Stroke of genius? | Interview: Ash Atalla

Stroke of genius?

Interview: Ash Atalla

“Growing up is a total pain in the arse, but we all have to do it at some point.”

That’s how The Office producer Ash Atalla describes the ethos of his Man Stroke Woman, the latest in a line of sketch shows revolving around thirtysomething relqtionships, following on from Channel 4’s Spoons and Five’s Swinging.

Atalla came up with the idea for his show, which starts on BBC Two on Sunday, after splitting up with his girlfriend earlier this year.

“I found myself surrounded by people who were either splitting up or getting married or giving birth and started to spend more time worrying about work rather than going to the pub.

“I was watching my parents get older and all that sort of stuff and thought, ‘this is a very distinct and different phase of life’. I felt a bit out of sorts for a couple of months, but, as all my friends are around the same age, they were all going through the same. It was re-assuring and that gave me a lot of ideas for the series.

“Real life influences me, I’m really quite obsessed with comedy that strikes a chord of recognition. It’s a terrible thing to say but the thing that makes me laugh out loud the most is when someone has a genuine trip or fall – it’s real slapstick, and they get up and try and dust themselves down.

“Making people laugh is really quite difficult; it’s hard enough to do down the pub after a few drinks, so trying to do it on television isn’t any easier.

“It’s such a stupid way to make a living; you need to put something together that gives the audience an entry point and familiar subjects do that – ask people, ‘was it weird turning 30 or splitting up with your girlfriend?’, and everybody will have something to say on the subject.

“I think the cons of getting older outweigh the pros. I can afford to eat in a slightly warmer restaurant now, but I look a bit worse. I’m not completely Woody Allen, obsessed with it all, but I can see myself getting that way.”

He says Man Stroke Woman reflects the change in lifestyle, or the desire to find the perfect partner. There’s Big Gesture Guy: “That’s about obsessions with girls; this guy goes over the top with giant gifts”; You Can Never Say I Look Nice– “That was influenced by a friend of mine who’s married to a very strong-willed woman. He always had to tip-toe around her. She’s particularly keen on clothes so, even when she looked terrible, he had to be very careful”; and You Said There’d Be Girls Here – “That comes from a time when I’d be dragged off to the other side of town for a party, having spent £30 on a taxi, and get to a party only to realise there were no girls there.”

Ash worked with two other writers on the Stuart Kenworthy from Green Wing and this year’s Perrier winner Laura Solon, who at 26 is younger than Man Stroke Woman’s target.

“I think Man Stroke Woman is that bit older and more sophisticated in that we’ve tried to do things that aren’t particularly obvious with our characters and the writing,” Atalla adds.

“There’s the guy who continually cries; in fact, when that sketch first came to me, it was the usual man leaving his girlfriend. I thought, that’s how TV always portrays relationships when couples break up - the bloke being a bastard who doesn’t care, and I felt a bit overfamiliar with that scenario. So, where possible, the writers and myself tried to turn things on their head slightly and I think it brings a bit of a freshness to the sketch, that it’s the bloke who’s broken down.

“I felt it was important not to paint women as baby-hungry, emotional, chocolate-loving wrecks. In fact, there are two sketches that reflect this: a woman having a conversation with her friend, and she’s saying, ‘bet you can’t wait to have a baby’, and her friend responds, ‘yes, I can’. While in another sketch, a woman is saying, ‘Oh, women love to relax with a big box of chocolates’, and her friend’s response is, ‘no, I don’t really like chocolate’.

“So Man Stroke Woman is definitely different and it’s very much not a battle of the sexes.”

Atalla is also proud of the cast he’s assembled for the show.

“It’s a really performance-driven sketch show and the cast really bring the sketches to life: Nick Frost - I’ve been a fan for a while; Canadian actress Meredith Macneill did such a brilliant and nuts audition, I knew in the first 20 seconds she’d be in it; Nick Burns I chose as much for his clean-cut good looks as his comic timing; Amanda Abbington I’d known for some time and had always wanted to work with; Ben Crompton has this great strange and unusual face, which is so good for all those slightly unusual parts; and the hugely talented Daisy Haggard. They all work together so well and the comedy timing is great.”

Ash, a huge comedy fan, cites Mel Brooks as his all-time comedy hero. “I watch all comedy, even comedy that I hate - I just feel the need to soak it all up - and a lot of news programmes.”

A current favourite is Peep Show, which has just started its third season on Channel 4: “I’m still baffled that it’s not had more success - it deserves to be a big, fat success.”

And from the man who is heavily influenced by real-life comic moments, what would he describe as his funniest and un-funniest moments?

“They are one and the same. When I was at the Golden Globes with Ricky Gervais, we’d won two awards for The Office and were completely shocked and slightly crazy. I got into my head that the only way to deal with the stars and weirdness of the whole night was to be a bit cheeky, so when Danny DeVito came over - me and Ricky are both huge fans - he was there with a big cigar in his mouth.

“I said, ‘Hey Danny, great to meet you, you and I are about the same height except I’m sitting down and you’re standing up’, and he just walked off. Ricky said, ‘What on Earth did you say that for!’ So that’s the funniest and un-funniest thing to happen to me.”

First published:November 16, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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