Theatre: It's the little thoughts that count

Caught betwixt Boosh, shortlisted for the 1999 Perrier Award, Chris Maume is lost for words
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The Independent Culture
One of them's the devil, the other's a dreamer. Imagine Reeves and Mortimer - but funnier - infused with the soul of Eddie Izzard. Or Morecambe and Wise reinvented by Lewis Carroll. That, very roughly speaking, is the Boosh. Julian Barratt comes across as the spiky, dangerous one, Noel Fielding as the sensitive pre-Raphaelite refugee from a late-Sixties beat combo. And the surrealist fantasies they weave can be seen from tomorrow in their Perrier-shortlisted show, Arctic Boosh.

The manner of the Boosh's coming together suggests that it's good to stalk. "He used to come to my gigs," Barratt begins - "dressed as a lady," Fielding interjects. "I used to say, `come and get me'."

In fact Barratt, born in Leeds in 1968, was doing stand-up at the Hell Fire Club in High Wycombe when Fielding first saw him. Having dropped out of his American Studies course at Reading University, he had been a wildly eclectic musician before switching to comedy.

Fielding, five years younger and born in London, had been to art school before spotting Barratt. He saw him again a few times, did some stand- up himself and reached the final of the Open Mic award in 1996, a year after Barratt won it. Eventually they were on the bill together at the Enterprise pub in Chalk Farm, London, and got talking. "I thought I could turn him into something halfway decent," Barratt says.

The first thing they did together was to write a sitcom, Boy's in the Wood, in which the two main characters live deep in a forest. Replete with mad, budget-busting ideas, such as being shot out of a cannon into a different world each episode, it would have cost millions. They are now developing it as a radio series for GLR.

"We're going to bypass television and go straight to film," says Barratt. "It's hard to convince TV people," Fielding complains, and Barratt continues: "They look at us strangely then move away." Fielding replies gently, "They weren't TV people, Julian."

Their first gig together was at Edinburgh Festival two years ago, while last year The Mighty Boosh - in which they played zookeepers in the jungle - won them the Perrier Best Newcomers award. This year they were shortlisted for the award proper with Arctic Boosh, which involves two postal workers, Vince Noir and Howard Moon, and their journey to the tundra, where they meet, among other creatures, Alan The Bingo Moose, who shoots numbers from his hoof.

Though most of their material is prewritten, there is lots of giddy improvisation, and much of the humour is non-verbal. "We've built up a language of little gestures," says Fielding. There are killer one-liners, but against a subtle backdrop. "We try to be different but popular," Fielding continues. "We punch and kiss, caress and kick."

In true comedic style, both fancy themselves as straight thespians. "I can act," says Barratt, whom TV ad-watchers will have seen flogging an alcopop with the words "It's what we scientists call a judder." Fielding is, he reckons, "getting better 'cause I'm nicking all his best stuff," and indeed his experience went to good use lately in a swashbuckling cameo in Plunkett and Macleane.

Fielding might also have pursued a sporting career, playing semi-professional football for Kingstonians and Sutton United and describing himself as a left-winger in the Pat Nevin mould. "Then your muscles withered," Barratt tells him, adding, "Sport doesn't do anything for me. And I don't do anything for it."

True to form, Barratt did participate in a cricket match for British comedians against their Australian counterparts when they took Arctic Boosh on tour in October, but spent his time in the field reading Nabokov. As you might imagine, the Aussies had the upper hand. "They roasted us," says Fielding.

Apart from the Arctic Boosh run, Barratt will also be on television on Millennium night, on Apocalypse Tube. "I might wash my hair," says Fielding. "I might go to a graveyard and do some painting." Barratt admonishes him: "Everyone's going to be going to graveyards and painting."

While Barratt infuses their act with music, Fielding contributes strange visuals. "I use a lot of Polo mints," he says. "For the eyes. And catfish tentacles. I paint on binbags - the ultimate disposable art." Barratt's heroes are the likes of Bartk, Scott Walker and Frank Zappa, while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are Fielding's desert island icons, though he does admit to a penchant for Frank Spencer. "I am a man who dreams of culture," asserts Barratt. "He is a man who dreams of crisps."

The world of the Boosh is a strange one. "We have a need to make people laugh at things they'd never thought about," says Barratt, "make them laugh at things that aren't logical. Have the audience experience something like the psychedelic thing, but not like the 1960s." Which is perhaps as good a definition of their comedy as you'll get.

`Arctic Boosh': Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 2311), tomorrow to 8 January