Julian Barratt: “I’m interested in communicating a pompous person”

Actor, musician, writer and one half of The Mighty Boosh Julian Barratt reflects on the impact of fatherhood, discovering his comedic edge, and his failed teenage dream of becoming a professional jazz guitarist.

At 16 I was into jazz fusion. Not even jazz, just jazz fusion. Rock instruments played like jazz. Really not fashionable in any way. People like Weather Report, Jack Pastorius. My dad was bang into it, so I thought it was normal. Until I played some to my mates. Then when I saw their reaction, it became my dirty secret. I could play guitar pretty well. Or pretty fast anyway. Me and my mate had duels, trying to outspeed each other to become the fastest guitarist in Yorkshire. That was all that mattered to me.

One of my first pieces of advice to the teenage me would be not to go with the white Whitesnake-style suit for his first live gig. Though it did have the benefit of disguising my dandruff. I got into heavy metal because you could legitimately play solos. Van Halen was a big influence. At my first live gig I wore a white suit and I had long hair, quite curly but not much of it, quite thin hair, all round the front, parted just behind, with just a sprinkling of dandruff. And I played a lot of long, fast guitar solos. It wasn’t a very good look. And it didn’t get me any girls.

I was obsessed with particular girls, a feeling often unrequited needless to say. I remember a field geography trip to the Isle of Arran, when I was so in love with this incredible goth girl, Katie Kinaid. She was really into rocks. Not rock, geology. She didn’t notice me. But I was besotted. I just thought about her all the time, hoping for a glance. I was a late starter, quite naïve. Later on, I could see how being a comedian did help in that area. When you’re funny people sort of feel you must be nice, or at least not frightening.

When Bernard Manning was shown a clip of The Mighty Boosh, he said: ‘As funny as a burning orphanage.’

I tried to leave home at 17 to become a jazz guitarist. We went to stay with a friend of a friend’s uncle but we came back after three days. We thought we’d make inroads into the jazz scene in London – we’d read biographies about guys who got gigs at Ronnie Scott’s and got spotted and immediately taken into someone’s band. So we told our parents we were leaving home. They gave us two days and we lasted three, so we outdid expectations.

If I met teenage Julian now, I’d see this shy person, with long hair, into odd music. But he is also becoming interested in comedy. I found it quite magical, finding people who made me laugh, thinking about how they did it. I remember seeing Vic and Bob and thinking, ah yes, that’s just what my mates do, that absurd humour, making an in-joke a public joke. Controversially, I quite like Bernard Manning. He had this particular kind of Northern delivery and timing. And when the jokes weren’t horribly racist, they were so funny. I mean, my grandad was a racist. You can’t do anything about these people, they’re from a different time. I remember Bernard Manning was shown a clip of The Mighty Boosh on a TV show, which was a great honour in a way. He said: “These two don’t have a fucking clue. As funny as a burning orphanage.” He had a real way with radical imagery.

Julian Barratt alongside comedy partner Noel Fielding as part of The Mighty Boosh

I always hoped I could do comedy. I was never like Noel [Fielding] or Lee Mack, who are just funny all the time. No one ever said to me, you should be a comedian mate. But I watched a lot of stand-up at uni – people like Mark Lamarr, Sean Hughes, Eddie Izzard, just standing on a stage doing these phenomenal routines. And I could see how you could do it. So I started doing it myself, and I was so shocked when it worked. I remember one time I completely forgot what I was about to say, and I just ran out of the venue. There was a big lake in front of me and I thought about just running into it. Then the manager came out after me and said: “Get back in there, it’s going well.” So I went back. I suppose that was a big turning point for me.

When I watched The Boosh with my kids, it was like discovering it for the first time

I’m looking at a big poster of myself now and I know my 16-year-old self would see that and think, what is going on there? He would be amazed that people actually like what I do. When Noel and I started gigging together and found people were really enjoying it, it was such a thrill. It was a validation of what felt like a long process of growing up, coming up against all these difficulties if you’re shy and you have all these dreams and thoughts you can’t communicate. It was very exciting to finally find a way to express myself, and seeing people enjoying that. I suppose I’m interested in communicating a pretentious, pompous person a lot of the time, and I have to recognise there is that in me. I did a few serious things before I got into comedy, which make me shudder now. I remember having my mate film me, all shadowy, doing performance poetry. My goodness.

All the cliches about becoming a dad changing your life are true. When you don’t have kids and think about having this little creature to look after, you worry about it, you panic. But you just can’t imagine the amount of love you’ll have for these little things. You still worry but there’s such joy in it. I don’t tend to watch my own stuff, that’s a bit creepy. But when I watched The Boosh with my kids, it was like discovering it for the first time. I saw that we were making a childlike universe where you could be silly and go on adventures. Like Mr Benn. Lots of people think Noel and I just took lots of drugs and did whatever came to mind but we took it very seriously and worked very hard on it. I had this feeling that it paid off when I saw my kids enjoying it. ’Cos my other half, Julia [Davis, of Nighty Night, Hunderby, Psychobitches] – her shows are not appropriate for children at all.

If I could go to any time in my life I would just be swimming in the ocean in Majorca with my nine-year-old twins. That is it for me. I just love that. The thing about the media, the shows, the films… It does feel great when it works. But there’s an anxiety too. I don’t know about that stuff. It’s very exciting but it’s not what you have when you’re just floating about in the sea with your kids. That’s as good as it gets.

Julian Barratt is attending screenings of his new film Mindhorn across the country from April 22 before its general release on May 5. For Q&A locations and tickets see mindhorn.co.uk