Simon Tofield's charming, quirky cartoons about a man and his cat are a thoroughly modern phenomenon - a post on YouTube by a secret admirer that became a worldwide smash. The man sitting opposite me is doing a very convincing job of impersonating a cat. Fans of an animated comic strip that has swept the internet will recognise the distinctive "brrrups" as the voice of a mischievous, anarchic moggy, which in a mere 18 months has taken YouTube by storm, attracting audiences of more than 30 million. Known only as Simon's Cat, it is the star of a series of short line-drawn films in which a cat constantly outwits its hapless owner. Cat Man Do, which started the phenomenon, shows the cat using increasingly heavy-handed methods to get its owner to wake up and feed it.
Simon Tofield, the brains behind the films, draws his feline sidekick and makes all the noises as well. "There are purrs and miaows but it's the little nuances that really makes the cat come alive," he says. He takes his inspiration from his own three cats. "Cats are so good at manipulating humans to get what they want. I see Simon and his cat as a bit like Laurel and Hardy. The owner, who is based on me, is very much the fall guy. The butt of the jokes. A lot of the scenarios have happened not just to me but to other cat owners and I think that's what makes them funny. I can sit here in London and make a film inspired by the behaviour of one of my cats and someone on the other side of the world might be laughing because it reminds them of their pet Snowball."
Indeed, it does seem that Tofield, 38, has tapped into a furry kind of humour that is universal. On the back of his staggering success on the internet, the first of two Simon's Cat books is out this month, with all manner of merchandise following shortly, from an Apple "app" to cards and T-shirts. "The films have each taken a long time to make so it has been great to work on my first book and really open up the cat's universe," says Tofield. "There are lots more characters and for the first time, cat goes outside and explores the outside world.
"I can't wait to get some feedback from fans. I get some really heartfelt e-mails. One was from someone suffering from depression who said that my cat made them laugh for the first time in a year, and that means everything to me. I have always drawn to make people laugh." The extraordinary overnight success of Simon's Cat is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Tofield, who used to make his living working on commercials, had been sketching comic cats since childhood but his talent for capturing feline mannerisms so perfectly would never have come to light if it hadn't been for the exposure on YouTube.
And even that only happened by chance. "I never thought anybody would see the film. It was just something I drew one morning - inspired by the antics of my youngest cat, Hugh - which I then put on the show reel I send out to get work. I was at the supermarket when a friend rang to tell me that the film had somehow found its way on to YouTube. I can remember really panicking. How could my cat be on the internet? The film didn't have a title or my name on it, so I thought someone must have stolen my work and taken the credit."