Ash Atalla: Talkback's head of comedy

Huge success with 'The Office' has taken Ash Atalla to Talkback as head of comedy. Ian Burrell meets a man hungry to deliver the next big hit
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Talkback Thames building is modern and stylish with lots of big windows, wooden fittings and original artwork. But it seems to give Ash Atalla little protection from the January cold; he repeatedly wheels his wheelchair away from his desk in search of warmth from the radiator.

But at least he has his own office and is not confined to the basement of a 34-storey building, like the nerdy stars of his new sitcom, The IT Crowd.

A year after the producer of The Office left the BBC to become head of comedy at one of Britain's best-known independent production companies, Atalla, 32, is conscious that the time for him to start delivering the goods is drawing near.

His new offering focuses on the frustrations of a group of office workers, some of whom seem devoid of even the most basic social skills. Comparisons with the show mentioned in brackets whenever Atalla's name appears in print are inescapable.

In fact, the format and tone of the two shows are very different. "The Office was all about naturalism and observation. It was about real life - the premise was that it was a documentary," says Atalla. "The IT Crowd is silly and more slapstick."

Central to this new Channel 4 show, which is filmed before a studio audience, is that IT departments are invariably cut off from colleagues, for whom they provide a crucial but barely acknowledged service. "At the heart of the sitcom is their sense of alienation," says Atalla, who points out that the IT workers are "the heroes" of the piece. The show's writer Graham Linehan (best known for Father Ted and Black Books) has deliberately not specified the nature of the "glamorous London" company in whose building the sitcom is set, but few media workers will have difficulty relating to it.

Atalla, who can take comfort from the fact that his first Talkback production Man Stroke Woman has been judged sufficiently successful to switch from BBC3 to BBC2, is naturally nervous of how The IT Crowd will be received. Fearful that the two projects could crash and burn, he says he made sure he was personally "right across them both down to the last detail".

Atalla arrived at Talkback only to see the man who appointed him, Peter Fincham, promptly leave to take up the controller's job at BBC1. At the indie company, Fincham's departure felt like the end of an era. "The whole generation of really big shows had just come to an end - I'm Alan Partridge, Bo Selecta, Da Ali G Show, Smack the Pony," says Atalla. "There wasn't a golden inheritance, which suited me fine. My job was to rebuild."

What he hopes to leave behind is a portfolio of comedies that "haven't disappeared up their own arse," he says. "Comedy should be simple and straightforward. I'd hate for my work to look self-indulgent."

When he says "simple" and "straightforward", he also means "popular". Don't expect Atalla to search for quirky niche comedy that builds a slow burn of approval among the cognoscenti.

"I've certainly got half an eye on the audience. There's no victory for me in blood, sweat and tears followed by half a million viewers and some bloke from Time Out who lives with his mum thinking it's quite good," he says.

"There's a strange thing going on with comedy. The market is becoming quite polarised and at any one time there is room for only two or three hits, which sell millions of DVDs at Christmas. Then there's a big drop down to the rest of the stuff, which is often critically acclaimed but nevertheless fades away."

Atalla has experienced the kind of show that sells millions of DVDs, but Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have since gone on to do well with Extras. Their producer is clearly anxious not to end up a one-hit wonder.

"I'm terrified of the idea that in 30 years' time I will be at a dinner party telling boring Office anecdotes. I want to win more awards," he says. "The Office was a fantastic experience, a show that we made in a pretty non-compromising way that proved that things like that can come to the mainstream. It's probably never going to happen to me again in my career. That doesn't stop me from trying to make shows that as many people as possible will want to watch."

He wonders aloud that it will be "interesting to see how The Office ages". He adds: "It was very much a show of its moment. Does that mean it will not seem of its moment in 10 years' time?"

The show has undoubtedly opened doors for him. As well as working with Linehan, he is collaborating with Peep Show's Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong on a new project.

When Ash Atalla left Bath University with a degree in business and finance, he headed straight for the Square Mile and began working on the dealing-room floor. It proved to be a mistake. "The long and short of it is that I didn't have a particular aptitude for it," he says. "But if your midlife crisis arrives at 23, as mine did, you have a chance to do something about it. I was quite decisive when I resigned."

He recalls that his parents, who are doctors, were not impressed. "My family was distraught. What family wouldn't think their son was making a mistake in leaving the City?"

His career change had not been thought through. "My move into television was born out of just the most amazing naivety. I just thought it sounded like fun. I had no idea what was involved," he says, admitting that his early ambitions were focused on being in front of the camera.

"I did actually end up doing a little presenting and decided I didn't want to do it when I saw myself," he says. "There are tapes of me, somewhere in the BBC, reading the business news on News 24. It was because of my stock-market background. To the BBC's credit, they took me off quite quickly."

He took another job researching on Watchdog. "I would look down the end of the office and always see someone who was better at it than I was. I was always trying to make up ground," he remembers.

By now his family was even more concerned. Atalla says: "For the first two years of my new career I gave them no reason whatsoever to feel anything other than anxious."

At Watchdog he took a career-changing call from a dissatisfied consumer complaining about broken-down washing machines. "She talked for about five minutes and I remember completely zoning out, and thinking, 'My heart is not in this, I really don't care about broken-down white goods,'" he says. Atalla's good fortune was that he managed to get a three-month secondment to BBC Comedy. "Being in a wheelchair, I wasn't all that much help around the set and they said to me, 'Here's a pile of scripts, why don't you read them and edit them?' Whether rightly or wrongly, I just felt that I knew exactly what to do." It was also at this period of his career that Atalla met Stephen Merchant.

Two years ago, when The Office was put forward for two Golden Globes, Atalla was still so naive that he e-mailed back saying: "That's brilliant. What are the Golden Globes?"

He is now clearly more hard-nosed about the benefits, and particularly the potential earnings, of making a successful television show. "The Little Britain boys have taken some stick for selling out and I totally disagree with that. Why not sell lunchboxes and miniature dolls if people want to buy them?" he asks.

Ash Atalla's empathy with those stuck in mundane jobs such as stationery businesses and undervalued IT departments may be born of his own tortuous search for a vocation, he accepts. But, although he may not have cut it as a City dealer, this business graduate also has an understanding and appreciation of market forces.

"I love the fact that I'm now in a commercial environment. If you are going to make someone else a lot of money, then you want to get paid too," he says. "That's one of the things I found difficult at the BBC: they're caught in a difficult situation. Comedy is big business if it's done well. That doesn't frighten me at all."

The IT Crowd starts on Friday on Channel 4 at 9.30pm