Memorably once described by Jimmy Carr as looking like ‘Rod Stewart has made love to a raven’, that there Noel Fielding’s back out on the road this month.
Hot on the heels of a successful first couple of legs of his tour, the 42-year-old Londoner – best known for multi-award winning comedy The Mighty Boosh – continues with his An Evening with Noel Fielding tour.
This being Noel, you can expect a magical mix of his somewhat unique brand of stand-up, live animation, music and meet a few of his best-known TV characters, such as the Moon and Fantasy Man, with guest slots thrown in from the likes of Noel’s brother Michael Fielding and Tom Meeten, both familiar to Boosh fans.
Noel’s never been one to rest on his laurels, or his hardys for that matter, and as well as a successful writing partnership with Julian Barratt – the NME labelling them ‘the funniest comedy double-act in Britain’ – he’s worked on several other successful projects, not least the half-live action, half-animated Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, which also starred several Boosh regulars and included music by Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno.
Then there were his roles as Cradle of Filth-loving Goth Richmond on The IT Crowd and Jones the DJ on Nathan Barley, appearances in Doll & Em, How Not to Live Your Life, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, Comic Relief Does Top of the Pops, The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, his long-running team captaincy on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and a little film work too.
As a solo performer, 2002’s Perrier Award-nominated debut show Voodoo Hedgehog also helped cement his live reputation, and then there were the art exhibitions – Psychedelic Dreams of the Jelly Fox and Bryan Ferry vs. the Jelly Fox – and his Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton book of old and new paintings, drawings and photography.
But it was his link-up with Julian Barratt that made Noel’s name, first bringing to life Howard Moon and Vince Noir in the upstairs room of a North London pub, the Boosh making their Edinburgh Festival debut in 1998, winning the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer, further Edinburgh live shows and more awards following.
By 2001 the duo were commissioned by the BBC to write and star in a six-part comedy series for Radio 4 that won the Douglas Adams Award, their first TV series aired on BBC Three in 2004, soon moving to BBC2.
The awards and re-commissions continued, 2005’s series two leading to the duo’s first nationwide live tour, overwhelming public demand seeing the dates double in size, performing to some 100,000 punters and culminating in a sell-out five-night recorded run at Brixton Academy. A third series followed in late 2007 and a second UK live tour, Future Sailors, involved 100 arena performances, playing to more than a quarter of a million fans.
Fast forward to today, and Noel remains something of a regular on our TV sets, most recently spotted by this scribe on Alan Davies’ As Yet Untitled for Dave, where he told a rather compelling, typically-entertaining story about his brief spell in retail down in Brighton.
“Oh my God, I know! I recently saw Kevin Bishop from Star Stories, and we have a mutual friend, Dolly Wells, from Doll and Em, and we were with her, chatting about our absolute nightmare stories from when we got too drunk, and got on to that. That was a long time ago. I’m not even sure if that shop’s still there. If it is, I’d love to go in and say hello.”
Might that be the retirement plan one day – a move away from this business called show to take on a busy boutique somewhere?
“Do you know what? The reason we actually did that in the last Boosh series, when we had this second-hand shop, was because I thought it would be quite fun to work in a second-hand shop. I don’t know why. It’s probably really hard work, but … maybe. And I’ve got enough clothes that I could easily do that. It wouldn’t even make a dent in my collection.”
Perhaps you should start collecting envelopes now, unless you go on a till-training course.
“Exactly, or use some sort of barter system.”
Meanwhile, the live work continues, Noel now embarked upon on a month-long leg of his current tour. I take it – I ask – he’s enjoying the live experience.
“Yeah. I loved doing it the first time, with quite a big tour here, then went to Australia and New Zealand. That was really good fun. There were places we didn’t quite reach, first time, so we thought it might be nice to do another month and hit all those.
“And the shows got better and better. When we first went out in England, we’d just written it, so there were a few teething problems. By the time we got to Australia for that second phase, it was much stronger. So I’m hoping that phase three … this is where it takes!”
I’m guessing you know the set well enough to comfortably come off-plan?
“Totally! It’s a bit jazzy. It allows pockets of improvisation, I suppose. But there are a lot of points I have to hit. There’s stand-up in it, and the Moon’s got an alter-ego, a Dark Side. There are a few new characters, some sketchy stuff and some songs, and animation.”
Are you good at remembering what you’ve come up with on the night, or do you have moments where you did something good but can’t quite recall what?
“Weirdly, comedians never forget a joke. It’s the oddest thing. I can’t remember anything else, but I’ll never forget a joke! Somehow it comes back to you, and comedians never throw anything away.
”In the second half, there’s a break and then – after an hour of material – you have to introduce some sort of narrative, otherwise it gets a bit boring. I like to mix it up live. I can see comedians and they’re absolutely brilliant, but sometimes after 50 minutes I’ve had enough if it’s just stand-up.
“I was determined not to do that. I’ll do 45 minutes or so then make it more sketchy, or more cabaret-like, bring in some music, bring others on stage, some animation, then in the second half really get some narrative going.
“To raise it from there, I go and chat to the crowd. That makes it a bit more exciting and zingy. At the end, we bring someone on from the crowd, and they go into the animation. So hopefully there’s something for everyone.
“It’s a long show, but we work very hard at it, and if you work really hard at a live show you don’t have to worry so much about it when you take it out on tour. It’s quite knackering being on tour, so you don’t want to just be constantly fixing or tweaking stuff to make it work for you.”
Some would have you down as an improviser above all else, but you can’t be just that. There must be some preparation.
“You have to a little bit … yeah. Me and Russell (Brand) were talking about an unplanned show, because we’re both quite good at that. But there’s something slightly unsatisfying about a show that’s completely improvised. It can never be as good.”
It seems to work with yourself and Russell though.
“Well, we did a Royal Albert Hall gig for the Teenage Cancer Trust, in which we literally had a few bullet points – that’s all! It was like, ‘Oh my God, this could be an absolute disaster!’ But somehow we always managed. I think you can if there’s an audience there, playing off them.”
Isn’t that just a special vibe with Russell? Could you even do that with Julian, as well as you know him?
“I think we could a bit, but with Julian it’s very jazzy. He likes to know what the theme is.”
There’s no obvious foil with you two. You’re both a bit off-kilter.
“The thing with Julian is he likes to know what he’s doing, go off then come back. He’s obsessed with Miles Davis, whereas with me and Russell, we’re quite free-form. There’s not even a script to begin with. We’re jumping off an invisible script at the same time! It can be good, can be quite chaotic, but occasionally you need a little bit of structure.”
You mentioned music links in the show, there was the Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captain’s role, and you have a few celebrity mates from that world. If you had a chance to nip back to any time in the history of music, which band do you wish you could have slotted in with?
“It would have to be the ‘70s, in the days of glam probably … or prog. Marc Bolan’s band, or a proggy rock band like Hawkwind. I love all that stuff, and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Me and Julian were obsessed with all that – the dressing up and the weird psychedelic, frightening stuff.
“It’s a bit conservative now, and I feel a little sorry for the kids. When you’re young it’s quite fun to dress up. I should imagine going to a Ziggy Stardust concert would have been pretty good if you all dressed up and went out together. Now, there’s not so much of that going on. Or maybe there is but I just don’t know about it. There certainly doesn’t seem to be too much ‘out there’ stuff.”
I’d personally steer clear of all The Rocky Horror Show type scene, but could see you in Beefheart or early Roxy Music.
“I absolutely love Roxy Music! Then again, The Rocky Horror Show stuff is sort of amazing, and people love to join in with all that. Something like that today would go down so well, when people are more used to being in front of a camera or being in the limelight now.”
We heard it here first, eh?
“Yeah! Well, it was your idea!”
On a similar note, do you think you could have taken on being a full-time art teacher?
“I make a joke about that! I dunno, I like the art side a lot – paintings and animation, so it was good we were able to bring a bit of that into our live shows and with Julian, as with the music. But I don’t know if I would have been happy just doing that. I did a little teaching when I was at sixth form, and there’s something quite amazing about that.”
Perhaps you’d have been happy if you could have done that by day, and played in a glam or prog band by night.
“Maybe that would have been okay! There’s something quite rewarding about teaching. Kids are very open to learning.”
What were you like at school? Were you the quiet one, waiting for a moment to tap all these ideas?
“I was quite shy, but good at painting quite early on, so I think it was always felt I would go on and do that. The idea of performing was probably a bit frightening. I probably said maybe I was going to be a comedy writer.
“Then I started reading lots and realised I might have to do some stand-up, which seemed quite horrifying to me at the time. I did a few gigs at art college and they sort of went okay, so I thought I’d give myself a year when I left art school to go on the dole, try and get housing benefit, and do as many gigs as I could and see what happens.
“As it turned out, it all happened quite quickly. I think in my heart I felt I could do it. I had friends who were much more gregarious, outgoing and better performers, but maybe they didn’t have as much writing behind them. I had a whole backlog. You can get a certain way on performance and character alone, but you really need a lot of ideas.”
There have been several key moments along the way – like meeting Julian, or Bill Bailey asking if you’d like to try Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
“I know! In a way, you can’t control stuff. It’s weird. When you’re looking for it, it never really happens. The thing with meeting Julian – I don’t think that will ever happen again. Now we’ve not done the Boosh for a while, it’s clear how much people love that show and how special our relationship was. Double acts are few and far between anyway, but good ones are like unicorns – they just don’t exist.”
Don’t tell my youngest daughter that, I add, before Noel continues.
“With Julian we had a natural chemistry and could write together, which was pretty insane. You then think, I’ll be able to do that with lots of other people, but you can’t actually … or at least only to a degree.”
Seeing as you mentioned unicorns there, can you really talk to the animals, you’re your character, Mowgli in flares?
“I do have a weird sort of affinity with animals, although I’m not that bothered. My girlfriend loves animals, but they always bite or sting her, even jellyfish. With me, they always seem to love me, especially dogs. They tend to follow me about, and I’m like, ‘Look, come on, I’ve told you!’
Speaking of your other half – radio presenter Lliana Bird – have you any ambitions to do a bit more DJing – like Jones on Nathan Barley. Or are there already too many of those in your house?
“I think there are too many. I’d like to do a bit more acting, if something interesting came along. But it would have to be more interesting than whatever I was writing. That’s always going to be the case, unless what you’re offered is unusual.”
Personally, I’d love to see you and Russell come up with, as mooted a while ago by the tow of you, The Goth Detectives.
“I’d like to do that as well! But Russell’s quite hard to pin down, now he’s gone political. I’ve not seen him for a while.”
I guess we all expect the two of you to be partying all the time, but I guess the reality of it is probably quite tame – a cup of coffee and some Digestives perhaps?
“Well, especially with Russell. He hasn’t drunk for years. He likes a coffee, yeah – a coffee and mung beans! I don’t know what he’s up to at the moment. He’ll have something up his sleeve though.”
I was talking to Steve Diggle from the Buzzcocks the other day. I didn’t dare mention I had you up next though, in case he expected royalties from the makers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
“I do see him occasionally. He must live around here.”
He told me he lived quite close to Noel Gallagher actually.
“Really? I think I saw him around Highgate way. They’re an amazing band, aren’t they. But it’s gutting that Never Mind The Buzzcocks has been cancelled now.”
I must have missed that announcement. Apparently so – after 18 years, 28 series and nearly 270 episodes.
“Yeah. That’s really annoying. I loved doing that, and loved working with Phill (Jupitus) as well.”
Do you see Phill – who memorably described Noel as ‘a gothic George Best’ – socially outside of the show?
“We’re mates, yeah. He’s such a lovely dude, a good artist as well. We send each other art books and things. A lovely man.”
Many moons ago, when he was doing his stint with Go! Discs and I was writing my Captains Log fanzine, I’m pretty sure I received something from his office, and he’d signed a compliments slip in his Porky the Poet guise. Unfortunately, I think it’s long gone now.
“Actually, I think he might actually have started doing some poetry again, in Edinburgh last year.”
Who do you think the real Noel Fielding is closest to, character-wise – Richmond Avenal or Vince Noir? Or maybe the Moon?
“It was Vince, but I might be getting too old now. I’m getting like the Moon now, forgetting stuff, getting stuff wrong. Those characters I think were the ones that were probably the closest to me, rather than the scary ones like Old Gregg.
“I did like The Hitcher though, because it allowed me to play a slightly more evil character … or as evil as I can go. I’m not very evil naturally. When Julian goes evil, like with The Crack Fox, it’s really quite horrifying. But he’s quite sweet as well.”
I mention a wonderful visual gag on The IT Crowd where someone comes to look for Richmond in the office, and he’s hiding on the ceiling. Was that one of Noel’s ideas?
“Erm … I don’t think it was. I think it was one of Graham (Linehan)’s, but he was very generous and let us have a lot of ideas for our characters. I seem to think I was very hungover when I did that scene, and nearly vomiting.
“But when Graham said he was interested in talking to me about the part, I had an idea straight away for the voice. There was a documentary about Pink Floyd, live in Pompeii, and it made me laugh the way they were very posh … (Noel switches to his Richmond voice) because Goths are often quite posh.
“Cockneys or chavs would never dress like Goths, really. I was a bit of a chav myself, but think the working classes like to dress a bit more smart, like Mods, whereas I imagine most New Romantics and Goths were middle class.”
Is that right you shared a flat with Lee Mack?
“Yeah … years ago. We lived together for two years running in Edinburgh, for six weeks or so while we were doing the Festival. Me and Julian, Lee and another comedian one year, then the year after it was me, Julian, all the Boosh, Lee, and someone else.
“Those days were quite fun. It’s the only time you ever live with other comedians. Some of them can be quite annoying, but Lee is probably the funniest person I’ve ever known. Or maybe it’s between Rich Fulcher (Bob Fossil in the Boosh) and Lee. They’re both unbelievable.”
Can Lee ever switch off?
“No. It’s like a disease. Really entertaining, and nice to live with, but me and him trying to make a cup of tea was unbelievable. It was the Chuckle Brothers meets Laurel and Hardy. Literally, you’ve never met two people less equipped to deal with real life!”
Finally, who do you think you’re closest to of all the past comics. I see the wonderful Spike Milligan mentioned a fair bit.
“I love Spike. I would never compare myself to him, but love his sense of being quite child-like. And I’d like to write children’s books, as he did. I have an idea. I also love Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Julian and I always thought we were quite like them. We always felt we had an affinity with them.
“The Pythons are amazing too. Really, it’s the classics – Spike and The Goons, Pete and Dud, Python, Vic and Bob, The League of Gentlemen, then us. But I’ve probably left out a lot of my friends there! Blackadder and The Young Ones are in there somewhere.”
An Evening with Noel Fielding hits Preston Guild Hall on Friday, November 27, with tickets via 01772 804 444, and Blackburn King George’s Hall on Saturday, November 28, with tickets via 0844 847 1664.
And for all the latest from Noel, head to his official website here.