got in a big red sports car and the world of comedy is on a unicycle.”

Despite The Inbetweeners proving comedy can make money he says: “You need some funding and it’s just falling away. It’s a real danger. British broadcasters have to look at how they allocate their funds internally. It’s easy to get into a downward spiral of comedy being more and more poorly-funded. Maybe fund less but better.

“I know it’s all connected with the international market and how much comedy travels [but] comedy can travel… you can build that.”

He also finds it frustrating that mainstream comedies “generally don’t get recognition”. He is as proud of Trollied as cult hit PJDN but “so many people don’t want to” make sitcoms, as “it’s just easier to be cool.”

“You get more high fives in The Groucho [a London club whose members come from media and entertainment backgrounds] if you make PJDN than if you make Mrs Brown’s Boys” even though the latter gets huge ratings. He has always wanted a company “that can do both”.

A PJDN film “is something we talk about” admits Atalla. “We’re making series four, writing it as we speak. We hope to make another series and then [we’re] thinking about finishing our story with a film. There are different ways to structure a film these days it needn’t be a huge cinema release; there’s video on demand - some kind of feature length ending to the show feels like the right thing to do.”

Atalla is not the kind of person who just does nothing: “I’m still very driven and it’s exhausting to feel driven and sometimes I wish I wasn’t.” But he attributes a lot of Roughcut’s rise to co-founder Tim Sealey and their team and recently gave some of them a stake in the company.

“If I went under a bus tomorrow Roughcut would be OK because of the team. In fact they’d probably have fewer lunch and taxi bills to deal with.”


Age 44

Education Business at Bath University


1996 joined BBC as work experience on ‘Watchdog’

1998 Researcher for Carol Vorderman

2000 joined BBC Comedy

2001 produced pilot for The Office, and subsequent two series and specials

2003 Head of Comedy at TalkbackTHAMES. Produced two series of ‘Man Stroke Woman’, three Series of ‘IT CROWD’. Exec Produced ‘Look Around You’, ‘Bo Selecta’

2006 Founded Roughcut TV


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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