The Mighty Boosh: celebrating BBC Three originals

BBC Three put Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding’s wilfully shambolic live act and radio series, The Mighty Boosh, on TV…

Part of The Mighty Boosh’s delight comes from its unlikelihood as a TV sitcom. Its boundless Day-Glo imagination isn’t an immediate fit with the constraints of the form. A sunshine simpleton and his awkward, jazz-obsessed colleague meet mythic monsters and talking animals while performing expertly observed musical parody? It’s not exactly My Family.

As comedian, writer, and director of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding’s 1999 Edinburgh show Arctic Boosh, Stewart Lee, put it, “No television exec would ever have gone ‘What we need is a kind of purple head with tentacles coming out of it which speaks like a member of the Small Faces’”.

And yet a television exec did. Granted, probably not in those exact words. After Danny Wallace opened the door to the BBC for Barratt and Fielding by producing The Boosh radio series, Steve Coogan and Henry Normal’s Baby Cow Productions held it open by convincing BBC Three director Stuart Murphy to commission a pilot episode.

“BBC Three had just started,” remembers Normal in 2008 documentary  A Journey Through Time And Space, “it was taking great risks and they took a chance on us.”

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Creatively, that chance went against the prevailing sitcom trend. The Mighty Boosh arrived on BBC Three in 2003, the year that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office had ended and left behind an indelible mark on TV comedy. Realist mockumentary was the new thing. A joyfully outlandish flight of fancy with a Blue Peter aesthetic and an anorak’s knowledge of jazz fusion, wasn’t.

The Mighty Boosh’s child-like, untrammelled invention might have been more at home in a different form. TV sketch comedy, say, or Vic and Bob’s self-forged variety act and faux-quiz show genre – the sort of place you might expect to find funk-singing mermen and talking gorillas. But as a noughties TV sitcom, it stood alone. Not even The Goodies had boasted a purple, tentacled shaman head with the voice of Steve Marriott.

Come with us now on a journey through time and space…

After performing together in Stewart Lee’s 1997 Edinburgh show, King Dong Vs Moby Dick, Barratt and Fielding first aired their double act on stage in 1998 (“You danced around as a deer and I sang that song dressed as Andy Warhol in an eyepatch”, as Fielding recalled it). A tour, their own Edinburgh show and a regular spot at the Hen & Chickens in Islington led to The Boosh BBC radio series.  

Prototype versions of Barratt and Fielding’s zookeeper characters had appeared on television years before The Mighty Boosh came to BBC Three, thanks to 1998 Paramount Comedy series (Un)Natural Acts. ‘Alan and George’ didn’t quite look the part of jazz maverick Howard Moon and sunshine kid Vince Noir (Fielding’s short hair was un-primped and both were dressed in overalls that Moon might describe as a dangerous nutmeg brown), but their inane exchange of bizarre boasts and verbose threats feels pure Boosh.

That patter is what rooted The Mighty Boosh. Wherever its episodes went – to the Arctic tundra or inside the cavernous mystical box of a Cockney nutjob – the back and forth between Howard and Vince was the show’s foundation. It came naturally out of Barratt and Fielding’s friendship, according to their TV producer Spencer Millman: “It’s not really acting, that is just them with some make-up and some clothes on”.

The Mighty Boosh director, Paul King, says the same. “They could just sit down and chat for half an hour and it would make watchable television”. Watch any interview from the time now and you’ll see the shape of Howard and Vince’s escalating dialogue in their answers, each riffing around the other’s responses.

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Are you aware of the music known as Jazz?

‘Jazz comedy’ was their not-entirely-serious description of their own offbeat timing and improvisational, responsive feel. Being the self-declared Miles Davis and John Coltrane of the comic world though, didn’t necessarily make them easy to work with. A wry comment from Stewart Lee about helming their 1999 Edinburgh show recalls how he always used to say that directing them was like directing smoke, but then after working on a West End show that happened to involve a lot of smoke, he was forced to reverse his position. “Smoke is easier to direct than Noel and Julian,” he concluded, “It’s more likely to go where you want.”

Speaking of uncontainable matter, (Un)Natural Acts found Barratt and Fielding a key Boosh collaborator in the form of American comedian Rich Fulcher, whose high-energy improvisation added to The Mighty Boosh’s wilfully shambolic feel. Brought in to join the live show, Fulcher became part of the permanent cast, taking the role of zoo manager Bob Fossil and many others across all three TV series.

With each key cast member playing multiple roles, The Mighty Boosh could be seen as a bit of a closed shop for other actors (executive producer Steve Coogan asked to play the part of Kodiak Jack in series two’s Call Of The Yeti, but instead it went to Fulcher). Richard Ayoade (who also script edited the series), Simon Farnaby and Matt Berry all made recurring appearances.

One sure-fire way to be cast in the series was to be related to or friends with the central pair. The Mighty Boosh’s incestuous casting isn’t limited just to Fielding’s brother Michael playing stoner shaman, Naboo the Enigma. Fielding’s ex-housemate Dave Brown also played Naboo’s familiar, Bollo; his then-girlfriend, her nephew and her bandmate appeared in multiple episodes; and the full set of Fielding and Barratt’s parents turned up as extras on the Shaman Council.

Calm a llama down

Anyone who wanted to be on the show who didn’t share DNA with its creators (or failing that, Frank Zappa, in the case of a cameo by his daughter Diva) would have done well to join a band. A joint result of Noel Fielding’s social life and Julian Barratt’s musical talent, The Mighty Boosh featured appearances by several acts, from Vince’s legend, Gary Numan, to The Horrors, Dirty Pretty Things, Razorlight, Roger Daltrey and Chris de Burgh (Noel’s dad in comedy eyebrows).

Even more numerous are the musical acts paid tribute in the show’s vivid hand-drawn animations (Fielding’s designs, animated by Nigel Coan and Ivana Zorn). One memorable cartoon interlude narrates the birth of funk feat. Parliament’s Bootsy Collins. Rick Wakeman was “chuffed to old boots” to be included in that one. Another flashed back to Vince’s Jungle Book childhood, as an orphan raised by Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry.

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The show’s scripts are littered with musical references, from Howard Moon’s habit of dropping some Weather Report into a DJ set, to Vince’s electro eighties icons. (Incidentally, fans of modern electronica should seek out The Pod, Julian Barrett’s pre-Boosh fictional band with Tim Hope.)

The Boosh’s musical repertoire was key to its identity. Julian Barratt’s musicianship meant the duo could go from genre to genre, making a better fist of writing original funk, punk and electro tunes than any comedy act has the right to. And crucially for the show’s joyful tone, it was never a matter of taking the piss out of the styles they adopted, but celebrating them. As Stewart Lee put it, “Instead of trying to be snide about the musical forms they appear to parody, they embrace them and then surpass them.”

But one musical form surpassed them all. Ladies and gentlemen: the crimp. Fielding describes it as “folk rapping”, so think the “Galileo” section of Bohemian Rhapsody with less narrative clarity.

Look at them shine

Finally, no salute to The Mighty Boosh can ignore the inventiveness of its creatures and costumes. If Julian Barratt was the brains behind the show’s original music, then Noel Fielding was the mind behind its adventures’ distinctive look.

Fielding painted character designs for production teams to work from, only to find that the finished products often felt too polished for the show’s hand-made look. In the words of Dave Brown, it was sometimes necessary to “Boosh it up a bit”. Director Paul King remembers, “You’d walk into a room at eleven o clock at night and you’d see Noel stapling bus tickets to the top of a hat.”

Those combined talents created a hugely devoted following for the pair in the mid-noughties. The live shows that took place between series two and a considerably darker series three unveiled a swarm of fans sporting asymmetric haircuts and Biro-drawn tattoos of Old Greg and Milky Joe. Following that came another stadium tour, a one-day music and comedy festival, and even, rare for a UK sitcom, a panel at 2009’s San Diego Comic-Con.

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It came to an end after that final 100-date tour. With offers to work with Jack Black, Mike Myers and Ben Stiller, the pair called it quits and pursued other projects. “We tried to write a film and it all sort of imploded,” Fielding told The Independent. “We needed a break. We’d worked together for 15 years, every day. We were sick of each other.”

Not irreversibly so, to the delight of fans. In 2011, Barratt appeared briefly to carry Fielding off the stage as Heathcliff to his Kate Bush/Cathy as part of Let’s Dance for Sport Relief. And in 2013, The Mighty Boosh reunited for a thirty minute set at Tenacious D’s Santa Monica Festival Supreme. Plans for a film are still incubating according to a 2015 interview with Fielding, it’s just a matter of finding the time.

Whatever, if anything, comes next for The Mighty Boosh, its three series legacy on BBC Three remains an exemplary run. Let’s give the final words to two men who know all about indefinable, fizzingly inventive comedy. In a sea of “smartarses and dreary comedy”, says Vic Reeves, Barratt and Fielding’s double act was “a technicolour explosion of fun”. Nothing, says Bob Mortimer “feels so un-cynical, so organic, so joyful as The Boosh.” Amen.