Peter Baynham: The man's an animal

After pushing the boundaries of taste with Chris Morris in Brass Eye, Peter Baynham is making comedy out of vivisection. Gerard Gilbert asks him if there's anything he won't joke about
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are very few things more likely to promote kneejerking than the union of the words "comedy" and "vivisection". Perhaps only the combination of "comedy" and "paedophilia" could get knees jerking harder. When it transpires that the same man was partly responsible for both conjunctions, kneejerkers could find themselves dancing the cancan.

There are very few things more likely to promote kneejerking than the union of the words "comedy" and "vivisection". Perhaps only the combination of "comedy" and "paedophilia" could get knees jerking harder. When it transpires that the same man was partly responsible for both conjunctions, kneejerkers could find themselves dancing the cancan.

Peter Baynham is the often uncredited other half of Chris Morris, the demonised comic behind that Bafta-winning Brass Eye spoof on paedophilia hysteria (you may remember the wonderful "nonce sense" slogan). Baynham is also one of the main writers behind Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge series, and a contributor to The Day Today, Smack the Pony, The Friday Night Armistice and Monkey Dust.

"It feels quite cool, in a mad way, to be someone who skulks about in the shadows," says Baynham, who adds that he was all too happy to skulk about in Morris's shadow when Brass Eye was incensing Britain's moral arbiters.

Under the auspices of Coogan's Baby Cow productions, he has now struck out on his own and into the spotlight as writer and director of the six-part BBC2 animated series I Am Not an Animal, running on Monday nights. This adult animation tells of six beasts who are liberated from a vivisection laboratory, where they have been taught to speak. "The seed entered my head when I read Animal Farm as a kid," Baynham explains. "At that age, you don't understand words such as 'allegory', and when the teacher said, 'The pigs started to walk upright', I would think, 'How do they do that?' "

The top-secret lab where the animals are programmed to chatter resembles the Big Brother house in its luxurious isolation, and the talking animals - a pompous, bookish horse, a celebrity-magazine-reading dog, a masturbating monkey, a sparrow who fancies himself as a pop singer and a female rat desperate to get laid (these are voiced variously by Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, Julia Davis and Kevin Eldon from the recently concluded Nighty Night, and the Father Ted writer Arthur Mathews) - sit around like so many metropolitan types yacking about matters of which they have no personal experience.

"It's a fairly common phenomenon of London life - people having fully developed critiques of books they haven't read and films they haven't seen. I'd probably include myself in that," Baynham says. "I had this idea of animals wanting to be people, wanting to move into the human world.

"If Disney did the story, they might say that if animals developed consciousness they'd teach us something about looking after the planet, or about animal dignity. We decided to go the other way - that they buy into the crap that we buy into: mobile phones, celebrity culture, the internet and all the other crap that seems to be thrown at us these days."

This anti-Rousseau view of animals and nature is central to I Am Not an Animal. "They don't exactly do what their liberators would want them to do, which is to go back to the wild and tear off their clothes," Baynham says. "After living on food like wild-mushroom risotto, they're not really prepared for seeing things like birds eating worms."

The very idea, however, that laboratory animals could live in pampered conditions has angered anti-vivisectionists. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has called for Coogan and BBC2 to think again and drop the series. Needless to say, the BUAV hadn't seen it, and one wonders what it would have thought of the opening episode, in which the campaigner who actually liberates the animals from the lab, Julian, is seen as a psychopathic thug who will happily gun down human motorists to make sure sheep get a good night's sleep.

"I have no disagreement with the aims of anti-vivisectionists," Baynham says. "I'm sure that there is a huge amount of experiments performed that are just horrible and unnecessary, and we started out with quite serious, dignified liberators. But they just felt like ciphers - they weren't funny. I don't think any character comes out of this series well - they're all fools. Please don't kill me..."

There was, however, some early, un- expected support from animal libbers. "We did have a letter of support from one of the largest anti-vivisection groups. They compared the show to Life is Beautiful, the Roberto Benigni film set in a concentration camp - arguing that, in the same way that it wasn't wrong to set a comedy in a concentration camp, it wasn't wrong to set one in a vivisection laboratory. I hope they still agree now they've seen it..."

As befits Morris's chief collaborator on Brass Eye, Baynham believes strongly that there are no subjects unsuitable for comedy. "Why shouldn't humour have its say? The grimmest subjects are meat and drink to the laziest, limpest documentaries, simply because they 'highlight' the issue. And Emmerdale can feature a plane crash simply in order to kill off the cast."

Referring to the infamous Brass Eye spoof on paedophilia hysteria, he says: "When, as happened, a frenzied mob attacks the house of a paediatrician because they mix up their words, why shouldn't Brass Eye grab a baseball bat and jump in there too?"

Baynham, who was born in Cardiff and spent five years in the merchant navy ("I'm the only comedian qualified to navigate a supertanker"), crossed paths with Chris Morris on The Day Today, after a comedy apprenticeship writing for Radio 4's Weekending.

"I nearly missed out, because I quit Weekending just as Armando Iannucci was taking it over. I had left to write a radio sitcom about the merchant navy, which was scrapped after two pilot episodes, and then Armando produced On the Hour with Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and the rest, and I was devastated. The first time I heard On the Hour on the radio, I thought, 'That's it, that's the comedy for the next 10 years. I've missed the boat.'"

Baynham had a second chance when he bumped into Iannucci at the BBC comedy department ("I was probably there stealing photocopier paper") and made him laugh enough to be included in the Day Today team. "I then somehow managed to make Chris Morris laugh, and it sort of went from there, really."

Baynham takes issue with the perception that people who write "dark' comedy are dark types themselves. "Sorry to destroy the fantasies of any troubled men out there drawn to her disgusting alter ego Jill in Nighty Night, but Julia Davis is a lovely, sweet, slightly unworldly person. Chris Morris is equally delightful."

Baynham himself is hardly the picture of a black avenging angel of satire. He's a small, slightly shambolic-looking man with soft eyes and a gentle manner - the only "something of the night" about Baynham is recurrent insomnia. His conversation is intermittently diffuse from lack of sleep on the afternoon I meet him. "People sort of imagine Chris Morris and me sitting somewhere dark, with dripping taps and chilling background music. In fact, we like to sit on his roof in the sunshine - and there's an endless amount of just sitting there, going, 'So, erm, er, what shall we do?'"

Morris, in turn, calls Baynham "the funniest person I know. He probably roars perfectly formed jokes in his sleep." And Baynham's first solo project proves the (characteristically expressed) truth of Morris's words. It is very funny and wittily animated, with a dark edge Baynham is loath to call satire. "I worry about the 'satire' label," he says. "First and foremost, I just want to write comedy. The animals' obsessions are the obsessions that we seem to have at this moment in time, so I suppose you could say we are satirising those."

The painstaking production, which took 18 months, was animated by Triffic Films, which also makes ITV1's satirical cartoon 2DTV. "Animation appealed, because you can do things that would cost millions in live action, and in animation they don't cost any more than anything else."

Cost, though, was the reason they rejected CGI - the kind of computer-generated images used in Toy Story and Shrek. "At one point, we explored doing something like Babe - in fact, there has been a live action version of Animal Farm. But that didn't work either because in my mind animals are hilarious, but in fact, when you look at an animal, they're not that funny because they're not very expressive. I'm not criticising animals for not being funny... that's not their job."

In the end, they plumped for something called digital photo-montage, although Baynham hopes the style of animation will be the last thing in the audience's minds. "You hope ultimately that people will just forget it's animation. That's your dream, really. It's weird to work so incredibly hard on animation in order for people to forget that that is what they are watching, but that is our aim."

'I Am Not an Animal' is on Monday nights at 10pm on BBC2

Comments