Steve Coogan: Seriously funny

Baby Cow productions has a £10m turnover and boasts a string of hits on British TV. Now it has America in its sights. Its founders, Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, tell Ian Burrell how the laughs keep coming
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two decades ago, when the drama tutors at the School of Theatre at Manchester Polytechnic observed the early thespian activities of Steve Coogan, they might have reckoned that becoming a minor Hollywood star would be enough to satisfy the student actor's ambition.

Coogan recently found himself sharing a Jacuzzi with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger while playing Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. He has four more movies in the pipeline: a part in Sofia Coppola's new film about Marie Antoinette, the lead in the award-winning British director Michael Winterbottom's latest project, Tristram Shandy, another lead in The Alibi - in which he plays a man who helps unfaithful lovers to cover their tracks - and a role in Happy Endings, a comic drama by Don Roos starring Lisa Kudrow.

But somehow the California sunshine and the glamorous company are just not enough. The Alan Partridge creator is intent on going on a dark, introspective journey - the acting equivalent, you could say, of tearing off his shoes and socks, gorging himself on Toblerone and driving to Dundee in his bare feet (as did Partridge during his mental breakdown).

In a move that will strengthen his position as one of the most influential figures in British television comedy, Coogan is creating - for his own production company, Baby Cow - a raft of tortured comic characters ("damaged people", as he describes them). He reveals that for many weeks he has been secluded in a central London office, developing a series for the BBC to be filmed early this year. He hopes that the untitled project, likely to be shown first on BBC3, will emulate Coogan's Run, the hit 1995 series that spawned the likes of the mulletted low life Paul Calf, crooner Tony Ferrino and salesman Gareth Cheeseman.

Coogan discloses this while sitting alongside his writing and business partner Henry Normal in the Baby Cow offices in London. In the space of five years, the pair have become big British media players, developing Baby Cow into an operation that has produced 70 hours of comedy programmes, turns over £10m a year and - at peak production times - employs an office staff of 50. Both men are suited and booted for the British Comedy Awards, which take place later in the evening. The goth-punk northern alternative comedy circuit where they met seems a long way away.

Coogan says that the time spent on his acting career in America has reinvigorated his desire to create more comic characters for British television. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," he says. "I'm glad that I haven't done something in a while, but when you have an appetite for comedy and you want to make people laugh [you want to do more]. I need to feel enthusiastic, that I'm personally rooting for it to happen rather than being told to get on with it. Right now, I've got an appetite."

Because of Coogan's successful track record, he has had the luxury of greater space and creative control during the writing of the new material. "I'm trying to do it bit by bit because I want it to be of sufficient quality," he says. "I can afford to fiddle around with ideas before I say: 'This is what I want to do.'" Coogan has four new characters prepared, and may bring back a couple of old favourites. "I'm trying to develop some new characters that have a certain subtlety to them. It's a bit difficult to make general observations about them, [but] they're slightly inadequate people. People with issues," he says.

Coogan's decision represents another triumph for Baby Cow, where the actor usually prefers to work from behind the camera. It is increasingly said that there is a new golden age in British comedy and, if that is so, then Baby Cow is one of the chief protagonists. The production company has, in its short life, made the comedy reputations of Julia Davis (star of Nighty Night, named the best new comedy of 2004 at the British Comedy Awards) and Rob Brydon (aka the hapless Welsh divorcé Keith Barret). Another Baby Cow production, The Mighty Boosh, which follows the surreal adventures of a pair of zookeepers, was nominated for best newcomer.

For 2005, Coogan and Normal have teamed up with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer to make a new comedy sketch show (also featuring Mackenzie Crook and John Thomson) called Monkey Trousers. They have also persuaded Joanna Lumley to star in Sensitive Skin, a pioneering comedic examination of the vulnerabilities and vanities of modern-day fiftysomethings. Johnny Vegas, meanwhile, has been given his first lead role, as a shambolic but likeable marijuana salesman, in the Baby Cow production Ideal, which starts this month on BBC3. Coogan says: "If your only contact with the outside world is the Daily Mail, then drug dealers are people with horns on their head. Yes, they may not be pillars of the community - but there are far more wicked people around than the character Johnny Vegas plays."

And, this week, Baby Cow will for the first time break into radio with Nebulous, a science-fiction comedy about power-hungry vegetarian militants in a post-apocalypse Britain, to be broadcast on Radio 4. The company hopes to make one radio programme a year, but Coogan and Normal say the medium does not pay enough to sustain a business on its own.

The pair are also planning to break into television comedy drama (Paul Abbott's Manchester-based Channel 4 show Shameless was an inspiration), and are, moreover, attempting to establish a presence in America.

Coogan has recently been in the US talking to television executives with a view to developing projects for Baby Cow. "There's an appetite for British comedy. They see us as being fresh and different," he says.

It may help him that BBC America is about to start broadcasting the entire 19-episode back catalogue of Partridge. Norwich's most famous broadcaster is so familiar to British audiences that Coogan sometimes complains that his other creations are written off as "Why isn't this Alan Partridge?", but he is confident that he is already well enough known in America for Alan not to be such an overbearing presence. Coogan's reputation in the States was helped considerably by his impressive portrayal of the Mancunian impresario Tony Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People, which Normal co-wrote.

These professional successes are in marked contrast to Coogan's calamitous personal life, which collapsed spectacularly last April when the press discovered that he had taken a pair of young lap dancers back to his hotel after he had finished a charity show at the Royal Albert Hall. The cocaine-fuelled episode cost him his two-year marriage to Caroline Hickman. Eight years previously, a similar dalliance with a lap dancer had undermined his relationship with his then girlfriend Anna Cole when she was pregnant with their daughter.

But Coogan's relationship with Normal has proved much more enduring. Normal (whose real name is Peter Carroll), 47, is one of the most influential, if largely unknown, forces in British TV comedy. He grew up in a back-to-back in Nottingham with four siblings, and a widowed father who worked in the Raleigh factory for 40 years and brought up the children on his own (this home life inspired some of the scenes in The Royle Family, which Normal co-wrote with Caroline Aherne). The northern alternative comedy circuit took Normal to Manchester, where he met the young impressionist Coogan 20 years ago at the Thameside Theatre in Ashton-under-Lyne. Aherne (later to make her name as Mrs Merton) and the Cold Feet star Thomson were also among the performers at the Thameside.

Aside from the Alan Partridge projects (written with Armando Iannucci for Talkback), Normal has been Coogan's constant writing companion. They both live in Brighton and set up Baby Cow in 1999. With all the upheavals Coogan, 39, has experienced in his personal life, the comedian perhaps sees Normal as an older brother figure and a calming influence.

Coogan is the son of a computer engineer and has claimed to be a victim of the "curse of the lower middle class", lacking the self-confidence of the more well-heeled and unable to claim to be a "horny-handed son of toil".

But he has an empathy with Normal. Coogan's upbringing in the Manchester suburb of Middleton as the fourth of seven children means that he and Normal draw on shared experiences of large families and Eighties Mancunian culture. Most importantly, they have very similar senses of humour.

"There's a huge overlap in our comedy but we have slightly different tastes in some areas and that's very healthy, I think," says Coogan. Normal has said he is happier creating working-class "victims" and would not be comfortable writing for Alan Partridge, whose humour is based on the "embarrassment that comes from a very aspiring, comfortable world".

Coogan, piled high with writing and acting commitments, admits that it is Normal who largely runs Baby Cow. "If I was knocked down by a bus there would be some repeats of Alan Partridge and Baby Cow would carry on," he says. "Basically, I just do a lot less than Henry Normal. My involvement at the moment is quite minimal. Henry runs the whole ship. My idea is to pass judgement and comment on people who might need it."

At this point, Normal butts in sympathetically: "Steve's a very good quality controller. Even when Steve's not here I think of his opinion on things..."

"...Which saves me soooo much time," quips Coogan.

The Baby Cow "masterplan", Normal explains, "was always that we would only make comedy and we would only make comedy that Steve and I would watch. That has always been our golden rule." That doesn't mean that everything that Baby Cow makes is radical. As Coogan puts it: "We like Morecambe and Wise and Monty Python. That's where we're coming from. We are not elitist about it. We like old-fashioned gags but we also like adventurous, edgy stuff."

The Mighty Boosh, for instance, combines a freshness that appeals to young viewers with an eccentric comedy tradition that recalls The Goodies. Coogan and Normal compare Boosh stars Julian Barratt and Noël Fielding to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

Normal points out that people in their fifties grew up with the Pythons and are not readily shocked. "This idea that older people have not got adventurous comedy tastes... I think they have," he says.

Coogan says fiftysomethings are allowed to appear in "midsummer dramas" but not in comedy. Baby Cow hopes to put this right with Sensitive Skin, which, alongside Lumley, stars Denis Lawson. "It's about the people who were at the vanguard of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and saw themselves as the new, modern young people, finding themselves growing old and not relating to a younger generation," says Coogan.

Pivotal to Baby Cow's growth has been the digital channel BBC3, and the faith placed in Coogan and Normal by its controller Stuart Murphy. "When BBC3 started, a few people stood back to wait and see how it went," recalls Normal. "We said: 'Let's get in there.'"

Coogan thinks the channel has now made its mark as the home of cutting-edge comedy. "There's a very natural inclination in the British psyche to strangle something new at birth. Change of any nature is always viewed disparagingly. The assumption is that you are crap until proved otherwise," he says. "With some of the artists there was a reticence about BBC3; they saw it as an also-ran. I think that perception has changed now."

The pair don't find it easy to pin down the factors that make a show a hit. Coogan says: "What I don't think is pivotal is viewing figures. It's to do with general perception, which can be what critics say and what people in the industry think of it. Even if some people don't like it, as long as some people love it, it has life."

The outstanding disappointment for Baby Cow has been that the BBC did not recommission the groundbreaking animation project I Am Not An Animal, which featured a group of mollycoddled laboratory animals who dreamed of attending North London supper parties. When freed by a thuggish group of animal rights activists, the lab residents had little clue as to how to survive in the wild; they thought fog was was the dry ice they had seen in showbiz pictures in Heat magazine. But even here success could still come calling. Coogan says that the project has recently attracted interest from Matt Stone (the co-creator of South Park) and Matt Groening (the creator of The Simpsons).

The Baby Cow empire is based in cramped offices on the sixth floor of a building tucked between the chain stores and tourist souvenir traders of London's Oxford Street. The festive shoppers who throng the pavements (some of them probably carrying Coogan DVDs among their purchases) would be stunned if he emerged from the anonymous office door with an "A-ha!". But, then, that is hardly likely.

Coogan has previously complained that the public expects him to be comical at every turn and that he cannot even ask "Where's the nearest cashpoint?" without people collapsing in hysterics. In person - and in the context of an interview about his media business - he is serious, courteous and apologetic about the odd profanity. You could say that he is Henry Normal's younger brother, Steve Normal. The comedian is not at pains to be funny. Asked if the dark characters he is currently creating are "victims", he shoots back: "Not victims. Everyone's a victim of something."

You might imagine that he would be keen to look beyond Alan Partridge, to the many other new projects he has on the go, but Coogan repeatedly draws his blazer-wearing creation back into the conversation. "At some point in the future, I might do a one-off," he says, in spite of reported comments by Iannucci that the character seemed to have had its day after the last series. "I probably will do a one-off at some point. Is he dead? No, he's not."

Coogan is at pains to ensure that no middle-aged regional broadcaster is able to claim any "credit" for having inspired the character. "There's a real myth about this. I don't know how many times I've read things in the paper saying who he is based on. He is not based on any individual at all," he says.

And then Normal ventures a thought that many have long suspected: "I would hazard a guess that it's based on you."

Coogan agrees instantly. "Exactly. The person he's based on is mostly me. It's a kind of unexpurgated, slightly monstrous version of myself. All those people who think it's based on them can stop. Actually, I don't like them to think it's based on them... I think they're quite flattered and I don't want them to take any kind of credit for the character, even ironically.

"He started out as a commentator and he evolved to sound more and more like me. He's slightly right-wing, he's narrow-minded, a Little Englander, he's xenophobic, he's insecure, he's sort of basically decent even though he's all those things. He's basically a Daily Mail reader."

Normal again interjects to point out that this is the second "bash" Coogan has had at that publication. "I know, I hate 'em," says Coogan.

The comedian thinks "everything can be funny" and that any subject provides legitimate material. He criticises Chris Tarrant for commenting that Chris Morris's controversial Brass Eye satire on public attitudes to paedophilia was beyond the pale. "I think phantom flan-flinging was out of bounds," he scoffs.

Normal can remember a 1980s comedy circuit that was quite rigidly self-censored on what was and was not an acceptable subject-matter for laughter. He says that he doesn't think there are "any constraints now".

Coogan says it is a common misconception that comedians have no sense of censorship. "When I write stuff I think: 'That might make me laugh in a private way, but I know where it's coming from and it could easily be misinterpreted by people.'"

He then launches into an unexpected defence of political correctness and the lasting legacy of the alternative comedy scene. "Everyone hates political correctness. No one says: 'I love political correctness, I think it's great.' But the fact is that the movement that came with alternative comedy was very important and has permeated popular culture, in that it's now no longer tolerable to make racist jokes on television. And that's a good thing. It would have been termed politically correct at one stage, but it's actually just decency."

Still, it's good to know that Coogan's sense of decency doesn't tally exactly with, say, Lord Reith's. The comedian would quite like Baby Cow to invest in a new comedy about prison life, a modern-day Porridge.

"If we reinvented Porridge now I would insist on broaching the very delicate subject of anal sex," he says. "It's the truth that it goes on."

That should give his beloved Daily Mail something to ponder.

The Competition

HAT TRICK

Founded in 1986 by comedian Jimmy Mulville and his then wife, Denise O'Donoghue, Hat Trick became the first independent comedy producer to win a Bafta in 1989 for Whose Line is it Anyway? Hat Trick has become a home for the television work of such comedians as Harry Enfield and Paul Merton. The company's credits include Father Ted (above), Have I Got News For You?, Drop the Dead Donkey and The Kumars at No 42. Mulville and O'Donoghue netted £11.5m each after selling 45 per cent of the company to private equity firm Kleinwort Capital.

TALKBACKTHAMES

The company, part of FremantleMedia and formed following the 2003 merger of two of the best-known names in UK television, is run by Peter Fincham, who was tipped last year as a possible new head of Channel 4. The Talkback arm was set up in 1981 by former Not the Nine O'Clock News stars Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Although it has a growing reputation of drama and factual programmes, comedy is its bedrock, with credits including Smack the Pony (above), Da Ali G Show, I'm Alan Partridge and Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

AVALON

Founded in 1993, Avalon is home to Harry Hill and his TV Burp (above), and various projects involving former flatmates David Baddiel and Frank Skinner (The Frank Skinner Show, Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned and Baddiel's Syndrome). It made Garth Marenghi's Darkplace for Channel 4. Avalon manages a roster of comic talent that includes Dave Gorman, Simon Day and Al Murray.

TIGER ASPECT

It produces programming for the main broadcasters and has been responsible for heavyweight pieces as Omagh, the reconstruction of the terror attack by the Real IRA. But it has become best-known for comedy, championing many stars of the Eighties alternative circuit (Dawn French's The Vicar of Dibley (above), Lenny Henry and Harry Enfield). Also backs new talent, as seen in The Catherine Tate Show.

CELADOR

Best known for Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Celador also has a long track record in comedy, even if it is starting to look a little old school. The company has a long-standing relationship with Jasper Carrott (above). It also gave Jim Davidson the platform to "offer his distinctive views" on televisionadvertisements in Jim Davidson's Commercial Breakdown.

Comments