Ash Atalla - An unholy Trinity

The producer of 'The Office' has moved on from comedy with a new soap described as 'Gossip Girl' meets 'Buffy' via Hogwarts.
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The Independent Culture

It's less than 10 miles from Slough in Berkshire to Egham in Surrey. In terms of architectural aesthetic, however, there is a whole continent separating the utilitarian Slough Trading Estate – alleged home of Wernham Hogg, the paper merchants mismanaged by David Brent – and the high Victorian excess of Royal Holloway, the University of London college in Egham that was modelled on Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley. TV producer Ash Atalla has used both as locations, the former for the opening credits of The Office (memorably spliced with the wistful ditty "Handbags and Gladrags"), the latter as a backdrop for Trinity, his fantastical teen soap-cum-thriller that starts on ITV2 this Sunday.

With a cast that combines old-stagers Charles Dance and Claire Skinner with the up-and-coming likes of Christian Cooke (Demons) and Antonia Bernath (St Trinian's), Trinity is the first fruit of Atalla's new independent production company, Roughcut. It's also Atalla's first non-comedy – his enviable track record including not only The Office but also Channel 4's The IT Crowd and the BBC3 sketch show Man Stroke Woman.

"It's a bit different from what I'd normally do," he agrees. "I've always wondered about drama and had a secret desire to do it, but I always feared I'd never be able to gauge whether the thing was good or not. The rules are slightly different because, with a sitcom, if some people are laughing you know where you are."

Not that Trinity sees Atalla entirely abandoning his comedic roots – in fact it's the sort of hybrid mix of genres increasingly common in US television.

"I've admired shows like Buffy and those American teen dramas like Gossip Girl, and what I liked about them was they just give you a little more," he says. "In this country we've got Skins, which... I don't know whether it's an accurate depiction of a teenager's lifestyle or not... but it's parties, marijuana and chasing girls, and I think it caters well for that market. But I always wanted to make something with a thriller element in it – something that felt like a cross between 24 and an American gross-out film."

Or, as series co-writer and Oxford University graduate (the former vice-president of the Oxford Union, no less), Kieron Quirke, puts it to me: "Our original idea was to write American Pie set in an Oxbridge college. This was back in 2004 or 2005 or something like that and we'd noticed that the papers had been running an awful lot of stories about debauchery at Oxford. The Piers Gaveston Society and that sort of thing. It's amazing what people think Oxbridge is like."

This Trinity is an über-wealthy offshoot of the fictional Bridgeford University, run by Charles Dance's dapper but sinister Professor Maltravers; both, it seems, for Maltravers's own nefarious but mysterious ends and for the debauched pleasure of a bunch of swells known as the Dandelion Club. Into this heightened hotbed of sex, drugs and privilege comes virginal new girl Charlotte Arc (Antonia Bernath), whose father, a former professor, has recently been found dead in mysterious circumstances.

On set at Royal Holloway, a slightly oppressive architectural mixture of Hogwarts, Gormenghast and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Charles Dance is addressing staff and pupils in a mocked-up dining hall. I ask him about his participation in an ITV2 teen drama. "What attracted me was the great elements of black comedy which I don't often get the opportunity to do," he says. "Also I was attracted by Ash Atalla, despite the fact that I think he is a rogue. He is a terrifically innovative producer."

Atalla thinks that having actors like Dance and Skinner on board "ups the game" of everybody. "Yes, we can go out and find the youngest, sexiest raft of new actors coming through, and I think we've done that, but I think that having Charles makes it the first thing I've done my parents would enjoy."

Atalla's parents, who came to Britain from Egypt in the early 1970s, found The Office "very slow and awkward". I'm not sure what they'll make of one of the opening scenes in Trinity, in which a leggy blonde in high heels and leather miniskirt strides across the college quad in order to straddle her cousin, lodged in one of the rooms. This forthright lass is played by erstwhile Prince William crush Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe – or Isabella Calthorpe, to give the actress her stage name. The royal connection gives an extra frisson to one of her lines, when she attempts to lure Theo (played by Radio 1 DJ Reggie Yates), into bed by telling him that she is 45th in line to the throne.

Trinity, which comes on like an 18-rated St Trinian's at times, is full of energetic bonking. Or as Atalla says: "It's full of casual sex, casual drugs and casual murder." The question is – is it any good? How does Trinity compare with the current benchmark shows in the same style of hybridised teen drama – snappy imports like Greek, Gossip Girl and, more recently, the whodunnit Harper's Island?

"We don't think it's like any of those", says Quirke. "We really enjoyed them but we think ours is extremely different. It's much more British. And what Trinity does that's slightly strange is that it combines a mystery-thriller angle and a bit of a doofus comedy."

Could Trinity follow The Office and be translated into a successful stateside teen show? "The themes are pretty universal – every country will have its exclusive universities," says Atalla. "I was very surprised that The Office worked [as an American show]. At the time everyone thought it was very English... it was set in Slough, David Brent was a very British lower-middle-manager. But do those types exist around the world? Yes they do. Is there low-grade office work around the world? Yes, there is. The Americans took it and really made it theirs. They followed our scripts for the first six episodes and then relaxed into it and never looked back."

'Trinity' starts on Sunday on ITV2, 10pm