Charlie Covell: ‘the best experiences are when there’s a really collaborative atmosphere’

The screenwriter and showrunner speaks with Billie Collins about the tricky second series, making playlists and pissing off Classicists.

27 July 2020

In 2015, Charlie Covell wrote two episodes of Banana for Channel 4. The series ran alongside Cucumber, Russell T. Davies’ landmark post-Queer as Folk gay drama. One episode followed neurotic twenty-something Amy (also played by Covell), who battled to keep a lid on her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder during a first date with policewoman Kay.

Before this, my only real exposure to lesbian stories was a show called Lip Service. There was lots of angst and slightly scary sex. So looking back, Amy felt important, because she was the first TV lesbian I saw myself in (earnest, worried, prone to verbal diarrhoea), rather than someone who communicated through haircuts and staring. At the end of the episode, in a scene that makes me feel wibbly-in-the-loveliest-way, Amy gets the girl. They kiss. The world lights up.

Covell’s most prolific gig since then has been as the longstanding writer on the Channel 4/Netflix adaptation of the graphic novel The End of the F***ing World, which has garnered a huge fanbase and boasts two standout central performances from Jessie Barden and Alex Lawther. Next up, she takes on the role of showrunner for KAOS, a contemporary, darkly comic reimagining of Greek mythology, also for Netflix.

NETWORK have consistently let me interview several queer women writers I really admire - I feel like a short, uncool Nick Fury, assembling a crack team of gay lady Avengers. So, with a nervous excitement reserved for talking to the person responsible for your all-time favourite TV snog (niche, granted), I spoke to Charlie about the tricky second series, making playlists and pissing off Classicists.

Charlie’s origin story begins with penning plays about Greek mythology at uni (foreshadowing – stay tuned). From there, she collaborated with Iain Weatherby on a TV comedy that didn’t make it into development, secured an agent and wrote the feature film Burn, Burn, Burn (directed by Chanya Button.) After getting his hands on the script, Russell T. Davies invited her to come onto Banana:

“To be honest, that was the work of a positive discrimination scheme,” Charlie remembers. “I wouldn’t have got it if I hadn’t been queer.”

After Charlie patiently endures a very sincere ramble about Banana’s impact on me, I ask her why it was such a landmark for LGBT+ narratives in the mainstream. She tells me that previous queer stories were dominated by similar themes: “What was interesting about Banana was that they were queer narratives, but they weren’t always putting queerness at the centre,” she says.

Indeed, Charlie’s other Banana episode starred Bethany Black as Helen, the first trans woman to play a trans character on British TV, but in a story about revenge porn, not transition. As well as this nuance, Charlie says that the show was innovative in supporting new talent: “Russell was actively finding writers who were less experienced. I can’t believe they took that risk on me.”

The insight that she received from Davies and others at an early stage is something she’s keen to pay in kind, taking on shadow writers and mentoring emerging filmmakers like Edward Cripps, who was nominated for the BFI Flare mentorship scheme in 2019. She explains the importance of the mentor/mentee relationship: “that practical, lived experience - watching, listening - is invaluable. I benefited from it so much, so it’s great to do the same for others. You remember what you found confusing or unpleasant, and you think about what could be made better.”

It seems that learning in the mentor/mentee relationship goes both ways, and Charlie clearly values the team spirit of TV writing. “I’m a massive control freak, so obviously I say I like to collaborate but, like, within reason! Seriously though, the best experiences are when there’s a really collaborative atmosphere.”

Collaboration was key to her next project, Channel 4/Netflix hit, The End of the F***ing World (hereafter TEOTFW, to save breath and the swear jar). Based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, the series follows self-professed psychopath James as he plots to kill – and slowly falls for - perpetually unimpressed Alyssa. Charlie prepared for the project by watching a short film produced by series creators John Entwhistle and Dominic Buchanan, which established the world and tone that they aspired to achieve for the show.

Together, they then cherry-picked parts from the graphic novel: “There were bits of dialogue and voiceover that I lifted straight because they were so perfect,” Charlie says. “Some of the best lines are Chuck’s, not mine.”

I’m curious about this careful stylistic curation. The whole thing is incredibly cohesive – right down to the music. TEOTFW has a cracking soundtrack, announcing its super smooth sonic credentials in episode one, wherein Alex Lawther’s cold stare is underscored by Bernadette Caroll’s Laughing on the Outside.

When I mention playlists, Charlie lights up: “I annoy a lot of people by writing tracks into scripts. They’re like ‘oh my god you’re so controlling.’ But music helps to get somewhere very quickly and imaginatively.”

If she wasn’t a writer, Charlie says that she’d be a music supervisor, and jokes that “with music and a bit of voiceover, you can polish any old turd.” But the attention to detail shown at all levels evidently paid off, winning a devoted audience, a BAFTA nomination and an RTS award.

That being said, a second series wasn’t anticipated: “I was happy to kill James off, because that’s what happens in the book.”

Nevertheless, in 2019 he was back. What strikes me about series two is that instead of embarking on a new journey, Charlie chose to return to and grapple with the themes and events of series one. This was very deliberate:

“There’s a world in which you could just re-set, but we were telling a story about murder, deep trauma and various forms of abuse,” she says. “You couldn’t just go, ‘oh well, what’s the next adventure?’”

Charlie speaks about the characters with empathy and compassion, and as well as using series two to confront the consequences of trauma, she saw the potential to leave them in a better place: “I’m a real sentimentalist, but particularly with the way the world is at the moment – you want to give people hope, don’t you? They’re damaged, but there’s hope and there’s love.”

James and Alyssa’s heightened universe feels very distinct, and I ask Charlie how much genre plays a role in her writing. She tells me it’s about “knowing the rules of genre so you can subvert them” – whether that’s infusing horror with a whiff of comedy, or setting a romcom on fire and watching it burn. There’s an alchemy to this – “you’re trying to work out if you can mix all these genres and strands, and you might reach a point where you have to go ‘no, this is this show, if we take it too far down a genre route it wouldn’t be right.” Subsequently, Charlie’s favourite shows play with genre, but stick to their guns: “I’m really inspired by stuff like Watchmen and The Leftovers. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t know what this is,’ but to me they’re the most exciting.’”

This playfulness (I’m dubbing it ‘genre-flirting’) is something Charlie is keen to pursue with KAOS. It’s a long-held fascination; during her days as a “pretentious child,” she adored the 1981 Clash of the Titans, starring Maggie Smith and a robot owl (think avian R2D2.) She’s not alone; from Shakespeare to Hadestown, myths are everywhere. Why are we so drawn to them?

“They speak to very human problems and dynamics,” Charlie offers. “They’re funny, weird, and there’s something interesting about occupying a space with multiple, flawed gods.”

However, Charlie is keen to stress she’s no purist – classical accuracy is not top priority. Whilst it’s part and parcel of adapting ancient yarns into binge-worthy TV, she admits that she can already see the Reddit forums of disgust.

KAOS is Charlie’s first whack as showrunner. It’s daunting, but she’s well prepared, having Exec Produced TEOTFW 2. This gave her an ability to think pragmatically yet creatively about what’s achievable within budget: “I would urge everyone starting out to get experience on set if they can, and talk to producers.”

Then there’s managing a team of eight writers, which she approaches with a simple rule: “you just have to try very hard not to be a dick.” If it sounds like she’s under a lot of pressure, she is, but at least some of it comes from raw enthusiasm: “I can’t believe I’m getting to do it. It’s like, oh here, you can do your dream! So then I’m like, ‘oh my god, I’m gonna fuck up my dream.’”

Nerves aside, Charlie feels in safe hands. Netflix are certainly in her good books: “What’s nice about [them] is they’re very respectful of the vision a creator has,” she says.

The sheer number and variety of Netflix shows means that they’re not hung up on squeezing writers into a particular box. They also back her shadowing schemes: “They’re really keen to find new talent and champion people who don’t have loads of experience. It’s nice working with a company where that’s the baseline.”

It seems Netflix is offering writers a dual grail of freedom and support. And that support is essential in an industry that can be (understatement incoming) draining, especially for those starting out. Whilst she can now be more selective, Charlie’s no stranger to burnout.

“Because writing is largely solitary, you have to look after your mental health,” she advises.

“I don’t subscribe to that thing of ‘if you’re unhappy you’ll make great work.’ That’s complete nonsense. If I’m sad, anxious, or overstretched, then I’ll be doing bad writing.”

So what advice does she have for new writers, besides loading your script with absolute bangers? Firstly, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When Charlie’s first comedy drama was nixed by the BBC, she felt left in the lurch. Nowadays, she has four or five ideas on the go, ready to whip out in an emergency: “You probably want to be writing on other people’s shows, learning a lot, and then also developing your own stuff that you can take to people you’ve worked with.”

Secondly – be realistic: “People are more likely to give you a little bit of money than they are to give you a lot. I’m not saying don’t have ambitious scripts you’re writing as well, but think about what you could film by yourself, or with friends.”

I notice that several times throughout our chat Charlie refers to herself (albeit jokingly) as ‘controlling.’ I’m not sure that’s the right word. To me, it just seems like she cares a lot about her stories and the people she works with to tell them. Her approach blends enthusiasm and humility, whether she’s writing “pretentious” student plays about Clytemnestra, or helming a Netflix epic. There’s also generosity: “The only reason I had a career is because someone wanted to find someone like me,” she says. Where she can, she’s keen to pass on the baton.