The Mighty Boosh

The Boosh dimension

Zappa Unwin is dead. The world-famous anthropologist and part-time vaudevillian impresario spent his life chronicling humans and what makes us laugh. In his final book, Humans – A Comedy Of Errors, Zappa sought to neatly categorise the art of comedy and its bellyaching painters. Charting events from the birth of Jesus to 1998, he almost succeeded. But as the final sentences of his book reveal, Zappa Unwin was a troubled man.

“From the cross to New Cross, I have studied the ingredients of laughter; the results of which are in this book. I have presented you with a comedy herb rack, if you will. A sprinkle of slapstick. A pinch of context. A soupcon of character development. These, and many other ingredients can be combined to deliver a guffaw, snigger or inward mirth. Subtly, or obviously, comedians blend different flavours to place their work in a specific time and a specific space. However, lately I have come across a beast that, as yet, knows no category. The beast is called The Mighty Boosh. It utters the cry, ‘Come with us on a journey through time and space.’ I shall report back shortly.”

Zappa spent the next seven years following The Mighty Boosh from stage to radio productions and finally, two BBC series. But death has prevented Zappa from publishing his report. His rambling notes are all that is left. So, on the eve of the first UK tour of The Mighty Boosh, I will attempt to outline the comedy world that so perplexed the valorous Unwin and led The Times to gush, “Hip, sexy and magical” and The Independent to exclaim, ”Morecambe and Wise reinvented by Lewis Carroll.” Welcome to the world of The Mighty Boosh.

In his notes Unwin describes The Mighty Boosh as, “a subverted reality that flows between the minds of its creators. Quests are undertaken within the loose confines of morality plays. The misguided Howard Moon is always searching for the big answers…and is always saved by his cockney-bitch sidekick, Vince Noir; aided and thwarted by a host of savoury characters. Surreal? Dadaist? Slapstick? Fantasy? Performance? Kick out the herb rack! The Mighty Boosh weaves multi-dimensional, layered stories that defy categorisation.”

Sifting through past reviews, it becomes clear that journalists and anthropologists alike have had trouble categorising The Mighty Boosh. It appears that at some point in 1997 Noel Fielding, art student and fledgling stand-up comic began to wave his manicured barnet in appreciation of the work of fellow stand-up, Julian Barratt. Fielding and Barratt soon began to work together, mixing their self-confessed inability to write proper jokes with artistic and musical talents. On stage, Fielding became Vince Noir and Barratt transformed into Howard Moon. Picking up Rich Fulcher on the way to the 1998 Edinburgh Festival, the trio won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award for their show, The Mighty Boosh. They took up residency in the Hen & Chicken in Islington, abetted by Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade. It was during this time that Holness and Ayoade created Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, which was aired on Channel 4 in 2004. The mighty trio were again nominated, at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, for The Arctic Boosh, directed by Stewart Lee. Both Fielding and Barratt have called Lee and Herring their, “comedy uncles.”

Perhaps because of the Boosh’s loose, improvised nature, it was another five years before the show would be granted a well-earned television airing. In 2004, under the watchful eyes Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow Productions, the BBC commissioned a first series of The Mighty Boosh. The second series was shown on BBC THREE last summer, transferring to BBC2, hopefully, in February. After two critically acclaimed TV stints, Fielding and Barratt have decided to take the Boosh on the road. On March 15th it arrives in Nottingham, a city that hasn’t always been kind to Fielding. He recalls an early solo show: “I died an horrific death at Just The Tonic. It was one of those gigs that are so bad that you just end up on the floor. Afterwards I went to get paid. The promoter turned to a guy that was also on and said, ‘that was amazing!’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘don’t give up.’ I don’t think he knew what else to say. After the good ones you feel like a king. But the bad ones stay with you.”

Fielding still tours the stand-up circuit as a solo act. But as we chat, it becomes evident that he is looking forward to having some company on the stage. “Live we have really good fun,” he states. “I think it’s where we’re at our best. You get to use skills you can’t use on TV. Stand-up is one thing but with two of you, it’s a lot harder. I love doing the live stuff; it’s where we come from. We piss around and make stuff up.” I ask if it’s loose. “It couldn’t be any looser!” he laughs. “We had a warm-up gig last night. We thought we had about half an hour’s material but we went on for about an hour and a half. We still have this tight set, but then we get on stage and piss around.”

Unlike Fielding, Barratt no longer takes to the stage as a solo comic. “I really like doing stuff with Noel on stage,” he says. “This may sound a bit poncy but it’s more visual and arty than stand up. We’re slightly taking the piss out of theatre techniques.” Barratt has been casting a wry smile in the direction of theatre since the mid nineties, when he performed as part of The Pod. More recently, he appeared alongside Willem Dafoe in the US film, The Reckoning. And last year he played Dan Ashcroft in Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley. Despite a burgeoning acting career, it is clear that Barratt still hankers for his musical roots. When asked what aspects of touring The Mighty Boosh he is looking forward to, Barratt replies, “Doing the music on stage. Ultimately I want to be in a band, we’ve got loads of tunes. Ideally there would be a band on stage but basically it’s us jumping around and dancing to backing music, with me sometimes playing an instrument. I’m most happy when I’m doing music.”

Fielding has progressed from having no musical abilities ten years ago, to playing bass with the Sneaker Pimps and IMX. But when it comes to The Mighty Boosh, it’s his artistic talents that come to the fore. “For visual reasons I like the TV,” Fielding comments. “Julian really enjoyed the radio shows, where he could build soundscapes. My ideas tend to be visual, I like costumes and monsters and magical worlds.” The artistic and musical skills of Fielding and Barratt are a key element of The Mighty Boosh; a point Zappa Unwin was keen to point out in his final scribblings. “Fielding’s costume designs and props bring fantastical characters and settings to life,” he noted. “And the songs and incidental music, composed and performed by Barratt add depth to the personalities on show and their inter-relationships.”

Simply put, The Mighty Boosh can be an aural and visual feast. Orally, the shows host a smorgasbord of witty one-liners. But many of the laughs seem to come after a second viewing, once the audience has had a chance to get to know the characters, perhaps a result of the writing process. “When we wrote our shows, they were often built up in a club,” says Barratt. “We’d note what works well in front of a crowd. Stories would build up over a long period of time. It’s been more cold writing with the TV shows. I’m not sure what people think. I wouldn’t mind if people don’t understand it, just enjoy it.”

Fielding acknowledges that Vince and Howard have developed over time. “We’re not interested in the same things,” he states. “Vince has grown up and is spiky; an angry, stroppy teenager.” But then Fielding seems to blur the lines between Vince & Howard and Fielding & Barratt. “When we started we were all over the place,” he continues. “We didn’t have a clue. We’re much more competent now. All over the fucking place to start with, mumbling into sleeves. You do get better but lose a little bit of innocence. So perhaps you get worse over the years.” Barratt clarifies the blurring of the lines whilst talking about his favourite characters. “I quite like Mr Susan. We may bring him on tour. And Rudi and Spider. They’re sort of Howard and Vince’s alter egos. Howard and Vince and very similar to me and Noel. Everything works out for Vince but I do tend to make things difficult. We often work out stuff in life through the characters. Noel will have been out the night before and have a hangover, after seeing The Strokes or someone. And I’ll be really angry that he didn’t think about me. Then we revert to the characters to work it out. They’re close to our souls.”

I think I’m beginning to understand what Zappa Unwin meant when he called the world of The Mighty Boosh a subverted reality. But what’s at the core of this reality? Fielding allows us a peep. “We’re sort of both obsessed with magic,” he explains. “Not in a Paul Daniels way. It comes from stories, stories and monsters. We both like the Sinbad films, Mr Ben, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Escaping stuff goes against the grain of the last five years. It’s all been about real people. We’re about as far away as you can get.” But does Barratt agree? “I’m not really a believer in magic,” he says. “Music, that’s where the magic is. We do all of this magical stuff but I’m a devout sceptic. Noel’s a bit naïve. We’ll be watching Derren Brown and Noel will be sat there going ‘no way!’ I don’t think there’s anything outside of this life. But I still like to build these worlds. But then why do I get scared of ghost stories? Somewhere in my psyche I believe in them. I think I’ve convinced myself, there is magic.”

The magic seems to come from the imaginations of Fielding and Barratt; imaginations that can render everyday life an unforgettable episode. “It’s such a different world, very childlike,” offers Fielding. “The different terrains we explore, it’s more from the head; we’ve never been to any of them. You get a clearer picture if you don’t go there. In the early shows I started in the Post Office and then went to the Arctic. I used to think, what did I do today? I went to the Post Office and the Arctic. And then I’d think, no I bloody didn’t! It’s one of those things that you don’t get at first. But then you do. It’s layered. When I watched Monty Python as a kid, I didn’t get it to start with. But then later on there is a realisation, I was so excited about how much was out there.”

It appears that Barratt is excited about the future possibilities for The Mighty Boosh. “We’ll do this tour and another TV show,” he says. “It’s been fun. It’s like still being a kid and I’m almost 40. We want to do a film. It works on TV, but would be better on the big screen. We’re trying to create big, cinematic adventures. TV allows you to do things that are low-key, build up over time. Full of music and musical beasts, monsters made of rave music. That gives me an idea for a rave monster, with Squarepusher in the background…” Barratt trails off. And then returns: “I want to get a Boosh band going, put on a massive travelling thing similar to what Warp records did around the US with people like the Light Surgeons. A menagerie of freaks. We could take over a venue.”

Zappa Unwin died alone, of old age. He was found by his nephew, Egbert Dunwinny, with a smile on his face, a pen in his hand and a small question in his breast pocket; where is the world of The Mighty Boosh? Fielding attempts an answer: “It’s the world we want to live in. Being in a flat in Dalston, it’s quite ugly so we try and escape. I guess if we were living in paradise we’d be writing stories about Dalston.”


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