With Noel Fielding embarking on the next leg of his UK tour, and US/Canada shows in the pipeline, we wanted to do our bit to support An Evening With Noel Fielding. But because we’re The Velvet Onion, and because you lovely lot expect something different from us compared to what you can find in the mainstream media, we wanted to approach it from a fresh angle.
So we asked Noel if he had any ideas. “I’d love to include Tom and Mike” was his reply. It quickly became all about Tom and Mike, rather than just about including them. Noel’s response says a lot about the significance of their roles in the show and the respect that he has for his co-performers. Here then is what Tom Meeten and Mike Fielding told us about the live show and how the three of them work together. A glimpse through the stage curtains from a different angle, as it were:
I meet Tom in a busy West End pub. Owner of one of the deepest voices in comedy (transcribing the interview uses parts of my inner ear hitherto unknown) and initially quiet, Tom turns out to be terrific fun. Unguarded, candid and possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of our kind of comedy, spending an hour in his company is a real treat.
We discuss most of the projects and creative partnerships he has ever been involved with, including his enduring double act with Steve Oram, his recent appearance in the marvellous monkey movie Aaaaaaaah! and his starring role in a serious new feature film The Ghoul, written and directed by Gareth Tunley. But more of that another time; right now we’re focusing on Tom’s involvement in An Evening With Noel Fielding. Before we begin I mention Noel’s insistence that Tom and Mike are given an interview platform. He laughs: “Noel always wants to make it not just about him, but no one is interested!” Well we are.
As the conversation unfolds and the extent of Tom’s involvement in both the development and the performance of the live show becomes clear, one can only wonder how he could be perceived as anything other than a fundamental part of its story.
Tom and Noel have been friends for years, their first meeting taking place during the early days of their stand up careers. “I would turn up to gigs and people would think I was Noel – we had similar 90’s hair.” Tom remembers. “Lance Dior was based on that kind of thing. When I first met Noel I’d done an advert and his gran thought it was him. He was mildly furious that people thought it was him. It was one of the first conversations we ever had.”
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and they’re now working together on live material. An Evening With… was written by Noel and Tom, with the addition of Nigel Coan (director of Luxury Comedy and long time friend of Noel’s) as the third member. “It was a really good dynamic,” notes Tom, adding that Nigel was, “Amazing, really lovely to work with.”
Much has been written and debated about the significance of the double act in comedy: Morcambe & Wise, Vic & Bob, Barratt & Fielding, Oram & Meeten – there are endless examples of comedy power couples, and as a nation we love them. Famous comedy trios are a tad thinner on the ground; Noel, Tom and Mike all cite The Marx Brothers as their favourite threesome when I ask. I’m keen to understand how working as a three shifts the dynamic. “When you’re creating something, it’s it’s about making choices. If there are three voices you can debate it more, which gives you extra reassurance,” Tom explains. “With a double act it’s much more one person’s opinion versus the other.”
This unique set up allowed the trio to enjoy the best of both worlds: the additional perspective that a third person brings compared to two, and also clearly defined roles between the three of them: “The more people you have, if you don’t have a leader, the more dissipated the material gets. You need a singular vision. But then with this – and I flatter myself that I helped write it – it’s really all about Noel’s ideas. He’s the boss.” Tom says. There’s no hint of anything other than respect and camaraderie.
With Noel at the helm, Tom frequently saw his role as helping to filter ideas: “Noel has the most ideas per minute of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” he laughs. “And sometimes we would spend a whole day discussing one of those brilliant ideas and trying to work out how it would work in the context of the show.”
Tom explains that this sometimes meant killing off ideas which held real promise: “There’s a whole alternative show of weird and beautiful stuff,” he sighs. He mentions a Dondylion sketch (performed twice as part of their warm ups) which sadly didn’t make it to the final cut: “That was me and Noel being left alone without Nigel, creating this weird sadistic sketch. I still think there’s something in it – I’d love to think one day it might resurface in some form, but it just wouldn’t fit into the show. “
The amount of practical planning that goes into the show is surprising; Preparation and sheer hard work is needed to bring those effortless flights of fancy to life on stage. Considerations like allowing time for costume changes, or the need to conceal props for later scenes can end up dictating whether a particular sketch remains in the show or not. It also explains the development of the strong supporting characters: “We had to establish other characters who could cover certain things – mundane practical stuff. It means the characters have to be strong, so you put work into them,” says Tom.
He places a great deal of significance on his character’s first appearance on stage. “I get thrown to the lions a little bit. I’m the first person the audience sees that isn’t (a) Julian or (b) Mike. Half the people don’t know who the fuck I am!” Tom jokes. “In that moment when I come on, it’s really exciting because it might fail – and sometimes it has. The introduction of my character suddenly shifts it, so you never quite know. You say your first words and there’s a reaction…you feel it. That’s the amazing thing about performing live – you get influenced by the reaction you get. So if you get that reassurance from the audience, you’re away; you’re relaxed and excited. But sometimes I’ve come on and people have been, ‘What’s going on? Hold on – who’s this dude?’.”
I ask if audiences give any early clues as to what kind of reception he’s going to get. “There are certain parts of the show where you look for signals,” he explains. “During Noel’s stand up I’m backstage, waiting to go on. I know all of his stand up now – it goes around my head for weeks after we’ve finished the tour! There are certain points in it, and if they get a big laugh, you know it’s going to be a really good show. It’s reassurance.” I can only imagine what it must feel like, waiting in the wings for his cue on those nights when the positive signals aren’t forthcoming from the crowd.
An Evening With… includes some elements from Noel’s TV show Luxury Comedy (like Sergeant Ray Boombox and Joey Ramone), but it doesn’t rely on audiences being familiar with the series. I wonder whether there was any discussion about Tom’s TV character, Andy Warhol, featuring in the live show. “Andy Warhol was in some of the previews, but in the end we cut him out because he changed the dynamic. His status was wrong, because he was subservient and we needed a high status character to try to undermine Noel. You need that bit of friction.” Tom’s reply provides further evidence of the degree of thoughtfulness that’s gone into creating the show. Thrown together it certainly isn’t.
With our conversation drawing to a close, I bring up the third member of their on-stage troupe; how does Mike fits into the equation? “Mike is the enigma.” Tom pauses, as a smile spreads across his face: “Noel and me are doing all this hard work – I’m pouring with sweat and Noel’s just done this full hour of material, really working it. Mike just comes on stage and the house comes down!” Whenever Mike’s mentioned he’s spoken of with genuine fondness. The impression Tom gives of Mike is that he orbits in a slightly different plane to Noel and himself. But it’s clear that the dynamic works – both on stage and off, where his presence is felt very positively. “Mike keeps us going throughout the tour,” Tom observes.
My dialogue with Mike is sadly only fleeting, but no less charming for it; he’s one of the most considerate, polite people I’ve ever spoken to. I catch him at a busy time, during a week when he’s been attending a James Bond-themed party next to the runway at Gatwick airport and also serving drinks to Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman (which is what he does when he’s not on tour). As such, our conversation is limited to a few quick questions and answers.
Mike describes his role in An Evening With… as a lot more developed than the role he played on the Boosh tours, which is something he enjoys. I ask him how the working relationship between Noel, Tom and himself differs from that of the Boosh gang. “Its very different working as a trio,” he says. “Noel, Tom and I get on very well, we never fall out – even when we’re living in each others’ pockets on the road. When you have a bigger group, like the Boosh tour did, there’s too many egos in the pot; always someone trying to outshine the others or be the loudest. There’s great camaraderie in our trio; we call ourselves the Peloton, as we all have each others backs equally.”
I wonder what the highlight of the tour has been for him so far. “My favourite leg has been Australia. I love Australia; I moved there for a year in my teens, so it was amazing to go back and see a lot of my old friends and work colleagues. Australian crowds are very different to UK audiences, they’re very chilled out but still very much up for it – very humble and polite.”
After playing a shaman, an ant eater, the digital Wimbledon umpire and his brother’s wife, what’s next for Mike Fielding? “I’m still writing with my writing partner Max, (Peanut Jones in Luxury Comedy). We’re developing new ideas sand revisiting old scripts to refresh and condense them – and we’ll maybe film some stuff and put it online.” Given how unwittingly hilarious Mike is, this is something we need to see.
In the end I leave it to Tom to provide the final word on the dynamic between the three of them; besides the Marx Brothers, which other trios does he admire? He snorts derisively at my suggestion of sporting threesomes (“What sport do you know that’s played by three people?”), so we agree that it should be another comedy threesome. It takes a moment or two to think of one, then eventually inspiration hits: “The Three Amigos! Noel is Chevy Chase, Mike has to be Martin Short…and I’m Steve Martin.” Tom grins, visibly pleased with his conclusion. “I’ve come out of this very well!”
You lucky people can still get to see An Evening With Noel Fielding – in the UK from now through to December, and then touring the US and Canada in March/April 2016. For more information and to buy tickets visit Noel’s website.
Many thanks to Tom and Mike for giving their time to The Velvet Onion – and to Noel for suggesting that we badger them. We wish the three of you the best of luck for the rest of the tour!
Look out for Part 2 of our interview with Tom Meeten, coming soon, when he’ll be telling us about his new film The Ghoul, working on Aaaaaaaah!, and his working partnership with Steve Oram.