Noel Fielding: The comedian is returning to his first love - painting

The venue for his first exhibition? A cake shop, of course...
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The Independent Culture

A few weeks ago, the first episode of the third series of The Mighty Boosh pulled in a million viewers, making it the most-watched programme in BBC3's history. The stars, Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, were"really chuffed", says Fielding. "The BBC sent us champagne, and we went out and got absolutely wrecked." But a Little Britain-style promotion to BBC1 isn't likely, even if the duo's DVDs are bestsellers and their live tours sell out to fancily dressed students. "When I watch BBC1, I realise why we're not on it," reasons Fielding. "It's a pretty strange, quirky little show."

That's putting it mildly. The Mighty Boosh is a sort of sitcom that revolves around a classic sitcom act. Fielding, 34, bounces with Tiggerish enthusiasm, while Barratt, 39, is his crotchety, perpetually disappointed foil. Ratcheting up the laughs, Barratt and Fielding's characters go off on bizarre yet low-budget adventures to caves and desert islands populated by mermen and yetis. It's The Goodies as reimagined by Reeves & Mortimer, or vice versa.

The duo write the show, as well as providing songs and animation and designing weird creatures, some of which have Polo mints for eyes. Where does all this stuff come from?

In an effort to find out, I meet Fielding at a patisserie in Soho. He's not hard to spot. Like a technicolour version of his friend Russell Brand, he has a permanent grin, Mr Punch profile, and the shaggy hair and dress sense of the New York Dolls: this afternoon he's wearing a floppy black cowboy hat, long black coat, red Mighty Boosh T-shirt, tight polka-dot trousers and silver shoes. While Barratt is a publicity-shy family man, Fielding is an extrovert tabloid fixture who immediately starts talking about his mate Johnny Borrell from Razorlight, and about how Frank Zappa's daughter knitted him "this really long amazing cape". You don't interview him as much as dip a bucket into his burbling stream of consciousness. The only way he can relax, he says, is by painting.

As it happens, that's what we're here to discuss. Fielding's debut art exhibition is about to open in a room above the patisserie. "I know people want me to have an exhibition because they like the Boosh, but I decided it should in somewhere small, so the pressure wouldn't be so massive. I was thinking, maybe I should have done it anonymously. I was thinking of calling myself the Jelly Fox, and having some sort of armour on so no one would know who I was."

Fielding needn't worry. Judging by the few works already at the patisserie, and a few others he shows me on his cameraphone, one thing is obvious: the boy can paint. What's more, his offbeat, pop-art pictures are seriously commercial. They'd sell as fast as the patisserie's hot cakes whoever the artist was. The fact that it's a television star with famous friends will only bump up the prices.

Fielding always wanted to be a painter. He didn't get "sidetracked into comedy" until he was studying fine art at Croydon Art College, and had to create a performance piece based on a book. He chose the Bible. The piece began with Fielding hanging from a crucifix, and suitably sombre music playing. Then he leapt off the cross to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and squirted holy water at his fellow students from a water pistol. "Everyone thought it was the funniest thing ever," he says, with chirpy honesty rather than arrogance, "so I thought maybe I should do some stand-up. I did my first three gigs in character as Jesus, because I didn't know whether I'd be funny as Noel. Then I thought, 'Jesus is a pretty powerful character, how am I going to follow that?'"

Encouraged by Harry Hill and Phill Jupitus, Fielding developed his own brand of fantastical rambling, and soon met Barratt, who liked to take off on similar flights of fancy. "I thought, this guy's very interesting and talented great performer, good music and pretty cool Julian went to drum'*'bass clubs, he knew about youth culture. When we found each other, we thought, we need to do something that will make our friends laugh cool people, people in bands. That's why we started our own comedy nights, because at that time Jongleurs was weird. People would be drunk and have a meal while watching you. They just wanted straight jokes. There was nothing there Julian and I could be part of."

In 1998, they went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show that was different from everything else: an hour-long absurdist pantomime, with music, costumes and home-made props. They won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award. The following year, they were nominated for the main Perrier Award, and they've been exploring their own wonderland, and growing their audience, ever since. Next year, their tour includes a night at Wembley Arena, they're planning to do some TV in America, Mark Ronson has offered to produce their album and they have an idea for a film. Fielding is also a regular on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and The IT Crowd, but hopes to take a year off soon to focus on his painting. Which brings us back to the exhibition.

The paintings haven't been hung yet, so the gallery owner leads us to the basement where a few of them are stored. A friend of hers, the actor Bernard Hill, wants a sneak preview, too, so we process downstairs to a room cluttered with books and folders, with a red velvet couch against one wall, a stuffed toy deer propped on a shelf and a washing-line draped with chefs' uniforms hanging at eye level. The manageress picks up one of Fielding's paintings, which features a crocodile in a hat shouting "Show me the money!" Stylistically, it's somewhere between Henri Rousseau and Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins. "There's a story to this one," Fielding says. "It's like a psychedelic Jungle Book." Then a glazier knocks on the door.

Somehow or other, then, we're in the basement of a cake shop between a minicab office and Jeffrey Bernard's favourite pub. The manageress is kneeling on a table, ducking under a washing line, holding a painting with one hand and shouting instructions at a glazier who's standing beside a cuddly Bambi, while a glam-rock comedian is telling one of the stars of Lord of the Rings about how a French documentary crew was filming the crocodile when it ate the director and stole his hat. So that's where all this stuff comes from. The Mighty Boosh don't make it up. It actually happens to them.

Fielding's work will show at Gallery Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek Street, London W1 (020 7437 8382), from 13 December to 29 February

Surreal things: Noel Fielding's favourite fantasist painters

Henri Rousseau

I like that Rousseau had never been to the jungle, but cobbled together jungles by going to botanical gardens and using his imagination

Ren Magritte

Magritte is one of my favourites, because his paintings are a bit like poems, aren't they? You don't really know what's going on

Willem de Kooning

I love the way he paints. It's so tactile it gives you the feeling he's really attacked the canvas with the paint. It's quite amazing

Roy Lichtenstein

I had no time for him at college. But thenI started painting and doing speechbubbles and thought, actually, he's quite good, I can see why he was doing that

Dexter Dalwood

He was my teacher at college. He'll do really big paintings of Graceland or Hitler's bunker, and all these rooms that he's never been to, but he's imagined