Fearless - Ep. 34: "The Producer" - Ash Atalla

Ash Atalla[3909].jpeg

"The Producer"

Ash is one of the UK’s best known comedy producers, responsible for, The Office and the IT Crowd. He has won five BAFTAs and a Golden Globe. In 2007, he co-founded the independent production company, Roughcut TV with Tim Sealey and over the last decade the company has established itself on both sides of the Atlantic with deals with the BBC, NBC and HBO.


Three Takeaways

  • Define yourself on your own terms. 
  • Resist the temptation of the status quo to have you take the obvious path.
  • Be open to positive partnerships.

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 34: "The Producer" Ash Atalla

Charles:                               

Hello, you're listening to Fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity. That unpredictable amorphous and invaluable resource that's critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders who are jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm and blowing up the status quo.

Leaders who've mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. This episode was recorded in London at the Eurobest festival, which is now in its 30th year. Highlighting, celebrating and rewarding the best of European creativity. Visit eurobest.com for more information.

Today, I'm talking to Ash Atalla, co-founder and managing director of Rough Cut TV.  Ash is one of the UK's best known comedy producers, responsible for the success series, The Office and the IT Crowd. He has won five BAFTAs and a golden globe. And in 2007, he co-founded the independent production company, Rough Cut TV, with Tim Sealey.

Over the last decade, the company has established itself on both sides of the atlantic, with deals with the BBC, NBC and HBO.

Ash, welcome to Feel Us. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.

Ash Atalla:

Thank you for having me. Here we are under the stairs.

Charles: 

Here we are under the stairs again at the Eurobest. So, where did creativity first show up in your life? When were you first conscious of creativity being an influence on you?

Ash Atalla:                          

I suppose it was just as a consumer, actually, and it seeping in. The comedy shows. I'm too young for those big Morecambe and Wise shared moments that people talk about with their families, but I was certainly a comedy consumer when I was a child.

Actually, I remember a show called Dave Allen.

Charles:                               

Ah.

Ash Atalla:                          

Dave Allen, I use to-

Charles:                               

Are you a God go with you?

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, that's right. Yeah. And he was one of the first things I use to watch with my dad. And as well as me enjoying the show directly, it was always interesting to watch the impact that it had on my family, and them watching the collective experience of them, more than the show.

So, that was my first early memories of thinking that there was something up there.

Charles:                               

Yeah, he was very powerful, wasn't he? Steve Allen was an amazing storyteller.

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, he used to sit on stage with a glass of whiskey that you very much got the impression was whiskey as his.

Charles:                               

And a cigarette.

Ash Atalla:                          

And a cigarette.

Charles:                               

And missing the end of one finger.

Ash Atalla:                          

That's right. That's right. He had half a finger. Isn't that insane that he was smoking on air whilst doing his routine? How dated. But yeah, I think he had a satirical message. A lot of it was religious based and against the catholic church, and he came from that Irish background as well.

So, yeah, that. And then of course, I just sort out my own fun. It was harder to find stuff those days than it is now. I've just done my talk about how easy it is to consume comedy in all things these days. It's just easy to consume, isn't it? But that wasn't the case back then.

Charles:                               

So, you, I know were born in Egypt and came over to England at what age?

Ash Atalla:                          

I was three.

Charles:                               

Oh, okay.

Ash Atalla:                          

Two or three years. No real Egyptian imprints create on me.

Charles:                               

And what took you into the world of comedy professionally?

Ash Atalla:                          

I got fired from everything else that I tried.

Charles:                               

What were the other things?

Ash Atalla:                          

Well, I was actually a city trader, a stockbroker.

Charles:                               

Oh, wow.

Ash Atalla:                          

That was what I was striving to be. In my education, I read business and economics A levels and did all the moves, put all the right bits together on my CV in order to become a stockbroker. I mean, I was a child of the 80's, so that was a thing to do back then.

And so, I eventually went into that, and it didn't go so well. I'm not very good at math, which is perhaps something I should've looked into.

Charles:                               

That would seem to be a helpful foundation for that.

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah and I sort of knew it as well, and ignored that key factor. Blasted my way through, but eventually, when I got to it, then I realized that there were other people that were better equipped to do that then me.

Charles:                               

So, why comedy? Because that's obviously a very big leap.

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, I think what was so odd about where I ended up in the city, was not only was it the wrong job for me, but it was actually the opposite of what I should've been doing.

I ended up doing something that was sort of right in the other corner of where I should have been. And the opposite of numbers is talking and words. You know, numbers and words, and I'm definitely the words. And I sort of don't know beyond this sense that I felt I knew what was funny.

Charles:                               

Yeah.

Ash Atalla:                          

This sort of inner insistence. This voice that said to me. I didn't really think. I had shows in me at that point, it wasn't like I was bursting with my own stuff when I wasn't doing characters and I wasn't doing voices and I wasn't writing. It wasn't that, it was just this sense of whenever I would watch something, I would always be sort of giving the notes in my head.

I was pompous enough to be watching the brilliant Alan Partridge when I was 14.

Charles:                               

Knowing Me, Knowing You.

Ash Atalla:                          

Knowing Me, Knowing You. And thinking "I would've done this, to make it even better." So that's, I think if there is a calling as people say it, I think it was that.

Charles:                               

So, how did you transition that instinct and that internal recognition into a career?

Ash Atalla:                          

Well, I eventually got work experience at the BBC, having written a lot of letters in blood to them. And I ended up working for free on Watchdog. You all know the consumer show?

Charles:                               

Yeah.

Ash Atalla:                          

Watchdog. And that was all about dealing with people who had faulty washing machines and that sort of stuff. And I didn't really care. Just buy another washing machine if that's your big problem in life.

But there was a lady who worked in my department who always thought that I should work in the comedy department. And without going into the details, I ended up on a scheme, on like a [inaudible] to that comedy department.

And early on there, I met Steve Merchant, Stephen Merchant.

Charles:                               

Oh, yeah.

Ash Atalla:                          

Who ended up co-writing The Office. And him and I became sort of a partnership in that thing, and that's where we began to cook up that whole thing.

Charles:                               

And what did you guys see in each other as you look back at your partnership now? What were the characteristics that drew you to each other?

Ash Atalla:                          

Actually, a shared vision and then two people who did very different things. So, Gervais and Merchant and then myself, kind of all needed each other at that moment. Ricky obviously at the heart of the whole thing, and the performer and the character and the co-writer, and the pair of them.

But, those teams, I was the producer and you all can have a great idea and not be able to get it on television, and then it's just not a great idea, it just never becomes anything. And you can have an ambitious producer who doesn't have good projects and then that doesn't go anywhere, and somewhere along the way, I think to have a hit TV show, you need all three of those things sort of working at the same time very well.

And so, that's what we saw in each other. I guess there was a mutual dependency in terms of the work. I think we knew what we wanted The Office to be. And it was all we wanted the same thing. It was just other people, that was the problem.

Charles:                               

What was the shared vision?

Ash Atalla:                          

To depict an office that people would recognize, because I think up until then, the world of TV workplaces was a very shiny, upbeat place. And actually, there's something very melancholy about the world of work. In the world of most people's work, it's living for the weekend and it's doing something ultimately futile, and often in battery hen rooms.

Offices have strict lighting. They're very unnatural places for human beings to spend a really big chunk of their lives. And they don't do it because we want to, mostly. I imagine we'd rather be watching cartoons and running around.

So, we wanted to bring in the sadness, actually. There's an element of sadness to what that does to the soul and the person that you have to sit next to, that you didn't choose, and how that can chip away at you.

So, yeah, what we wanted to do is a much more real look.

Charles:                               

I've always thought that The Office, the UK version, was a very brave show for many of the reasons you've just described, but it's a show that I've always found that I have to watch through my fingers. You're half cringing with the uncomfortable, the embarrassment of it in many cases.

Were you conscious at the time that you were trying to do something that was breaking the mold? That required bravery?

Ash Atalla:                          

We were conscious about its slowness, because I think-

Charles:                               

In terms of its pacing?

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, in terms of its pacing, yeah, because I think the mockumentary is now a very well established genre and it brings with it a certain pace, but actually, comedy up till then had been fairly badda bing, badda bing, joke, joke, joke, studio, audience-

Charles:                               

Sketches.

Ash Atalla:                          

Sketches. People laughing on screen to give you the cue, you know, a sound of laughter. So, I think it felt a very quiet slow bit of work when it first came out. And I think we were all aware that there's another version of The Office where it sort of didn't find its audience, and it nearly didn't.

There's definitely another line in history that just said it came out and people didn't really get it and that was that. And lots of shows have that moment, that tipping point of momentum, but you don't always get to it, and we nearly didn't.

Charles:                               

What do you think made the difference in that situation?

Ash Atalla:                          

Anyone who's had a successful, in retrospect point, or a few sort of key moments that tip the balance, first of all, it did seem to be getting word of mouth. And word of mouth in a way that I don't really know happens nowadays, but there was that. The press started quite badly and then became sort of almost reverential in its praise.

So, there weren't many people watching it, but certain journalists were really very quickly on to it, saying that it was one of the best things that they've seen. And then the BBC took this good decision to repeat it, and they repeated it actually quite cynically and cleverly, just before the BAFTAS.

The BAFTA committee sit in January and February, and The Office had come out the previous summer to not much impact, but by the time it had all finished, we all kind of got this feeling that people are sort of talking about it a little bit, and we were making a second series and the BBC decided to repeat the first series, just as BAFTA members were sitting down to vote on that year's awards.

And we were on. They would go home and we would be on at night. And so, it sort of seemed to ignite a little. There had been word of mouth that was still in the air, and the fact that it was then repeated just gave us this sort of forward momentum. And then that first year, we did in fact win the BAFTA.

And so, those sort of three things. Word of mouth, it being repeated, because I think The Office at the beginning, you need to see it twice to click into it.

Charles:                               

Yep, for sure. Yep.

Ash Atalla:                          

Bearing in mind, that mockumentary wasn't really a thing then. And then the award. And then the BAFTA. And those three things set us on our way.

Charles:                               

And what year was The Office originally?

Ash Atalla:                          

2001.

Charles:                               

So, do you think that strategy would've worked today, given the, as you were just talking about here at Eurobest, the amount of content there is out there, how easy it is to get content from different places, but I mean there were many fewer choices even 16 years ago, right? Netflix didn't exist, Amazon Prime didn't exist, all that stuff wasn't really an option from a viewing standpoint.

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, there was less around. There was much, much less around than what I was talking about. You might then compare The Office to people who just do nothing, which is sort of a mockumentary, and also sort of credible word of mouth hit. Much less people have heard of people who just do nothing, because that's the world of which we live in. That show is loved by a small amount of people, rather than loved by a big amount of people.

Charles:                               

What did you learn about unlocking your own creativity in that process? And unlocking the creativity of others? What did The Office teach you?

Ash Atalla:                          

To stick to your guns, I think. There are many bits of advice from seasoned professionals that would've taken the show in a much less successful direction. I don't know if it was the arrogance of youth, or just not knowing. It's true, isn't it, that fearlessness, when they talk about young footballers coming on and just being fearless in their first England game and maybe it was a bit of that.

We hadn't had a failure, so we didn't fear of failure. We hadn't had anything, so I think we were sort of fairly uninhabited, so I think sticking to your guns. And then, I think lots of advice makes your thing better. And it's about picking and choosing. Your only starting point can be knowing your own mind. If you don't mind, then essentially you become a sponge, because everyone's got an opinion on television. You don't need a doctorate. You don't need eight years at university to talk about television. You can just turn up and offer an opinion that's valid, I guess. If you've got an opinion, then why isn't it valid?

So, with so many people chipping in, you have to have your own course, or you can get swamped.

Charles:                               

Has experience of success given you more confidence in your own mind? Or has it raised the bar, so that you're conscious of "I've got to hit my own level of success"?

Ash Atalla:                          

Both. I'm definitely clear of my own thoughts these days. That's not to say I'm not open to discussion. A part of me is that, but I definitely know my own mind. In terms of the bar, I think the bar is frightening these days. I don't want to look up at the bar anymore.

There's a lot of crap around and there always will be, but actually, the crap has sort of disappeared. That's sort of what I was saying on stage. Nobody wants it, so they don't make it anymore. If something's bland and generic, what's the point? We can't even get through the good stuff.

We've all got a box set fatigue, we've got box set anxiety or whatever it is that people are calling it at that moment. You cannot keep up with the good stuff.

Charles:                               

It's true.

Ash Atalla:                          

Which is a great place for mankind to find itself in, in terms of watching television. It's a great time to be a consumer of TV. It really is.

Charles:                               

Because your vote actually matters these days, right?

Ash Atalla:                          

The vote matters. And they're calling it a golden age and peak TV and all that sort of stuff. How much can we all be given? And it's just coming out thick and fast. And therefore, you see a series set in New York of some pretty men and women complaining about their coffee in a Starbucks, and you kind of go "Alright, that has no authenticity to my life." And so, you put all that together and the bar is, you know, the good stuff is really good these days.

Charles:                               

And do you think it is a golden age?

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I'm in no doubt. You can argue about the economics. You can argue about the budget. You can argue that it's tough to get talent, because there's so much being made, that's all behind the curtain stuff. There are reasons why it's tougher now to make television, than it was five years ago.

But in terms of choice for the consumer, it's undoubtedly the best it's ever been.

Charles:                               

So, the idea that this is a golden age suggests that the next age might be less golden. What do you think the threats are that would potentially dissipate or dilute or reduce the impact and creative effect of television?

Ash Atalla:                          

I mean, can the market sustain this, is the big thing. People worry that the numbers just don't add up anymore. Comedy is a much cheaper genre than drama, but dramas are like £3,000,000 an episode now. It's just the economics of it has gone sky high. And if you sort of marry that with how much of it is being made, where do the economics? You know, will those big companies that are becoming the new global broadcaster, those video on demand, three or four, the Amazons, the Netflix, the Hulus, the Apples, will they suddenly look at it and go, you know, at the moment they're grabbing the market share. They're trying to put their footprint around the world and they're placing very big bets and they're spending very, very heavily.

I guess their thinking is "Once you're in a home, you're in a home. That home will be with you and then we've got it." And at the moment, they're sort of tit for tat market share grabbing. Once they've done that, will they go "You know, our revenues aren't rising. Things are stable. We'll take our foot off the gas."

It feels like it can't go on and it feels like a frothy bubble from the inside at the moment. And that's always a slightly disconcerting feeling. You know you're fucked when people say "Well, house prices are just going to go up forever." And that's the danger at the moment. And I think there's a sense in television that it's unsustainable.

Charles:                               

Tell me about the choice to start your own company. Why did you decide to do that?

Ash Atalla:                          

I think I'm part business and part creative, and I wanted to be across both of those things really. And also, I think creative people, I think where they work is less important, because the job is the job is the job, so I could take any number of different jobs in my field, so I could go and work for another production company or broadcaster and my job would be exactly the same.

So, it would still be to find, to create, come up with, execute good television content. That is my job, so I could go and work for any of my rivals, or any channel, and the job will be the same. So, given that, in a weird way, there's not much variety to what my job is. It's a varied job, but there's not much variety to what my job.

I thought "You might as well do it for yourself."

Charles:                               

What have you discovered about running your own business? Or owning your own business that you weren't expecting?

Ash Atalla:                          

You never stop worrying. It's a tense way to live. Well, I was going to say the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I think, I don't know if this is connected with having your own company or just perhaps just being a restless creative, but I think the highs don't last that long. I've heard a lot of people say that.

Sir Alex Ferguson always used to say winning the European Cup, the Champions League with Man United only brought him pleasure for a day. And I sort of have a sense of that myself, which is that the champagne moment doesn't arrive, or if it does arrive, it's very, very short lived.

So, that's sort of something that's frustrating and not quite being able to just rest in a moment of success or not.

Charles:                               

So, do you have to look for satisfaction in other ways?

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, and also try and remind yourself that it's a very, you know, I use to work, I don't think I can name it, but he's a guy called Peter Finch and we used to own a company called Talk Back.

I was the head of comedy there, and he said there was one week he had two shows on. One was Alan Partridge was made by Talk Back. And the other one was an Alexei Sayle sitcom. I think it was called Paris and he was in prison in it. And it didn't really work.

And the MD, Peter, my old boss, said to me that week all I could think about was the show that wasn't working. He was just consumed by the fear that was walking down the street and people are going "Oh, that's Peter's company. They made that show that's tanking." And I get that. I feel that within myself.

Charles:                               

And what have you learned about building an environment that other people's creativity can flourish in? What have you discovered is important to that?

Ash Atalla:                          

I've been surprised by how, I think people still really like, even in the creative business, and I think common wisdom would lead me to think that people who work for me want a huge amount of freedom, but actually, it really has to be married with leadership as well.

I think probably because creativity you can really go, I mean, it can be anything. It's such a big word isn't it, but I think you have to combine that with an ultimate goal. And in our business, you can create a million sitcoms, but they're only sitcoms if they end up on television. And so, it's about being targeted and strategic. And I think that's where I come in.

So, they develop stuff, but they look to me to go "Can we get this on? Is this what people want? What do you think our chances are?" Because I think if you're at a creative company that has sort of no end product, if you're not scoring any goals, I've gone a bit football analogy this afternoon, then I think the wind goes out of the sails quite quickly. You only feel like a proper company if you're having things that people can watch, otherwise, it's sort of dressing up in your mum and dad's clothes when you're young, you know.

Charles:                               

Do you find you're looking for certain kinds of people?

Ash Atalla:                          

We didn't start with that, but what you find is when a company gets to a certain size, you can see what you haven't got, I guess, rather than what you have. So, you know that next time you recruit, there is perhaps a personality type of a skill set, or even just a joke, a gender, an age group.

I think comedy use to be the preserver of posh white boys. Well, so did the whole world. It use to be the preserver of the posh white boy, but I think it's making sure that we have enough complimentary voices coming through at Rough Cut, my company.

Charles:                               

What do people not know about you that you think they would be surprised at to learn?

Ash Atalla:                          

Well, I'm going go another football thing. I've recently charged my team from Man United to Arsenal.

Charles:                               

Good grief.

Ash Atalla:                          

Which is something that only children do. Because I live near Arsenal and I've started to go and watch them. And I think it's with enormous shame that I report that I'm an adult who sort of has switched affections.

Charles:                               

Wow, for the non-English of the audience, that is a remarkable thing to do, actually.

Ash Atalla:                          

Yes, like going from sort of Barcelona to Real Madrid.

Charles:                               

It's almost a religious conversion, actually.

Ash Atalla:                          

It's like a religious conversion, yeah, just because Manchester is really quite far away. My favorite color's black, like my soul. There's another thing.

Charles:                               

And what are you afraid of?

Ash Atalla:                          

Well, I think a lot of people who do my job is you're sort of afraid of it all drying it. I think it's just the instability of what we do, day in, day out. It's sort of sand built on sand really. The whole industry is.

If you think that our whole job is to make things up on a script, nothing is real until you make it, and then getting something made is a really fragile process. It's like a game of Jenga, where a whole project, I mean we read about movies and TV shows just being canceled and stopped the production. It's a real game of chess to get that stuff on, and then once that show's on, will it last? Will it fly? So, there's anxiety and fear and all through the process.

And so, you sort of worry that you'll run out of steam in yourself to keep that going. The flip side of all that is it's an amazingly privileged way to make a living. It's not the job that exists, it's a job that you create, is the best way of saying it. I don't really have a job. I've made a job. Nobody gives you shows, you make shows. You create shows.

So, if you stop doing that, your job and your company disappear, because it's not something that existed.

Charles:                               

I know we have to cut this short, because you have to go, so I wrap every episode with three take aways that I've heard. So, let me throw these out at you and you can react to those.

So, the first thing that strikes me is your absolute determination to be defined on your own terms, to not allow anyone else to do that for you and to take on that responsibility yourself, I think that's a trait that's evident in the very best leaders.

Two, I think is a restlessness to find another way to express yourself going forward and to not allow the status quo to define you or the possibilities, even when that, as you've said, can look daunting and clearly uncertain.

And then I think, three, I'm just struck by partly what you've said today and partly a little bit in the background I've read about you, in your ability to partner with people. I don't think that's always evident in every leader, but clearly you've found consistently across the course of your career the ability to both help others and have others help you find ways to unlock the value of creativity in a business environment.

Do those three ring truth to you?

Ash Atalla:                          

Yeah, they do actually. Yeah. They're very good. Oh my God, you've got some kind of voodoo, laser-like glimpse into my soul. I'm grateful and a bit scared.

Charles:                               

Ash, thank you so much for agreeing to do this and it's been great meeting you.

Ash Atalla:                          

Not at all. Thanks for having me.

Charles:                               

You've been listening to Fearless from Eurobest. If you like what you've heard, please take a moment and rate the podcast on iTunes. It makes a big difference. And check out more of the Eurobest content at Eurobest.com

Thanks for listening.