Theatre: Stand-up's hair apparent

He's blond. Very blond. And he has a Perrier nomination. With qualifications like that, he can't resist the lure of TV. Or can he?
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The Independent Culture
Let's start with the hair. Comedian Ross Noble's locks are a billowing shock of peroxide-blonde that turn heads on the street. These flaxen tresses are so big and wavy, they seem to move independently of their owner. When the sun is behind him, he looks like a biblical figure in a Giotto painting, with a golden halo emanating from his head.

This, of course, is an essential part of his act. He says he will comb it out into a giant globe and be the sun if we take our clothes off and stretch out on beach towels. He also says he is "fully aware that I look like the bloke out of Whitesnake".

Matters of taste aside, this spectacular hairdo made Noble instantly identifiable at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Such considerations may seem superficial until you consider that, with more than 300 comedians vying for your attention, it is useful to have something to remember them by. But it was Noble's talent for improvisation that earned him a Perrier nomination. Where other comics stick steadfastly to their script, Noble considers it a bonus if he gets around to using his. He spins psychedelic tales out of the simplest ideas - a brief encounter with a vet in the front row results in 10 minutes on gerbils. An incident with a pensioner in the audience sees him transported to a medieval world of wizards, dragons and mountains of barley sugar. Hecklers rarely last long as Noble charms them into submission.

"If you shout back and try to victimise people, it just doesn't work. But if you say, `Ta very much' and do something with it, then people get into it. You can't make it look like you're relaxed. You've actually got to be relaxed."

Maybe it's his gentle Geordie tones that lull you into feeling like a child being read a bedtime story. Or perhaps it's that the surreal mental pictures he conjures are somehow childlike in their preoccupations. Even he is at a loss to explain how he arrives at some of the subjects: "Some nights the ideas just get so big that I can't keep control of them," he reflects. "I suddenly think, `What am I talking about?'"

Noble also seems to draw out levels of participation that other comics only dream of. At Edinburgh's Late 'n' Live - a nightly jamboree where seemingly suicidal comedians take on a crowd of bloodthirsty inebriates - he plucked two bald men from the audience and painted hair on them with emulsion paint. On another occasion, he invited the audience to make objets d'art from whatever they could lay their hands on. By the end of the show they were flying huge kites made of his posters from the balcony.

Noble went snowboarding for a few days just before the Perrier nominations were announced. Channel 4 had wanted to film him at the moment when the shortlist was revealed, but he declined. "There was no way I was going to be filmed just hanging around on the off-chance, so I escaped to a mountain shack," he explains. "I didn't even take my phone with me. I actually wanted to see how long I could go without finding out." Noble only discovered that he had been shortlisted on his return to Edinburgh, when a pair of comics congratulated him on the street. This doesn't mean that Noble takes his nomination lightly. On the contrary, he says that getting noticed at Edinburgh can transform your career prospects overnight.

"There's hundreds and hundreds of people trying to get noticed at once, so if you do well, it's brilliant. If it takes six months for the word of mouth to spread around the rest of the country, in Edinburgh you can do that six months in three weeks."

And you don't have to win the award to enjoy an instant upsurge in your career. Harry Hill, Alan Davies, Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee are among those who have been shortlisted in the past but failed to win the prize. On the strength of a nomination, comics find themselves catapulted on to a merry-go-round of interviews, tours and television slots. Noble has been touring constantly since August - "I don't actually have a home any more; my stuff's boxed up in a garage in Newcastle" - but he says you have to be smart enough not to take the first offer that comes along. So far, he has resisted all television opportunities.

"Everyone says that it's the logical next step, but it's quite hard to capture what I do on telly. I suppose I could become a chat-show or a game-show host - one of those smug guys sitting scratching their chins going `Yeah, I know what you mean, hurr hurr hurr' - but I'm not really interested in that light entertainment thing." He stops a moment to ponder. "The money would be tempting though, wouldn't it? Maybe I'll do that when I'm 50. I'll take Roy Walker's job." Admittedly, the thought of today's generation of comedians going down the same road as Jim Davidson is depressing but, as Noble points out, there are more credible ways of getting your face on telly. "I love what Billy Connolly does. He tours all the time, does the odd film here and there, goes travelling and knocks out a book. But stand-up is what he loves best."

At just 23, Noble is voraciously enthusiastic about his work. It's hard to believe that he already has seven years' experience behind him. He grew up in Cramlington, a small town north of Newcastle upon Tyne. When he was at school, he teamed up with a friend and created a slapstick street show.

"We used to go round in the holidays and after school doing shows at carnivals and fairs - the plan was that we were going to join the circus and travel about a bit." But his friend also had plans to be an architect, and at the last minute decided to concentrate on his exams. Noble was forced to go solo.

"I went to the Comedy Cafe in Newcastle, which was bringing up big acts from London, and I got a five-minute open spot. It went really well. Within a month, I got a compering gig in Middlesbrough."

In 1995, he moved to London, got a room in a friend's flat, and gave himself three months to get somework. "By the time I moved, I knew what I was doing and I bypassed that horrendous doing-five-minutes-in-grotty- little-pubs. It took longer to crack the bigger clubs, but I was three years ahead of everyone else."

Noble now reckons that he will be doing stand-up for the next 50 years. "What interests me is going out there and having an audience. I like the immediacy of it. You think something, you say it, and people laugh. I've hardly scratched the surface of what I want to be doing with these shows. And the best thing about it? It's just me."

Ross Noble plays the Jermyn Street Theatre, London W1, tomorrow to Sat, doors 10.30pm (0171-771 2000)/