21 Oct 2007: With their Lurex-clad, psychedelic silliness and anarchic punk humour, the Mighty Boosh have been catapulted from the Edinburgh Fringe to the BBC. Amy Raphael catches up with them to talk sudden fame, instant families and stupid haircuts.
Noel Fielding is sitting in a dark corner in a bright-red Joan Jett jump suit, staring absently at his odd socks. His feet are killing him. He only has a short break between takes but the knee-high, stack-heeled boots, made by the same designer who once worked for Marc Bolan, had to come off. ‘God, I feel as though I’m in Sweet today,’ he says, rubbing his toes and swishing his shoulder-length bottle-black hair. He may be in costume just now, but Fielding is nothing if not glam rock. He is, he later says, fascinated by his own image and what he can do with it. He is one of those people who openly admits that he always thought he’d be famous.
And maybe his time has come. It’s 10 long years since south Londoner Fielding, now 34, and Leeds-born Julian Barratt, now 39, became friends after appearing on the same comedy bill at a pub in north London. Fielding had studied Fine Art at Croydon Art College while Barratt had dropped out of an American studies course at Reading University; both had fathers who loved Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and who encouraged their sons to avoid getting proper jobs.
When they first met, Barratt asked Fielding if he had his hair on backwards (hair being a bit of a theme – the duo takes its name from Fielding’s brother Michael, who as a child had really big hair which a friend called ‘the mighty bush’). Barratt was also intrigued by the large gaggle of girls who went everywhere with Fielding. Both wanted to get their material heard; neither had found anyone to work with who remotely understood what was going on in their head. It was a huge relief when they chanced upon one another and decided to be the new Goodies.
Which, of course, they’re not. What they take from the classic Seventies series is more the spirit of psychedelic, silly and surreal comedy. It’s part of a lineage that includes The Goon Show, Tony Hancock, Monty Python, Vic and Bob. If Fielding is to be believed, the new friends went back to Barratt’s place that first night and while the host played around on his Akai sampler, the guest made an eye patch out of a ping-pong ball. A decade on, the Mighty Boosh are on the verge of breaking free of their cult status and edging into the mainstream, but their approach to comedy hasn’t really changed. Stage shows feature monsters made out of Jiffy bags; in the new series, Fielding briefly sports a Polo as a monocle. Theirs is a homemade, DIY, punk humour that knows few boundaries.
But while they can be ridiculously funny, Barratt and Fielding can also be tricky. Interviewing them in Edinburgh in 1999, I felt slightly awkward as, hungover, they talked the alienating language of a comedy double act unwilling to fully engage with an ‘outsider’. On this cool, damp August morning they are filming the third series of The Mighty Boosh for the BBC in a vast warehouse on a disused MOD site in Surrey. Fielding is in high spirits; he keeps reappearing between scenes and chatting away about Suzi Quatro’s new autobiography (‘She’s very sexy’) or a recent all-night party where he met a cat called Steve. Barratt turns up at one point in checked shirt, cords and wellies, nursing a polystyrene cup of steaming tea. He vaguely nods but says nothing. He looks frazzled; his partner Julia Davis (star of Nighty Night) gave birth to twins Arthur and Walter just four weeks ago.
As Barratt wanders off into the shadows, Fielding does another take of a scene with an unbalanced tramp. After one series set in a zoo and a second in a flat in Dalston, the third has moved to a shop. This time, the insecure, anxious Howard Moon (Barratt) and the self-assured, narcissistic Vince Noir (Fielding) work in a second-hand shop owned by their shaman friend Naboo (played by Michael Fielding). If this sounds like a move towards traditional sitcom territory, it’s not: Fielding may call it a ‘psychedelic Open All Hours’ but director Paul King, who has worked with the Boosh since the early days, insists it’s more of a homage to Tim Burton, Dennis Potter and the film Delicatessen
Taking a lunch break in his dressing room, Fielding sits cross-legged on a cheap sofa. He tucks into red jelly and ice cream and talks about how frustrated he and Barratt (who is next door, too busy creating music for the show to talk just now) are by the various labels assigned to their comedy. ‘Most of all, we hate being called surreal,’ he says. But despite his protestations, it’s hard not to think of the Mighty Boosh as surreal: after all, they are undeniably bizarre and much of their comedy flows freely from their unconscious. Yet Fielding insists it’s more fitting to refer to the influence of children’s books: particularly Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Raggety, the spiky, scary forest creature made out of sticks who encounters Rupert Bear.
Fielding plays with his Lego necklace, pulling bits off and popping them back on again. ‘I think our show is magical and fantastical. We tell very intricate, weird stories. Vince Noir is quite modern, a bit of an indie kid; Howard Moon is a bit Fifties and eccentric. We tap into youth culture – the Horrors make a guest appearance in this series – and we rely heavily on Julian’s music and my animation.’ He pauses and grins. ‘It’s such a weird shambles of stuff.’
So weird, in fact, that it almost didn’t make it to television. Around 2000, Barratt and Fielding disappeared into development hell. They had done a sketch show for Radio 4, but no one was sure how to translate their act on to TV. That’s until Steve Coogan, who had seen them in Edinburgh in 1999 when they were performing as Arctic Boosh, moved things along. His production company, Baby Cow, put £40,000 into a pilot and Coogan himself sold the concept to the BBC simply by saying: ‘If we were young, we’d want to be them.’
The first series of The Mighty Boosh went out on BBC3 in 2004 and eventually transferred to BBC2. It was pretty much a word-of-mouth phenomenon: the Boosh had hip young fans and more than their fair share of groupies. Last winter, even Fielding and Barratt were surprised when they took their show on an extensive tour of Britain. ‘It was like the Rocky Horror Show,’ says Noel. ‘Everyone was dressed up and there was so much screaming! We did five nights at Brixton Academy and we could probably have done more. It used to be really cool people that liked our show – freaks and artists. Now the people that bug me every day are cab drivers and chavs. We’re no longer on the periphery. I wouldn’t mind being really popular…’
I ask Coogan how he feels about his proteges finding mainstream success: ‘When Henry [Normal, co-owner of Baby Cow and executive producer of The Mighty Boosh] and I approached the BBC about the Boosh, they were quite sceptical at first. There was a feeling that their comedy was too esoteric. But we felt there was a playfulness in their fantasies that transcended the sometimes oblique references. Monty Python often operated on two levels – sophisticated and silly – and the Boosh carries on that tradition.’
Part of their strength, Coogan feels, is their very distinct relationship. ‘In some ways it is pure music hall. They have a sweet innocence coupled with a kind of rock-star cool. It’s escapist and surreal, an appropriate antidote to the trend for super-naturalistic comedy we’ve seen recently, including some of my stuff. What Julian and Noel are doing doesn’t seem at all derivative. It isn’t the kind of comedy you arrive at through audience research, which is the best thing about it. They do it absolutely on their terms.’
Back on set, Julian Barratt appears in blue shorts, grey T-shirt, black flip-flops. He looks terrifying: from the shoulders up he has morphed into a fox. With the help of yellow contact lenses, a false beard, nose and teeth, he has taken on the demeanour of a feral animal. Fielding spots him and giggles. ‘Look at you! Crack Fox has come for me!’ But Crack Fox, it seems, is not needed just now: the scene he is to film with Vince Noir is delayed as adjustments are made to the set.
It is time to leave. Outside the hangar, as a weak sun pushes through the clouds, Fielding sits around with his long-term girlfriend Dee. Barratt sits slumped on the ground, leaning against a car. False teeth in hand, he looks less wild animal, more exhausted new father. ‘Oh God,’ he says, trying to summon up some energy. ‘We didn’t get the chance to talk… sorry.’
I meet Barratt and Fielding again last month on London’s South Bank. It’s warm and all the cafes are packed. They eventually settle on a balcony overlooking the Thames. We sit on very high stools at a small table, which forces an unwanted intimacy. Initially it’s not unlike the interview situation in Edinburgh all those years ago, but this time they quickly apologise for being exhausted after seven gruelling weeks spent bringing series three to life.
Fielding, in black skintight trousers with white spots, glam punk T-shirt, silver snake necklace, silver pointy boots, a trashy PVC coat with furry collar and outsized black sunglasses, is still recovering from a bout of flu. He yawns, twists and turns on his seat. Barratt, wearing black shorts, Birkenstocks, a stripy red and blue T-shirt and an open checked shirt, is slightly perkier but clearly exhausted by filming and fatherhood.
I ask how the rest of filming went. Fielding pulls a face: ‘It was atrocious.’ Barratt smiles benevolently at his partner: ‘It was good but it was hard, the hardest yet. Although it was the third series, there was no more money. We seem to have stretched goodwill from the crew to breaking point.’ Fielding hugs his battered doctor’s bag to his chest: ‘Until you get ratings, the BBC doesn’t understand. They came to see us live last winter, saw everyone screaming and said: “It’s like the Beatles. It’s amazing! You’re getting less money!” The fact is, we will never be as big as Little Britain. Having said all this, the BBC never interferes, which is something.’
Fielding suddenly leaps off his stool. ‘I’ve just seen a man in a Boosh T-shirt!’ As he hangs over the balcony, gesturing frantically, Barratt shakes his head. ‘I’m quite happy sitting here. Obviously Fielding likes to attract even more attention to himself…’
If you’d never seen them perform together, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these two are an unlikely double act. Yet virtually every comedy duo in history has been the odd couple off stage, and the Mighty Boosh is no exception.
Fielding likes to be noticed – hence what he refers to as ‘the stupid haircut’ – and embraces celebrity. ‘I go to lots of gigs, hang out with bands, party hard. I don’t think it’s possible to have a better time than I’ve had this year. It’s like my birthday every night. I DJ with seven girls, I hang around the Hawley Arms [in Camden] with Amy Winehouse, Russell Brand and Donny Tourette.’ Another celebrity friend is Courtney Love. ‘I went to her house at New Year and then we went to the Paramount party. I’ve never seen paparazzi like it. There must have been 500 photographers. It was quite a buzz, because we’re never going to have that.’
And Barratt looks positively relieved. He is far more private: when I comment on his new haircut, he says bashfully: ‘My girlfriend did it last night.’ When asked about his new young family, he says: ‘It’s a whole new thing for me. Something changes inside…’ He starts squirming. ‘I don’t know if I want to talk about it publicly. My relationship with the press is different now; it’s not just me any more.’ He won’t even talk about where or when he met Julia Davis; he is keener to discuss his relationship with Fielding.
He traces two circles on the table with his index finger. ‘There’s a kind of imaginary Venn diagram of our interests: we have a very shared middle ground that’s a lot to do with comedy and music and visual language. Noel then does his own thing, hanging out with the latest band. I’m always initially very cynical: who are these people, they look ridiculous.’ Fielding smiles and Barratt continues. ‘Usually I end up getting on with them quite well.’
Part of what works for Barratt and Fielding is their open relationship. Both regularly do their own thing, whether it be stand-up, art (Fielding), jazz (Barratt), acting in Nathan Barley (both) or The IT Crowd (Fielding). They like to invite friends, family and pop stars to appear in The Mighty Boosh (this series sees cameos from The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, Gary Numan, Fielding’s girlfriend, both sets of parents). The more ad hoc it all seems, the better – although on occasion it can seem overly self-referential. When I visit director Paul King in the editing suite some time later, he says that the show ‘needs to look homemade’ and is delighted that there isn’t a single proper actor in the whole show. ‘It’s vital that Noel and Julian appear to be pissing around, having a laugh.’
The Mighty Boosh is very good at removing the barrier between the artist and the audience: many of its fans watch thinking: ‘I could do that.’ Yet with a little pushing, the couple admit they work bloody hard. ‘I look as though I’m partying all the time, but actually we’ve worked virtually every day for 10 years,’ says Fielding. ‘It’s a cycle,’ adds Barratt. ‘Slog, focus, panic. You work hard as hell and suddenly it gets you down. It all appears very trivial and you start thinking that perhaps you should be helping people instead, being less egocentric.’ Fielding nods enthusiastically: ‘By running a butterfly sanctuary in Peru.’
Given that they almost always do interviews together, I ask if I can talk to them separately. I suggest a Mr & Mr interview where they are tested – informally, of course – on their relationship. I’m surprised by their relative enthusiasm. Barratt offers to go first; Fielding slopes off to make a phone call. Within moments, there’s a startling transformation. Barratt perks up. He relaxes, his shoulders drop. He even makes proper eye contact for the first time.
Julian, tell me five things about yourself, four of them true. I love jazz. I would have been a musician had I not got into comedy. My dad is a fisherman. I used to draw penises on my history books at school. I’ve never been scuba diving.
Tell me five things about Noel, four of them true. Noel is a girl. He can’t drive. He is an extremely good football player. His nose has been broken. He didn’t drink once for three years.
Who’s the funniest? Noel. Although I think he finds me quite funny. He likes to make people laugh; I do too, but I’m also quite happy to make people uncomfortable. I’ve done interviews in the past where apparently I didn’t give the journalist any eye contact. I’m a bit shy, yes. I’ve thought about refusing to do any press at all. All those questions you were asking us earlier… I felt slightly thwarted and crushed by this weight of having to be funny because I’m a comedian. Fielding does it much better; he rises to it.
Who’s the weirdest? [Laughs; pauses] We’ve both got pretty idiosyncratic taste. Noel’s gift is his ability to see his weirdness in the guise of a small child telling an adult a story. His weirdness has a friendly face.
Who’s the sexiest? Fielding.
Who’s the most rock’n’roll? Um… er… I suppose Fielding is flying that flag at the moment. I don’t know that I’ve ever really been rock’n’roll. I like the countryside. I like chopping wood. I’d like to be a carpenter…
Who is the most boring? I’ve got a lot of friends with whom I discuss jazz.
Who’s the most neurotic? Me. I can have a sleepless night worrying about a joke.
If you fight, does one or both of you sulk? We both sulk. We can get fired up quickly. Noel tends to say what’s on his mind; his subconscious is very close to the surface, which is part of his gift as a comedian. I bottle everything up and then explode. Most comedians are borderline psychotic. It’s what makes their work interesting.
Fielding approaches, looking hopeful. He is, it appears, anxious not to be left out. Barratt lies down in the shade, talking on the phone. Fielding takes a photo of him on his own mobile: ‘Huckleberry Finn’. He whizzes through the questions then asks if he can do them again; he wants his answers to be as good as Barratt’s. He also, interestingly, performs better alone. Even the yawning stops.
Noel, tell me five things about yourself, four of them true. Jesus! I’m Jesus. I like clothes. I’m tired. I’m trying to reintroduce a sense of magic, of the fantastic into society. I have an affinity with animals.
Tell me five things about Julian, four of them true. Julian wants to make a film. He’s a father. He’s often funny but doesn’t know why. He’s obsessed with logic, which he often uses to portray absurdity. He’s made of coins.
Who’s the funniest? Him. Physically and on a basic level, he’s funnier.
Who’s weirdest? I have the weirdest ideas. I dress more strangely. My stand-up is more ridiculous and silly; it has no foundation in reality whatsoever. Julian can seem quite offish when you first meet him. People find him offensive, rude, short-tempered, impatient. But he’s not really. It’s just his natural state; he’s quite preoccupied and twitchy.
Who’s the sexiest? [Laughs] Julian. I hope I’m sexy, too… Sometimes I look in the mirror and see a woman. My nose has never been broken, but it’s a fucking weird shape.
Who’s the most rock’n’roll? Me. My mum and dad had crazy parties throughout the Seventies. They listened to a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin. There was a lot of drink and drugs around. So I’m more rock’n’roll by nature. I go out and don’t come back for days.
Who’s the most boring? [Laughs] Julian. My great fear in life is of being boring. He’s like a teacher; he reads dry books, smokes a pipe and wears corduroy.
Who’s the most neurotic? He’s the most neurotic person I’ve met apart from my girlfriend.
If you fight, does one or both of you sulk? We very rarely fight and neither of us sulks. Never. Did he say we both do? [Looks genuinely horrified.] This is fucking brilliant.
Barratt returns to the table, smoking a cigarette he talked a tourist into giving him. To distract from the lack of agreement on sulking, I ask if it seems like a long time since they first met. ‘I suppose we’ve changed quite a lot in 10 years,’ offers Fielding. ‘I was quite cocky back then; I thought I was supersonic.’ He pauses. ‘I couldn’t tell you what life was like before Julian. He made me. Out of scraps.’ Barratt joins in: ‘In Pakistan.’ Fielding starts giggling. ‘Why is that so funny? I love that word: Pakistan. So when you made me in Pakistan, what was going through your mind?’ Barratt smiles. ‘Cheap labour. I thought we could get 10-year-olds in factories to write our jokes.’
Perhaps the last word should come from Steve Coogan, who saw something in these two comedy punks when few others could. ‘The Mighty Boosh is a party you are invited to where Julian and Noel choose the music and dress code, and you end up having a better time than you thought possible. It’s proof you can be sexy and funny. I try to soak up as much reflected glory as possible.’
· The third series of The Mighty Boosh starts on BBC3 in mid-November (see www.themightyboosh.co.uk). An exhibition of Noel Fielding’s art is showing at Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek Street, London W1 (07985 395 079), from 13 December