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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Ash Atalla

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss, it’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today, I am very pleased to say, is Ash Atalla, one of the UK’s best-known comedy producers; the producer of The Office and The IT Crowd, to name but two and he is Co-founder of Roughcut TV. Born in Cairo, as he says, to ambitious supportive parents, two doctors, Ash moved to Northern Ireland with his father’s job, after a brief stint as a stockbroker, Ash says he hit quite an unexpected iceberg with the whole City thing not working out, after 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.” The Office, a brilliantly observed satire about ordinary office life in a Slough papermill, and one of my favourite comedies ever, brought Ash enormous and early success as well, and as he said “an endless restlessness to do the next thing.” He founded Roughcut TV in 2007 with Tim Sealey, Head of Production, and their shows include the brilliant People Just Do Nothing, the mockumentary comedy about a pirate radio station, and the sitcoms Cuckoo and Trollied. We’ll talk to Ash in a few minutes about all of this, his fascination with the everyday and his plans to expand into drama. We’ve also got brilliant music from, amongst others, Grover Washington Jnr, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis. That ladies and gentleman is today’s Jazz Shapers. Here’s Robert Glasper and So Beautiful.

That was Robert Glasper with So Beautiful. I am here with the so beautiful Ash Atalla, he’s my Business Shaper today, he’s the Co-founder of Roughcut, comedy producer, famous in the world of telly and here is. Thank you so much for joining me.

Ash Atalla
Thanks for having me. Elliot.

Elliot Moss
So, Ash, this tv thing. At what point did you realise that television might save you? You were in the world of stockbroking, it obviously didn’t work out. How did you end up coming into this world?

Ash Atalla
Well, I ended up just wondering what the very opposite of stockbroking was because I was so bad at it. It wasn’t just a question of like shifting a few degrees left or right, it was a big re-think that was required in my life because I am actually quite bad at maths, very bad at maths, and the fact that I ended up in stockbroking, the fact that I got so far is a testament to my lack of self-awareness by realising that I shouldn’t do it, my father’s drive…

Elliot Moss
Was it him that suggested you go into it in the first place?

Ash Atalla
Well, you know, I was a child of the eighties and so that kind of financial big boom stuff and the massive mobile phones and stripey shirts, the red Porches, all those stories of, you know, I don’t know if you remember, but you know, oh yeah the guy that comes around to clean our windows got a job trading in the City and he’s now worth nine million and, you know, I am sure it was really untrue but it was very seductive at the time and your listeners may not know but I am in a wheelchair so they might as well know that, there you go, I’ve said it first, and I was just trying to think of something that I could do from the wheelchair which is essentially any desk job, but here was this sort of very glamorous new high flying, very well paid job and I just thought I’ll do that, it looks fun, you get to shout a lot at other men in stripey shirts and I thought that looks good.

Elliot Moss
And you get lots of money.

Ash Atalla
The money just comes in.

Elliot Moss
I mean, was the money, you know you talk about being an eighties child and I am an eighties child too and it was obviously, it was the metanarrative at the time, you know, you made it in the Gordon Gekko or whoever it was from that famous film, of course whose name I have forgotten right now.

Ash Atalla
Michael Douglas?

Elliot Moss
Michael Douglas, that one will come back to us. But that, it really was the dominant narrative. I mean, totally different to now. You said you were seduced. Was there no sense that that was a pretty empty and shallow thing to do?

Ash Atalla
Not at all. Not at all. There was no pool too shallow for me to dive into. I am, you know, in truth, I always wanted to make some money. I always thought I might need some actually as well because I always thought that, you know, to give myself a shot at life and the comforts that I might need or the support around me and it was actually a very, driven from my dad, he was like “Well, if you are gonna be in a wheelchair, and you are going to be in a wheelchair let’s be clear, then try and have a comfortable life around you and that might necessitate paying for things that other people don’t have to.” So, it was a narrative of my life and then, you know, I was… so I saw that and I thought well this could really combine the two things, stockbroking, and that’s sort of where I very, very squarely and aggressively aimed for, really, with the one problem that I knew that I couldn’t really let on but I did sense that I wasn’t going to be very good at it and that is true and I sort of covered that up for quite a long time, certainly to others and to myself.

Elliot Moss
And, again, I think this world of stockbroking and people in stockbroking would say this in the City, it’s not particularly a creative thing to do in the way that producing a television programme is, I am not saying that there isn’t creativity in that but in terms of the product, the product isn’t something that will make people laugh, that will change their lives, that will help them think in a different way. Just help me understand that bridge between the world that you thought you might want to be in and then landing up in the world that you then joined.

Ash Atalla
Well, as it became clear to me that I was not for stockbroking and stockbroking was not for me, I began, you know, and it was a midlife crisis at around twenty five or so, and I thought I’m not going to make it in this world, I’m going to have a very difficult, low level, poor career in that world. What shall I do next? And, you know, I’d always watched television comedy, I did have an interest in it, it didn’t come out of nowhere, I was always a student of it but, you know, in an amateur way, and I actually thought, naively, that I might try and be a television presenter. You know, it’s the arrogance of youth, or the ignorance of youth, and I just started writing letters to the BBC. I essentially was out of work, you know, I’d finished up in the City and sort of came shuddering to a halt, you know, the system, GCSE’s, A-Levels, University, straight into a graduate trainee system in the City and that didn’t work out so, yeah, I really was out of work and began to write letters to the BBC and of course what I didn’t realise about television was, there’s no real structure to a career path, it’s about who you know, it’s about being persistent, it’s about being able to afford to not be paid at the beginning, so I just started to pick off names, you know, contacts and eventually – long story short – got some work experience at the BBC on a show called Watchdog that is still in existence.

Elliot Moss
At what point did you kind of make it in your own head? Forget, I mean, make it to a position where you were happy. When did the comedy bit start to come into play?

Ash Atalla
Well I pinballed around the BBC for quite a long time and was very fearful that that wasn’t going to work out either but I didn’t quite understand the very fluid nature of the TV industry so at one point, you know, you could get contracts for two weeks really and it was quite difficult to explain that to myself and then also to my family, it was like well, how’s it going at the BBC? Yeah, well I’ve got, you know I know I’ve got a job until March.

Elliot Moss
Where were you living at this point, Ash? Were you living on your own or were you living with…?

Ash Atalla
I was, no, I’d just done that University thing of moving up to London with all my friends so I was living in a lads’ flat in Hammersmith. Very happy times. But, you know, they were all management consultants, they were all working for Anderson and, you know, and banks and all that sort of stuff so they were all on that train that I had just left. So, it was sort of difficult to square everything off and it all being such a sort of sudden crash out of the City for me.

Elliot Moss
And also, sorry you mentioned very early on, ‘I’m in a wheelchair’, you had polio as a kid.

Ash Atalla
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
That difference that you, I mean, did you feel the difference? You know, you are living with your mates, you are probably the only mate in the flat who is in a wheelchair, there you are, you jump into the City, I mean you are kind of doing the normal thing but maybe you are feeling like an outsider? Or not at all? Had you just got used to your, you know, where you fitted in life?

Ash Atalla
Well, I think everyone was like, well what has happened? Because I did a Business Degree and so that was what I should have been doing. The wheelchair at that point didn’t really come into it, you know, I, in fact actually, you know, in those early days I think it’s not like it is now where it’s actually good to be different but I think certainly it’s always helped me stand out and I always think the wheelchair box is something that I am able to open and dive into as and when, it has or hasn’t been helpful when lots of times it really isn’t but also sometimes if I choose to play that card – I remember hearing George Michael talk about fame and he just used to say it’s just a box that he can open and use, and obviously he was extremely famous and probably couldn’t get away from it, but I’ve always, I always remembered hearing him say that because I sort of feel the same about my wheelchair which is it’s a cupboard you can open and try and make work for you, or not. But then back at the BBC, having pinballed around different departments, I did get a placement in the Comedy department and felt quite quickly at home there. It was a relief at the time, you know, I had had a rough couple of years career-wise, or lack of career-wise and it was a real sense of quite quickly belonging, of instinctively belonging. One of the first things they did was give me a big pile of sketches that people would send in and I had no sort of formal training and I would just read the sketches and would perhaps rather arrogantly find my pen start to cross bits out, move some parts of the script around and write notes all over it and then I just thought, here I am, this could work out.

Elliot Moss
And, I imagine also at that time, because of your personality, I mean, to be in the comedy world, you have to be super smart, be able to access that super light side of life but the super dark side of life, and you also have to be able to tell a story and I imagine just you as human being, the reason why you probably felt instinctively at home is, that was you.

Ash Atalla
Absolutely right. It was everything that I, without sort of knowing it…

Elliot Moss
It embodied you. You were built for it.

Ash Atalla
…I was built for it and, you know, I am plenty dark enough in my character and in my thoughts and I am pretty stupid as well and I like the silliness of life. Comedy has got some really bright people in it, really complex people in it and it was, if you are being around like-minded folk too.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, it’s Ash Atalla. We’re going to talk about the dark, the light and then actually moving into his own business and what that’s been like for him. That’s all coming up in a couple of minutes but first we are going to hear from one of our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this very programme again. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes or, I have to say this, your preferred podcast platform, then you can enjoy the full archive. But back to today, it’s Ash Atalla, one of the UK’s best-known comedy producers and Co-founder of Roughcut TV. We’ve established that you are, by definition, the embodiment of the comedy genre. Well, I’ve just established it for you. You are the Beeb, your pen is starting to move things around, you are doing stuff. When did that big break happen? When was the first thing that you did of note, for you? If you’re having to single out something.

Ash Atalla
The first thing I did was The Office, really.

Elliot Moss
How old were you at the time then?

Ash Atalla
I was about twenty seven, I think. I’d met Stephen Merchant, you know, in one of the programmes, he was also a sort of trainee coming through, and had a radio show, he used to work on a radio show at XFM.

Elliot Moss
XFM, I used to listen to him and Ricky on a Saturday morning.

Ash Atalla
And he said to me, you should meet my friend Ricky Gervais, we’ve got this character that was at the time called Sleazy Boss, it was the beginnings of David Brent, and Stephen and I got to know each other well but also our careers, we sort of had a discussion, he very much was going to go down the writing path and I was like if I can cling on at the BBC I think I am going to go down the producing path and I think we realised that there might be some synergy there, it was a very specific project, he and Ricky had made a taster tape of the thing and Stephen said to me, so he left the BBC and kind of went freelance and I stayed, and he said well why don’t we work on this together, I met Ricky a couple of times and we got on and I just saw that taster tape that they had made and I had a quiet conviction politician for good or bad, my conviction has also frequently led me down terrible cul-de-sacs but I am certainly a gut instinct person and was very clear, extremely clear, very quickly that there was something in it. When people say to me, I get asked a lot, did you think The Office was going to be as big as it was? Not as big as it was but I was really sure and wouldn’t take no for an answer that we had something really good. And so we all started to work on it. So that was really the first thing that I did. We made a pilot and I am obviously shortening the story but that was…

Elliot Moss
The rest came from there.

Ash Atalla
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
In that business, in the business you are in, that conviction is critical and I suppose it doesn’t matter when you are wrong because people forget the bits when you are wrong and they remember the right stuff. Is that something you can teach people? I mean, now you run your own business and you’ve got young people I imagine that come into the business. Can you teach it or is it simply that instinct that is within you or it isn’t?

Ash Atalla
People know what they like but what you can’t teach is, I do like it when somebody comes into my office and they won’t take no for an answer, so convinced are they that they’ve got something. So, I always admire that quality in somebody. You can’t teach taste and you can’t teach good or bad taste but you can hire taste so I think you do need to sort of work around like-minded people. So, for instance, if I have somebody coming into my office and they consistently are bringing me scripts and I just think those scripts aren’t good, that’s for me a problem. I mean, ultimately, somebody has to make a judgement on it and it’s, there’s a real, I always think there is an arrogance actually because you sort of you, you are saying to people, I think I know what’s funny, I have to think I know what’s funny because it is my job and people find that, I think, difficulty, well who makes you the arbiter of what’s funny. Well, it’s actually the only thing I have to do in my job, you know it’s one of the main things I have to do, like you wouldn’t go to, I always think you wouldn’t go to a doctor and say well who makes, who gives you the God given right to say take these tablets and you will get better? Well, actually, that’s the doctor’s job. Please do your job, help me get better and so my job is to, the first part of it, is to sort of decide if I think it is something that is funny and that’s instinct and then you find out quickly if your instincts chime with a wider public or not.

Elliot Moss
And very briefly, when you set up your own business, I am assuming that that conviction was there? You are going, I can, I mean what made you do it at that moment in time?

Ash Atalla
Because the job is the job is the job. So, it doesn’t matter where you work. You know, I guess it’s like being a lawyer, to give a word to our sponsors, you know it’s, if you are a property lawyer for example, presumably you are doing roughly the same job at Mishcon as you might be doing at Sheridans or, you know, you are advising people on property law and I think if you are a comedy producer, you are trying to make hit comedy shows. Once I’d figured that out I realised that I would rather have the control of doing it in my own company because I am not averse to control and I think when you have a singular vision, which you have to do for a sitcom, interference doesn’t always help, it can often water it down therefore having it as your own company can be helpful to the end creative.

Elliot Moss
You were quoted I think, I think last year, about starting your company, “I think I am part business and part creative and I wanted to be across both of these things. I could work for any of my rivals and the job would be the same but I thought you might as well do it for yourself.” So part of that is reinforced what you said, endorsed what you said before. But the bit about the running of the business bit where suddenly the money is your responsibility completely. The people coming into your office, yes they may not be getting it right but they are your responsibility and you’re paying them money which feeds them and maybe their families too. How have you taken to that responsibility?

Ash Atalla
It’s quite an uneasy meeting of two worlds I think, business and creativity, it’s really hard to forecast in the world of television, it’s the most random, insane, unpredictable thing that you can ever do for a living, not only television but then within that, comedy. So, marrying and trying to get an efficiently run business that sparks creativity can be very difficult and how much pressure to apply to your staff is a very awkward thing to get right I think in the world of television because creativity doesn’t necessarily come from pressure but if everyone is just walking around like nothing matters as well, that doesn’t necessarily lead to good work so there is no right way to do it, it’s extremely culturally fluid.

Elliot Moss
So, how do you do it?

Ash Atalla
Well, you know actually it, at our company, we’ve just taken a look at it and we’ve decided to just perhaps put some targets in place. You know, I’ve had bosses in the past that have come and gone, well where’s my hit sitcom? And, you know, there’s nothing that’s going to lead to you not having a hit sitcom than hearing that question.

Elliot Moss
I want it now!

Ash Atalla
Yeah, I want it now and where is it? And I said well, you know, it’s not a hamburger right and if I could, you know, serve you one up now, I really would but so, you want to make feel supported and safe but you also want to make people know that what they are doing matters. Unfortunately in I think all television and film, 90% of what you do ends up in being a no and so part of my job is managing disappointment, managing it for myself but managing it for the staff who work for Roughcut and in fact I’d say that number is probably low, you know, so most of the time, you know, the development state of the shows that we are trying to work on don’t end up on television. So that’s a difficult starting point actually for any business.

Elliot Moss
Yes, the production line isn’t quite as reliable as other, as you say as a hamburger or washing powder or something like that, you can’t quite process it in the way with specific things at the different stations, it doesn’t work like that.

Ash Atalla
I mean, you simply don’t know at what point the project is going to fall apart, you know and actually if you talk to people who work in film, you know, you can get to the first day of shooting, and it happens all the time, and a financier just pulls the plug and the project goes down. Television is actually becoming a little bit more like that as the finance becomes more piecing it together globally. In the old days, you’d go into the BBC, you go we’ve got this script, French and Saunders are in it, they go great, let’s do it, here’s the money, you deliver it. Now, it’s a much more internationally focussed and complicated business, it means budgets are getting bigger, they are harder to put together, projects are more fragile, big stars are involved. Guess what? They are really unreliable people. Where money meets fame, does not bring out the best in the human race. So, it’s a very complex brittle trainset to be across as a business and that feeds into it feeling, at times, hugely exhilarating, you get rewarded way beyond what you should, at times, I mean, in people saying nice things to you and occasionally in money. A lot of the time, the heartache is endless, you’ve put two years into developing something that you thought was a sure fire thing and it falls apart so a lot of my job is on the human side and keeping people on some sort of level so that they feel they can do their best work.

Elliot Moss
And how does that square with your personality because if you are quite out there yourself, if you are not scared of saying something that is ‘funny’ or a little bit, you know, you are pushing somebody. Are you consciously talking to yourself and saying, no, no, there needs to be a filter here Ash? We need to handle this. I am thinking this through rather than just being instinctive and saying what a load of rubbish or are you a bit more constructive than that?

Ash Atalla
No, I am constructive. I think though if you, you know, there does come a point where, you know, the hard realities of the business have to meet what you are saying to people and I think if people are consistently off track, in my opinion, and it is only my opinion, but that has to count for something, then they can’t stay at the company because you kind of go, I think if somebody has fire, you know, you kind of look at people’s career, you can do it in the world of music, you can do it in the world of media and film, if a musician brings out five bad albums in a row, you might kind of go ‘They’re not good’ and so ultimately we are all allowed a couple of fails, very much so, but you need to ultimately look at the statistics at the end of somebody’s career and kind of go ‘They had more hits than misses, they must know something’.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Ash Atalla. Plus we will be playing a track from Mr Miles Davis. That’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

That was Miles Davis with Teo. I am with Ash Atalla just for a little bit longer. I want to go back to the beginning of our conversation where you said you needed to earn money, your dad said you’d got to earn money because you’ll look after yourself and it’s a serious thing because otherwise life’s not going to be quite as much fun. So, hence you went into stockbroking, now you’ve become a very successful person in the world of television. What is your relationship like with money these days because you must have made some and I imagine you are hopefully going to make more? Have you got that sense of security that you were looking for twenty years ago?

Ash Atalla
You know, I’ve actually gone from my relationship with money, I think when I was young I was actually quite tight, I don’t think I was the first at the bar at University and always had an anxiety about it and now I think it’s quite healthy although I am not tight anymore actually, I would even almost describe myself as generous, I am a spender, you know, if you ask somebody if you are a saver or a spender, I’ve got very little interest in saving and I don’t want to leave any behind, it does, you know, worry me, it’s always on my mind, maybe it’s my Egyptian blood, you sort of, even if you know you’ve got enough money for dinner tomorrow, somewhere in me I worry about where that’s going to come from and so, it’s complicated relationship but it’s one which I just like to enjoy and want the people around me to enjoy, anything that I’ve got or anything that I’ve got left, I want to break the bank and I want to, as they say, handbrake turn into the grave with none left.

Elliot Moss
And what about your relationship with fame because, again, you’ve worked with people, some of whom like a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to a point, are pretty famous and not just famous in London or in the UK but they are famous globally. Do you care about fame? Are you affected by people that are famous that work with you or is just a thing?

Ash Atalla
I am around it a lot. My own profile is just good in my business and comedy fans, you know, believe me, I am far from troubled personally by fame but, you know, it’s nice to be recognised in your field. I don’t want the fame that I see others have, it’s nothing but trouble, I think beyond getting a good table in your favourite restaurant very easily, I think, you know, when you look at people, you asked the question about money, where money and anonymity meet, I think is a really great place to be from what I have observed.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of your own voice as it were, Ash, you know when you said when you landed in the Comedy department at the BBC it was totally natural, it was your home and you stayed in that home comfortably because it is you, your work is you. Is there a need in your head to continually express yourself or is it merely that comedy gives you joy is it a bit deeper than that? Because, again, comedians and the comedy writers that I know, and some I know really well, there is the dark side but sometimes almost the humour of the darkness alleviates your own darkness. Is it? Do you write for that? Do you create for that? Or is it a bit, am I becoming a bit too pseudo deep?

Ash Atalla
No, you’re not actually, it’s a really good question and I do feel the constant need to keep saying something. I mean, you’ve met me and I don’t stop talking and I feel in my work there’s this quite visceral need to go onto the next thing. Without sounding pompous, I am a real football fan and Alex Ferguson always used to say he would win the FA Cup or do the treble and then the next morning you would wake up and wondering what he was going to do next and I really, really feel that myself, it’s quite a burden at times, it doesn’t sort of go away, it’s a relentless and irritating drive that I wish would quieten a little bit as I get older, I would be really happy for it to quieten but it hasn’t quite yet. I guess it will dim in due course but it won’t go away now and so… And by the way, you need that anyway because television is project based, you know, I don’t have a job unless we keep creating shows, there is no, nobody asks you to make a TV programme, you ask them if you can, so it’s not a business of pull, it’s a business of push and I have to keep doing that. Please, somebody come and put the fire out but it’s there for now. Help.

Elliot Moss
May the fire continue to burn because obviously you are running a fabulous business and you do stuff which people enjoy and at the end of the day, that’s a brilliant product isn’t it? I mean, you’ve got at some point go, ‘pretty good’. You could have been doing stockbroking, Ash and we wouldn’t be having this conversation, I am sure.

Ash Atalla
Well, thank you.

Elliot Moss
It’s been really lovely to talk to you. Thank you for your time. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Ash Atalla
I’ve chosen, would Frank Sinatra Fly Me To The Moon count as jazz? I guess it would, wouldn’t it? Do you know why I like this song? Because it makes everyone into a good singer. There’s something about this song that everyone, including myself, just launch into and I think the range of the notes isn’t that taxing somehow so, it can make pretty average singers sound good and I like the sound of that.

Elliot Moss
That was Frank Sinatra with Fly Me To The Moon. I bet it made you sound like a good singer too. A great chat with Ash, he talked about having a fire within you and needing the drive to do the next thing, no one asks you to make a TV programme, you have to ask them. He talked about feeling at home and how important it was for him, and indeed anybody to feel at home in the thing that they do so there is no separation between you and the thing that you choose to do in life. And he also talked about the fragility of the relationship between being a business person and being a creative person and that’s a really important lesson to learn. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Ash Atalla is an Emmy and Golden Globe award winning and five times BAFTA-winning producer, best known for multi award winning series The Office (BBC), The IT Crowd (Channel 4) and People Just Do Nothing (BBC).

Co-founding his own independent production company, Roughcut TV produces outstanding comedy and drama for all the UK’s major broadcasters as well as in the US, through deals with HBO, Amazon and other platforms.

Interview highlights

I was just trying to think of something that I could do from a wheelchair.

There was no pool too shallow for me to dive into.

I always watched television comedy. My interest didn’t come out of nowhere.

It was the arrogance of youth, or the ignorance of youth which made me start writing letters to the BBC

There’s no real structure to a career path, it’s about being persistent.

At first, I didn’t quite understand the very fluid nature of the TV industry.

I feel my wheelchair is a cupboard that I can open and try and make work for me.

I like it when somebody comes into my office and won’t take no for an answer.

You can’t teach someone to have good or bad taste, but you can hire taste. When money meets fame, it doesn’t bring out the best in the human race.

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