Zawe Ashton is cool.

Her minders are just out of earshot. "I need some natural light," she says as we scarper out the front door and head down a Soho street to a cafe. "I'm going to get into so much trouble," she laughs.

Ashton is very much a woman on the move. And she likes to do her own thing. We might know her best for her portrayal of the wannabe punk Vod in Channel 4's student-life sitcom Fresh Meat but there is far more to her than acting. She also directs, produces, and writes. Over the past decade she's been energetic in theatre and film, and soon she's going to be published. There's just no holding her back, and here she is again, coffee ordered, keeping one step ahead.

Ashton has just managed to buy her own place, describing herself as "very, very, very lucky" when so many people her age (she is 30) and older are in no position to. "Living with the notion that you might never have a permanent spot in the world is really quite a powerful metaphor," she says. "I feel it really looms large and it becomes a symbol of lots of other things." Whether it's your career, your relationship, or your home, for people of a certain age, Ashton suggests, nothing seems permanent any more. "There used to be this lovely kind of linear flow."

 

Not Safe for Work was created and written by DC Moore, a former star of Channel 4's new-talent strand Coming Up, who, like Ashton, attended the Royal Court Theatre's prestigious Young Writers' Programme. A superb cast also includes Sacha Dhawan as Katherine's coked-up boss, and Sophie Rundle as The Most Irritating Girl In The Office. Ashton is not wrong about the show capturing the cultural zeitgeist.

 

She is down from Manchester, where she's been filming the fourth – and final – series of Fresh Meat. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's brilliant creation has helped turn Ashton into one of television's most striking new actresses, but now she is moving on. A new Channel 4 comedy drama – Not Safe for Work, which begins at the end of the month – is going to show Ashton in a very different light.

 

Public-sector cuts are the reason for Katherine's relocation to Northampton so there are implicit politics in Not Safe for Work, but that's not an area Ashton wants to get into. She won't tell me how she voted in the recent election – she offers a firm but jovial "No comment" – but on cuts to the arts she is as forthright as you would expect from someone who, as a child, paid £2.50 to attend weekend drama classes at the Anna Scher theatre, a community-based drama school in Islington, which in its time has also welcomed Kathy Burke and Dexter Fletcher through its doors. Later she joined the National Youth Theatre, itself a registered charity, and she worries about how the next generation will be able to develop if such inclusive facilities disappear. "For students who are attempting to have their life be about something that isn't vocation based, it's harder to just explore your depths," she suggests.

Ashton's family were always supportive of her decision to work in the arts. The oldest of three children, she grew up in Hackney. Her mother, Victoria, had emigrated from Uganda as a teenager and became a teacher in London. Her English father, Paul, also worked as a teacher before moving to educational programming at Channel 4. The considerable amount of time she spends with them is, she admits, "embarrassing". Her newly purchased home is close enough that she can call by whenever she wants.

 

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