Funny business: Henry Normal explains why his new project is no joke

Forget sitcoms and skits. It's product placement and new technology that will save British comedy, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Message to Henry Normal's other half: he's been exploring modern technology for the greater good of British comedy, championing the work of Oscar Wilde, and studying the oeuvre of Anton Chekhov. The former stand-up who is now a business partner of Steve Coogan has recently been working through the night. "My wife thinks I'm watching porn," he complains.

Baby Cow Productions, the company Coogan and Normal founded in 1999, is at the heart of comedy in this country, providing a platform not just for Coogan but for a talent roster that includes Rob Brydon, Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, Julia Davis, James Corden, Johnny Vegas and John Bishop. It has made hit shows such as Gavin & Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, Marion & Geoff, Nighty Night and Saxondale.

Just as importantly, Baby Cow is a trailblazer in investigating how Britain's comedians are going to make a living from modern media. The 2007 project Where are the Joneses? – a ground-breaking online comedy funded by sponsorship from Ford – ran to 86 webisodes. "It's still the biggest comedy on the internet," says Normal.

Tomorrow night, the company will be the first to develop an app into a fully fledged television show, when ITV4 broadcasts John Bishop's World Cup Diary, starring an animated version of the Scouse comedian and featuring his acerbic observations on South Africa 2010. The £1.19 app, John Bishop FC, has spawned 25 episodes, with Bishop's avatar complaining about such matters as the boy-band fashion sense of Germany manager Joachim Löw, or the failure of England fans to unite in synchronised choreography, "even if it's dancing, like you do, to 'Baggy Trousers' with your mates".

The latter comment was made before the World Cup "threw us a wobbler when England went out" – as Normal puts it – and Bishop's character had to abandon his Three Lions strip for an Argentina one. This meant a major rebuild for the 12-strong animation team, a process they had to repeat when Diego Maradona's team was in turn eliminated. "I feel like a bit of a jinx," says Bishop. "I said, 'Just do me in a kilt.'" The cartoon Bishop is depicted on his sofa with copies of the Daily Mirror and FHM by his side (though they will be erased for the ITV version). This product placement brought publicity to the project, though not cash. It's more important to Normal at this stage that he has something to show to potential commercial partners. "The whole area of product placement and sponsorship is, I think, going to come to the fore in the next couple of years," he says. "I wanted to show people what we could do with this."

He then picks up his mobile to demonstrate another Baby Cow app, Blindfold German Penalty Shootout, in which the user is invited to flick the ball past a bald, Teutonic goalkeeper ("I made him an archetypal World War II German"), or to dive to save for England ("the English keeper looks a bit like David James, but not too much so that he could sue us.") Normal is alert to the commercial possibilities of this venture, pointing to the blank hoardings behind the German goal as a prime piece of advertising space. "And of course I can change the goalies to anything," he says.

Baby Cow hasn't given up on traditional media. Normal is immensely proud of the fact that Ideal, set in the Salford underworld and starring Johnny Vegas as a cannabis dealer called Moz, will next month begin its sixth series for the BBC, an extraordinary tenure for a comedy. "When you think of Johnny Vegas, you tend to think of him live on stage or with the monkey, but when you look at him in Ideal he is a very good actor. We've done 47 episodes and he's gone through every emotion."

Inevitably, much of Baby Cow's future schedule concerns Coogan. Normal had a meeting yesterday on the next stage of development of the Alan Partridge feature film, which will be shot in America. Much is expected of a six-part BBC2 series The Trip, which has been directed by Michael Winterbottom, co-produced with Revolution Films and features Coogan and Brydon as a pair of foodies making their way across the Lake District.

"They go round the Lake District reviewing food and getting on each other's nerves, to the amusement of the viewer I'm glad to say," says Normal. It's very filmic – you get some lovely shots of the Lake District and of the food; he's captured it in a very naturalistic way." More surprising is a series that Baby Cow is filming for Sky Arts based on the farces of Anton Chekhov.

Coogan is to star in The Dangers of Tobacco, with Vegas appearing alongside MacKenzie Crook in A Reluctant Tragic Hero. Gavin & Stacey's Mat Horne will take the lead in The Proposal, while the real-life couple of Julia Davis and Julian Barratt are to play opposite each other in The Bear. The series of four plays will mark the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth. Normal explains: "I bought a box set of when they last did Chekhov, on the 100th anniversary. I read that he had a few one-act plays that were comedies and a couple of them have never been done. So I got the books and read them, and they work in the present day because they are about attitude, manners and hypocrisy. Sometimes, to be innovative you've got to go back and find out what's been missed; it's not necessarily the next thing."

Coogan also has ambitions to play some Oscar Wilde, specifically A Woman of No Importance, which Normal claims has never been performed on British television. He has been lobbying the corporation's executives to commission the project. "Steve wants to play the lead [Lord Illingworth], and I'm trying to persuade them to do it."

Two years ago, the corporation's highly profitable commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, took a 25 per cent stake in Baby Cow, no doubt impressed by the large catalogue of DVDs the company has produced. A succession of Baby Cow film projects is also underway. The company has struck a deal with Film 4 to work with Chris Waitt on his second movie, filmed in Russia and England. In his debut film, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, Waitt tracked down his former lovers in an effort to find out what had gone wrong. Baby Cow is also making a film of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a novel by the former BBC Moscow correspondent turned government spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith.

Chekhov, Moscow correspondent, Russian location – there seems to be a theme there. "There's another film we've been asked to do in Russia as well," says Normal.

In another sign of the company's diversity it has made 101 Really Bad Ideas, a cartoon series for the comedy section of the BBC website. "The internet, apps and ad-funded, these three things together are an interesting frontier," says Normal, who complains that the number of comedy slots on television is in decline.

He says he is more than happy to work in partnership with the production companies of comedians who have followed the business approach that Normal and Coogan chose in 1999. Bishop's own company, Three Amigos, has jointly produced the World Cup app and is working with Baby Cow on a Christmas pantomime to be filmed for BBC1. It will feature Bishop – who had the idea while appearing in Dick Whittington in Manchester – and is being scripted by Liverpool-based writer Carmel Morgan.

"As you become famous in comedy and you are innovative you want to have some control over your work – that's why Baby Cow was set up," says Normal. "So we're always happy and eager to work with comedians and their companies; it would be rather churlish if we were otherwise."