Comic Ross Noble is back on tour and heading to Yorkshire after winning plaudits - and awards - for his role in a Mel Brooks West End musical. Ben Williams speaks to him on why the experience has made him consider working into his nineties.
Ross Noble likes to keep his fans on their toes. For more than 20 years, the Geordie comedy wonder has been spinning spontaneous stand-up, regularly touring the globe and playing to packed houses.
There’s no such thing as a typical Ross Noble show but the mischievous comic relishes taking his audience on a meandering journey full of ridiculously funny stories, whimsical tangents and offbeat observations – a unique brand of semi-improvised stand-up that has won him a legion of fans.
But just when it feels like the 42-year-old comic’s career is becoming predictable, he steers into completely new territory. Quite literally, in the case of his Dave TV shows – Freewheeling and Off Road – that follow him on motorcycle adventures. But more recently in Mel Brooks’s West End musical, Young Frankenstein, which saw him nominated for an Olivier and win a WhatsOnStage Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical.
Now Noble’s ditched the choreography and is back on the road with a brand new stand-up tour, El Hablador.
The marathon 68-date tour started back in September and has already included dates in Harrogate, Sheffield, York and Scarborough and is due to come to an end next week with its two final shows at Leeds Town Hall, where Noble will be performing on December 13 and 14.
Noble says his love for stand-up remains undimmed despite 20 years on the road and 16 UK tours.
“It would be hard work if I didn’t! I do still love it.
“The great thing about stand-up is you’re face-to-face with real people,” he says.
“When I started all I did was tour – I was just a vessel. I’ve got more of a balanced life now, but I can still retain the essence of being in the moment.
“I realised quite early on that stand-up can teach you everything you need to know about life, which is: have one eye on the future and have one eye on the past, but live in the present.”
He says that his routine - and people’s perception of it - has developed over the years.
“When I started people said I was “surreal”, and that’s a bit of a lazy description, because it sort of implies that anyone could do it,” Noble says.
“Now, I think I take the building blocks of the real world and then stretch and manipulate them. It’s more like “magic realism” than “surrealism” – that’s the way I see it... and that’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said!”
Noble’s busy calendar has also included recently recording a spoof magazine show for Radio 4, which he says was a different disciplines to live comedy.
“I enjoyed the discipline, and creating something that is incredibly detailed and precise. Some people get writer’s block, whereas once I get an idea of something I want to do, I just got for it.”
Noble’s willingness to take on a challenge is not just limited to creative activities.
In his television show Ross Noble: Off Road, the comedian put himself and his motorbike through the gruelling Scottish Six Days Trial, an internationally-recognised competition which has been running since 1909 and involves riders from across the world covering up to 100 miles per day on and off-road in a test of skill and endurance.
He says it was not just done for the cameras.
“It was something that I was doing anyway! We went to the channel and said, ‘We’re doing this, shall we film it?’ and they went, ‘Definitely!’
“Hopefully we can do another series. I’d like to, but we can only really do it if we can up the ante.”
At the other end of the spectrum, he recently showcased his singing and dancing talents in Young Frankenstein. Noble laughs: “I was Olivier nominated, you know? But I don’t like to talk about it...”
He says it was an incredible experience to work again with a comedy legend in Mel Brooks, having previously appeared in a touring version of The Producers.
“Mel was phenomenal. He constantly tinkers with everything, changing punchlines around, cutting entire scenes,” Noble explains.
Brooks, responsible for many of the most successful comic films ever made, including The Producers and Blazing Saddles, is still working at the age of 92 and Noble says he shows little sign of approaching retirement.
“The last time I spoke to him he was talking about projects that he passionately wants to do. Even though he’s got this incredible body of work – and he’s aware of that, because he keeps reminding you that he’s a living legend – he’s not hung up on the big picture, he’s all about the detail. He’s just as bothered about the nuance of it all.”
Noble says that returning to the stand-up work he is best known for has been an undoubted but welcome change, despite missing being part of “a real world-class team” in the Young Frankenstein cast and crew.
“It is nice to be doing stand-up again, because I feel like I’m exercising different muscles – still comedy muscles, but different types of comedy muscles. On stage the transition’s been fine, but off-stage it’s been a bit weird. Going back to being just me, making all the decisions – in one way it’s the ultimate freedom, but sometimes giving yourself a restriction can be quite liberating in itself.”
He says a return to theatre is possible in the future.
“I’d like to do more musicals, if the right thing came along – I enjoy it. But just because you enjoy singing doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
“Though I do have a couple of ideas for things that are not quite musicals, but sort of musicals, which I’m working on, but I won’t say what because it’ll jinx it or something.”
For now, Noble is concentrating on finishing the final few shows of his El Hablador tour, which sees him walk out of a smoke-filled giant inflatable skull each night to greet his audience. Such outlandish sets have become a trademark of his shows over the years,
“The sets have always been a bit “Spinal Tap”, there’s no need for them, it’s just funny to have these big, over-the-top creations on stage,” he explains.
“People turn up and go, “Woah!” and then I don’t really mention it.”
He may be a well-established comic but Noble says he is inspired by the example of Mel Brooks, who is 50 years his senior.
So can Noble still see himself working at 92?
“Having spent time working with Mel, I can, actually. Sure, he’s had more success than any other comic on the planet, so you could say, ‘Of course he’d still be going!’ But I do look at him and think: there really is no reason to slow down.”
‘Unique’ advice from Brooks
Ross Noble says he may be the only person Mel Brooks has ever advised to tone down his performance after auditioning for the role of hunchback manservant Igor in Young Frankenstein.
Noble told the Evening Standard last year: “They don’t use the word audition, it’s a workshop, which was three days with the assistant director, choreographer and musical director. Then they filmed it and sent it to Mel. I went full-on with it and was really Elephant Man-grotesque. I thought that would appeal. I might be the only person in history that Mel Brooks told, ‘You have to tone it down’. We talked on the phone and he said, ‘You’ve got pure funny bones, I love what you did, Ross, but we’ve already got one monster in this show’.”
Ross Noble: El Hablador is on tour until December 14, visiting Leeds Town Hall on December 13 and 14. Tickets are priced at £26.50 and are available on 0113 376 0318 or online at www.leedstownhall.co.uk.