In fifteen years, Baby Cow has become one of the UK’s top comedy indies. Co-founder Henry Normal explains all
Henry Normal set up Baby Cow with Steve Coogan in 1999, and since then the indie has been home to some of the most distinctive scripted comedy to come out of the UK: Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, The Trip, Hunderby, Marion and Geoff, Ideal and, of course, Alan Partridge. Its film arm has enjoyed a winning streak in the last year too, producing Oscar-winning Philomena and box office hit Alpha Papa. And Baby Cow’s animation division is set to launch football fan comedy Warren United ahead of the World Cup.
Not bad for a company that was originally set up in Brighton so that Normal and Coogan could spend more time in the city with their young families. The indie’s first series, Human Remains, was made there. But they moved the company out for their second, Dr.Terrible, because of the cost of filming in a seaside town.
Ever since, Normal has been commuting to Baby Cow’s London office in Fitzrovia, home to 18 staff. It has grown to become one of the few remaining independent, mid-sized producers in the industry (BBC Worldwide took a 25% stake in 2008) – one that regularly turns over around £10-15m a year.
Normal, who was the co-writer of The Mrs Merton Show, The Royle Family and Coogan’s Run, started out as a performance poet and stand-up after a short spell as an insurance broker. He says Baby Cow sought to stay comedy focused from the very beginning, rather than diversifying like its more established competitors Hat Trick, Tiger Aspect and Talkback. “Steve and I set off wanting to make programmes that we would want to watch, and that was fundamentally comedy. I think if you have a level of expertise you should go with that. You don’t think of somebody like Picasso for his car maintenance, or James Hunt for his painting.”
Normal puts Baby Cow’s success down to everybody there being a comedy enthusiast. “People work all sorts of hours, very often six and seven days a week…It’s not so much work as a vocation.”
He adds: “We talk to lots of people, read lots of scripts. We like to think there is a certain style we go for and therefore we get that style sent to us. So we do a lot of working class, single camera, naturalistic stuff.”
Normal also says that the one defining factor about Baby Cow’s output is that it strives not to produce anything “too obvious.”
And new animation Warren United fits into this category. Normal says that, as far as he is aware, nobody has ever produced a series about a football fan. Set to launch on ITV4, it’s a family friendly show that’s the brainchild of exec producer Bill Freedman who has spent eight years bringing it to the screen.
New animated narrative series are rare in the UK. Warren United was written in the UK by Simon Nye, David Quantick and Dominic Holland. The animation was done in Canada – which offers generous tax breaks – by animation house Smiley Guy. “It’s very family orientated. It’s got a guy at the centre who has a wife and kids, so it’s not unlike the American animations. Except this has a new flavour to it that they haven’t got. We have tried to keep it as generically everyman as we can.” He calls Warren “sort of aspiring working class, at best lower middle class” who comes from the fictional town of Brainsford. “It’s not too far north, nor too far south – and looks a little bit like Peterborough.”
Normal is responsible for day-to-day business at Baby Cow, while Coogan is involved in various projects (he is writing a new film with Philomena’s Jeff Pope and is filming some more Alan Partridge this year). Many of Baby Cow’s staff have grown with the indie. For example, deputy Lindsay Hughes has been with Baby Cow since it began, and was originally Coogan’s PA, while Alan Partridge producer and director Dave Lambert started as a runner 12 years ago.
Normal says he is a business person “by default”, who wants to make creative programmes. He exec produces all Baby Cow shows, reading scripts and sitting in the edit. He doesn’t go to the shoots though – he says he finds them too slow. “There’s nothing for me to do and we have great producers who can handle that.”
Asked about the future of Baby Cow, he says there’s no great plan – and never has been. “I don’t think we started with a plan other than lets make some television we want to watch.” That said, he points out there are now more channels such as Sky, Comedy Central and Dave looking for content as well as digital outlets. “We are talking to Hulu, Amazon, Xbox…we’ve got productions with channels we haven’t made stuff for before which we will be announcing soon.”
Normal doesn’t sound unduly worried by the planned conversion of BBC3 to an online only channel. BBC3 backed Baby Cow’s most recent hit, Uncle. “The whole industry is in flux. We can’t really predict what will happen in the next two or three years. It might be a very astute move by the BBC…who knows, in five or ten years all TV might be online.”
Henry Normal CV
“Originally, I was a little baby. Then I went to a very bad school. Then I was an insurance broker. Then I decided to go on a little adventure. I was doing stand-up comedy and poetry all around the country. I toured everything from schools to prisons, any venue that would pay me.
“Then I had a TV series called Packet of Three and a radio show, but I realised I wasn’t as funny as other people I knew, especially Steve and Caroline Aherne. So I wrote The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family with Caroline and Craig (Cash), and Paul Calf, Tony Ferrino and Coogan’s Run with Steve Coogan.
“Then, when I was writing The Parole Officer with Steve we decided to set up a company…”
Warren United starts on Tuesday 22nd April at 10pm on ITV4.
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