There's serious money in comedy as Atkinson's company sells for £30m

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The Independent Online

Comedy has become a serious business for those hoping to make money. Last night it emerged that the company behind The Catherine Tate Show and The Vicar of Dibley, Tiger Aspect, may be bought out for about £30m.

The actor Rowan Atkinson co-owns the company and stands to make £4.5m from the sale of the company to sports programming specialist TWI, the fifth largest independent production company.

The five main shareholders in the company, who control three-quarters of Tiger Aspect, stand to make a huge profit from the takeover. Atkinson's personal fortune has been estimated to be in the region of £55m.

Peter Bennett-Jones, the chairman of Comic Relief, launched the production company in 1986. It was responsible for shows such as Harry Enfield and Chums, Mr Bean and Blackadder.

The takeover is in preliminary talks according to the companies involved.

In 2005, the company's first major feature film, The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, was released. But the company has also produced documentaries, such as Omagh, which depicted the aftermath of the 1998 bombing that claimed 29 lives and two unborn babies.

It has also produced dramas such as Murphy's Law and is preparing a new family drama series, Robin Hood, for the BBC and a documentary on the life of the poet Sir John Betjeman.

It will not be the first lucrative takeover for owners of independent comedy production companies.

In July 2003, Hat Trick Productions, the company behind Have I Got News for You and The Office, sold a 45 per cent share in the firm to city investors for £23m. Hat Trick's management team became millionaires overnight, and founding directors Denise O'Donoghue and Jimmy Mulville each received more than £11m from the deal.

The independent sector is going through a wave of consolidation as it attracts more talent from the BBC, such as Sophie Clarke-Jervoise, who left her job as head of comedy to join Tiger Aspect last year. Lorraine Heggessey, the former BBC 1 controller left to become chief executive of Talkback Thames, the company behind Da Ali G Show, and Mark Freeland, former head of BBC comedy commissioning, has joined Hartswood Films, which made Men Behaving Badly.

TWI is also in talks to buy another British independent production house, Darlow Smithson, whose productions include Seconds from Disaster and the film Touching The Void.

The two deals will enable TWI to diversify away from sports programming and could make it Britain's biggest independent television producer.