(c) The Scotsman
Boys who never grew up
LIKE all the best heroes, Julian Barratt doesn't actually look like one. He needs a shave, his loud yellow shirt needs ironed or, better still, set alight, and his wheat beer is starting to divert the afternoon down a surreal path. Meanwhile, his friend Noel Fielding, who can get surreal without the help of wheat beer, won't stop wittering about shamen and mermen and people made of biscuits.
The last time we saw the pair on TV was in Nathan Barley, another of Chris Morris's acid satires on the media. Fielding had a small part as a nocturnal devotee of screechy techno but Barratt was the hero of the piece - Dan Ashcroft - a journalist who wrote about "The Rise Of The Idiot" in a magazine run by trendy twerps too self-obsessed to realise they were the inspiration, and the targets.
An emblematic image, featured in every episode, had Barratt wearing an expression of doom, shoulder hunched against a heavy metal door, as he prepared to enter a 'workplace' full of imbeciles in tiny cardboard trilbies, pedalling around on tiny plastic tractors. If this isn't the comedy of the year, I'll eat my tiny cardboard trilby.
Nathan Barley was a highly useful bit of freelancing for Barratt and Fielding. Their day job is as The Mighty Boosh, the comedy double-act voted Perrier Best Newcomers at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Last year they made the jump to the small screen, and a second series starts this month.
In their own strange way, The Mighty Boosh are heroes too. Their comedy is very much an acquired taste - think Goons, think Python, think sillier - but the fact they are allowed access to Tellyland at all should be welcomed by everyone. The idea of Barratt and Fielding playing zoo keepers who desert their posts to go on quests to the Arctic and beyond to encounter chamois-leather monsters and box killer kangaroos may not rock your world - but it does make a change from Big Brother.
When The Mighty Boosh first appeared on the box, they were viewed as a reaction against reality television. Was keeping it surreal part of the plan? "Subconsciously, I suppose, yeah," says Barratt, 36. "Those docusoaps can be brilliant, although the level of acting in them is incredible now. But we've only ever wanted to do the Boosh.
"If you've got a budget for a TV show, you shouldn't just film yourself standing in your front room in your underpants, you should make something beautiful," adds Fielding, 30. And the Boosh's idea of beauty? Man walks into a pub. And he's made of crackers.
Barratt is tall, Fielding short - but comparisons with Little & Large end there. Fielding is something beautiful too: crow's beak for a nose, rock star hair, but that of a girl rock star; he could be the great, lost fifth member of The Runaways.
In different parts of the country - Barratt hails from Leeds, Fielding is a Londoner - they grew up watching the same telly programmes and thrilled to the same oddness.
Barratt: "I loved Monkey."
Fielding: "Me too. All those weird demons. And The Monkees."
Barratt: "Rupert The Bear... and remember Raggedy, the grumpy wood troll? That pervaded my subconsciousness."
Fielding: "The Goodies, all those Cocteau films that were so magical. There's a bit of Sinbad in our show... Jason & The Argonauts... except there are no Greek warriors, just these complete idiots. One of them is obsessed with his hair and the other is a neurotic jazz freak."
The characters that Fielding and Barratt play in The Mighty Boosh are extensions of their own personalities. Back in Leeds, Barratt was that neurotic jazz freak. "School didn't work out for me and I didn't want to do a normal job," he says. "Between the ages of 16 and 20 I was in lots of weird jazz-fusion bands and I became obsessed with playing the guitar really, really fast. In the new series, I've got about 18 solos so I'm pretty chuffed about that."
Barratt and Fielding not only share comedy influences, they also have fathers who dreamed of exotic lives far removed from the nine-to-five. But when those dreams didn't happen, they wouldn't die. They were transferred to their sons, who were encouraged to be daring while other boys met with parental obstruction.
Barratt again: "My dad really wanted to be a musician - like Noel's dad, he loves Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart - but he ended up becoming a teacher. Obviously he wanted me to do well academically, but when I announced I was going to try music he said: 'Go for it.'"
Fielding: "My dad nearly became a professional footballer; he had trials with Chelsea. After that he never stuck at jobs for long and he and my mum were much more interested in hanging out with their friends and throwing wild parties for all these weird folk and there would be drugs flying everywhere. It was all pretty bohemian, I suppose.
"I was always painting and drawing as a kid. When I was 13 I told my dad I'd rather kill myself than do an ordinary job. He vaguely muttered something about how I'd need to earn a living somehow, but he's been totally behind me, forking out money he didn't really have to send me to university. Every other comedian I've met had to fight their parents to be allowed to do this but mine have been brilliant."
So how have Fielding and Barratt rewarded their fathers for their bold support? By putting them in the show. Barratt's dad Andy is a shamen and, more bizarrely, Fielding's old man Ray plays bushy-browed balladeer Chris de Burgh, although the guest turns did prompt the funsters to waver from their usually unshakeable belief in Booshian madness.
"After a while you become inured to the process of doing TV, and on the day my father was filming his bit I was like: 'Great, he'll be a right laugh.' But we'd dressed him in this weird raffia suit and everyone was staring at him and he looked really vulnerable. I thought: 'Oh Dad, what have I done to you?'"
THE FAVOURITE WORD OF The Mighty Boosh is "weird", but they try not to overdo it. "What we didn't want," says Barratt of their show, "was a weird world full of weird people in weird hats doing weird things." Believe it or not, there is method to their weirdness. The show has transferred to TV under the tutelage of Steve Coogan's Baby Cow production company. "Despite all the weirdness, Steve could see that at its core there was this relationship between two guys," adds Fielding.
And despite all the weirdness, women like The Mighty Boosh. Audience research reveals a large female following and also - well weird, this - a sizeable seafaring one. But even if you don't like their comedy, you must allow yourself a smirk at the thought of comedians like Fielding and Barratt confronting, and confounding, focus groups and suited, straight-thinking TV execs. What do they think a psychologist would make of their show? "That we haven't grown up?" suggests Fielding. "I think it's important to play all the time," adds Barratt. The sort of ideas you have when you're in that state... a lot of people are frightened to access that part of themselves, they don't want to be silly anymore."
The Mighty Boosh do, and all those women and sailors and pre-eminent comedy forces such as Steve Coogan and Chris Morris love them for it. And so do their dads.
• The Mighty Boosh starts on July 26 at 11pm on BBC Three