In his brilliant memoir It’s All News To Me, Jeremy Vine recalls the moment New Labour, through Alastair Campbell, took hold of the media and began to spin it like an out-of-control fairground ride. It changed the way everything, and everyone in the public eye is presented.
We’ve become so used to the image of people in the media being airbrushed, controlled, copy-approved, that it’s increasingly rare to meet someone who is a little bit different (when did you last read an interview with a popstar that wasn’t utterly anodyne?). Image control is out of control.
It’s why stand-up comedians are a joy to interview.
Not all of them, of course, but their itinerant lifestyle generally means they simply can’t afford to have an entourage accompany them on tour.
Toward the end of our interview, Ross Noble’s entourage pops his head around the door of the bar to check he’s okay. It consists only of the tour manager. He’s only just arrived at Leeds City Varieties, where Noble will perform in a few hours, and the surreal comedian has been chatting away for over an hour-and-a-half already – and shows no signs of slowing down. No need for media training here.
That said, a bit of coaching on answering questions from a journalist probably wouldn’t go amiss. Interviewing Ross Noble is a little like herding cats.
He made his name as a flight-of-fantasy surrealist comedian, prone to disappearing down long winding roads with his bizarre train of thought. As it is on stage, so it is off it.
The comedian is on the road with Mindblender, but was at Leeds City Varieties for a warm-up gig ahead of the tour that will take him into some very large venues.
“The show tonight won’t be any less good than the tour in bigger venues. A guy came up to me last night after a small warm-up gig and said he preferred it to the big venue he saw me in previously. I think that’s because he really got his money’s worth - the show was about three hours long – way too long – and it went off into places where even I was on stage thinking ‘hang on, I shouldn’t be here’,” says Noble.
Growing up in Northumberland, the future comedian was diagnosed as severely dyslexic at 11, which possibly explains the early school reports referring to his sometimes disruptive behaviour.
After seeing Jack Dee on stage, he realised he had found his calling and began performing when he was just 15. Which means, at just 36, he’s already clocked up over two decades in the business.
Famed for his act’s lack of structure – it turns out he really does go out on stage and simply ‘wing it’. He’s admired for his ability to work with a crowd and is perhaps second only to Eddie Izzard in the world of improvised stand-up. It wasn’t always the case.
Seeing Jack Dee, early on, really was a significant moment. Noble went on stage in his first gigs in a suit and attempted to simply ape his hero.
“When I first started out, I wasn’t a human being. I was just a kid and all I knew was stand-up – so that was all I could talk about. It was like my act was eating itself,” he says.
“When I first started I thought, ‘Right what does a comedian do?’.
“I was trying to do what I thought the audience expected to see – partly because I didn’t know who I was.”
Fortunately for all of us, he discovered his “voice” and it turned out to be one of the most singular to have emerged in British stand-up comedy for the past two decades.
So much so, you wonder if the improvised element is really as off the cuff as it seems. Surely there is an element of writing, or preparing a set as brilliantly odd as his?
“The whole thing is dealing with what happens there and then,” insists Noble.
“People say, ‘You must have a skeleton of a show, an idea to fall back on’, but you only think in those terms if there’s something going wrong – and I just don’t think in those terms. I don’t think, ‘Right, I’ll improvise and if that doesn’t work I’ll fall back on the structure’. That just doesn’t occur to me. People describe it as high wire, but it’s not high wire having a laugh with your mates is it? That’s what it is, when I’m on stage.
“I describe my act as showing my working out. You don’t censor what’s going on in your brain on stage. Off stage, you have to be a bit more careful, if you do say exactly what’s going on in your head you could get punched in the face, or people think you’re mentally ill.”
We’re in the bar at the City Varieties and downstairs the stage is being prepared for tonight’s gig. Noble pauses for a moment – he is far, far more thoughtful than you might expect – and adds: “If I wasn’t a comedian... I couldn’t do another job. If I behaved with that mindset in any other job it would get you sacked.”
The act of creating the work on the stage in front of an audience, even if it’s a place of complete comfort for the comedian, adds an element of danger for the audience. However, Noble is a serious student of comedy, with enormous respect for the craft. Or as he puts it: “It’s not all monkeys eating cheese. It has to ebb and flow, but it’s playing, rather than any sort of risk-taking.”
Noble’s Mindblender tour, in Sheffield tonight, then York and Hull next week, is the first since he returned from Australia.
The comedian moved out there with his wife and daughter and lived in a remote part of the country outside Melbourne. In 2009, the country’s worst-ever bush fires tore through his home and Noble and his family lost all their worldly possessions – the only things they had left were the clothes they were standing in.
It made Noble do a lot of questioning about material gain. He returned to England and now lives in Kent.
“It was such a horrific thing. It wasn’t just that I lost everything, suddenly everything that had happened before had gone – and had gone so suddenly,” he says. Some interviews with Noble suggest that it led to a sort of Buddhist relinquishing of possessions for the comedian. Those interviews were wrong.
“As someone who lost all my possessions, I can tell you that having no material possessions is all well and good, but what if you want to peel a potato?”
Noble dealt with the loss, by the way, by buying a tank. We’ll come to that.
For now, the question is why go back out on the road? He took last year off, a well deserved break after two decades of touring and at the end of this month he will make his film debut in horror film Stitches, in which he plays a terrifying clown (and takes great delight at the end of our interview in showing me pictures of him on his phone in full make-up. It looks horrible).
Well, the first thing is the City Varieties, which he calls “the best venue for comedy in the world” – and he’s not just saying that, he talks for about 10 minutes about how the way it is built perfectly for stand-up.
Secondly, after 20 years, stand-up remains a compulsion.
“I am loving being back and doing these warm-up gigs,” he says. “It’s like a drug, the laugh. You get one and you want more. What’s been nice about taking the time off was that when I went back on the first night of this warm-up tour, the first laugh hit and me and it was like ‘oh yeah this is why I do this’. The lights came on and the best way I can describe it is like getting into a warm bath.”
Since he left the UK, comedy has undergone something of a boom. Stand-ups now sell out arenas.
A large part of the jigsaw was Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, which brought the artform back to the masses. Noble was one of five acts – along with Jo Brand, Omid Djalili, Joan Rivers and Jack Dee who appeared on the very first series of Live At the Apollo, which spawned today’s shows.
He’s clearly not so sure that what has happened to the game while he’s been away has been to the good.
“I’m really selective about the TV that I say yes to. I’ve done Have I Got News For You about 17 times, and I finally said yes to QI last season,” he says.
“But live is just what I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that there’s a platform for stand-up like there has never been before, but I just think if you chase an audience and put bums on seats with your fame, the people who come to see you might be there to be in the room with you and not necessarily to listen to what you have to say.”
So, a tank? Given Noble’s own right-angled segues it seems entirely appropriate to go back to the subject.
“So. It’s like this. After the fire in Australia, I realised that... what I’ve discovered is that possessions are things that people think define who they are and say something about them,” begins Noble on a meandering train of thought, that is, in all honesty, heavily edited because it would be unlikely to fit in the whole of this magazine.
“When you die, all this stuff goes to the charity shop and that collection that you thought defines you, is meaningless. So after the fire I decided, instead of having lots of little things, I’d buy one big, ridiculous thing. So I bought a tank.
“It’s such a stupid thing, but the joy that tank has brought. Everyone asks why I bought a tank and I always say, ‘I don’t know, I just thought it would be funny’.
“Me mam came to visit and I convinced her to have a go (Noble has a large field that people can drive his tank around). Her head was sticking out and all you can see is this tank and the top of nanna’s head.
“A little while later I took my daughter to nursery, and when I picked her up the woman who runs the place said, ‘She’s got some imagination on her, she said her grandma came to visit and she was driving a tank’. I was like, ‘Eh, what are they like these kids’.”
Only in the surreal world of Ross Noble.
Mindblender, Sheffield City Hall, October 20. York Grand Opera House, October 26, 27. Hull City Hall, October 28. Tickets www.rossnoble.co.uk