Mucking around on Twitter can lead to extraordinary things. For a handful of creative people, including the experienced sports commentator Andrew Cotter, the boredom that threatened in lockdown has become a golden opportunity. Thanks partly to Cotter’s labradors, Mabel and Olive, and his hugely popular online commentaries on their antics, he has earned a global book deal.
Other social media stars such as Philip Joel, Munya Chawawa and Meggie Foster have also found that the work of idle hands has quickly transformed their prospects and even helped them change career.
These young performers — a choreographer, a radio comedian and a comic actress — have each grabbed an audience of thousands with inventive sketches, posted online when people really needed them. And all three are now destined for British TV screens.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Cotter
“I’d imagined my films might reach just a few people, but they’ve gone mad and now I have the added interest of television production companies,” said Chawawa, whose skits range from spoof rap songs and comic characters, including reporter Barty Crease, to political parody.
For Cotter, when he posted the first of his comic films, the response was so overwhelming he is now one step away from being anointed a national treasure. He already has the more concrete bonus of a lucrative book deal.
Andrew Cotter in an online sketch with Olive and Mabel.
Photo courtesy of Munya Chawawa
“I took up an offer from a publisher in Edinburgh and others quickly followed, but they were too late,” said Cotter, from Troon in Ayrshire, who until recently was best known for his coverage of golf, rugby, tennis and athletics on television. Deprived of live sport, his impromptu commentaries for contests between his two dogs, including Game of Bones, have now been viewed more than 40 million times, and the level of pre-order demand for the new book, Olive, Mabel and Me: Life and Adventures with My Canine Companions, out from Black and White Publishing in October, has astounded him.
“The reaction to news the book is coming out was astonishing,” Cotter said this weekend. “It [came] from all round the world and the North American market is particularly extraordinary. I’m getting a first draft over the next month and I guess it had better be quite good now.”
Mabel and Olive remain unruffled, however.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Cotter
“They have kept an even doggy keel through it all. Dogs are dogs and that’s the great pleasure of them. In fact, we are probably all leaning on our dogs more than usual.”
Lockdown has also shaken up the world of Joel, who is now developing a comedy pilot on the strength of his funny posts about the world of theatre, where he works as a successful freelance choreographer.
“My first film got around 25,000 hits in 24 hours. And people got back to me saying it was the first time they had smiled in a month. Then a TV production company said they would be interested in using my characters to make a mockumentary,” said Joel, 32.
For Foster, 26, the slog of looking for work after drama school was a challenge. But an inspired move into lip-syncing sketches on the social media site TikTok has altered everything.
“I’m just deciding which is the best agency to sign with for what I want to do. I am interested in working on my own show, ideally,” she said.
Living in lockdown back with her parents in Bampton, Oxfordshire, she staged a string of clever sketches, using topical soundtracks, including the voice of the home secretary Priti Patel. Witty editing has showcased her ability to play a succession of different characters.
“It was not a plan. I was just keeping myself busy,” said Foster. “I’ve always loved impersonating people, and creating characters, but the profession is incredible tough and getting noticed seems impossible. Now I’ve taken things into my own hands.”
The same is true for Chawawa, 27, a psychology graduate now based in south London: the last few weeks have underlined the power of taking charge of your own destiny.
“I couldn’t cope with the feeling I couldn’t use my skills. I normally broadcast on the radio and I’d been doing sketches for a couple of years. It started with a parody of Jamie Oliver that took off when he was in trouble for his Caribbean jerk chicken recipe,” said Chawawa. “So I started making my own films again.
“I hope my brand of comedy is thoughtful. I want to be a black entertainer who redefines it a bit, without being that loud, extrovert entertainer we are sometimes funnelled into becoming.”
Harnessing the power of lockdown was more of an accident for Joel, who grew up in Truro, Cornwall. “I was at my home in week four of lockdown when I released little films of parodies of different characters on Twitter at four o’clock in the afternoon. I soon found people were waiting for them. It has all escalated from there.”
He has been working on a pilot of his own comedy show with a production company and the script is ready to go when lockdown lifts. “There will be guest actors, but I am playing the main parts, so it is ideal for complying with social distancing, really,” he said.
Cotter has watched fresh opportunities open up due to the broad appeal of his comic commentaries, and it has renewed his interest in film-making.
“It has been one of the strange things about this new way of life,” he said, reflecting on the surge of international interest in him, prompted in part when the high-profile American basketball coach Steve Kerr first “liked” one of his online posts. “I had become so wedded to my sports, I had rather forgotten about film. This would normally be my busiest time, with just one week off between covering Queen’s tennis tournament and setting off to Wimbledon. Then I’d be off to Tokyo for the Olympics for the best part of a month. But I won’t regret missing it all. Dogs don’t live long enough and I will look back and think I am glad I did all that with them then.”
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