Interview: Ross Noble on his new Brain Dump tour

Ross Noble is hoarse. He's been talking all day. You'd think the Geordie comedian would be used to it, motormouthing on stage for months on end doing stand up, but today he's rasping down a phone line as he comes to the end of a day of talking to the press to publicise his Brain Dump tour.

Ross Noble. Picture: Contributed
Ross Noble. Picture: Contributed

Noble is rarely at a loss for words, known for his freewheeling style of apparently random comedy where audience interaction takes him off on tangents that are skilfully interwoven into the arc of his show. He doesn’t have a script, rather a headful of ideas and a sense of direction, and is always happy to be distracted by his chats with the audience, knowing he’ll find his way back to his original path. With his latest show he’s following this tried and tested random meanderings route, as he explains in pleasant, relaxed, raspy, Geordie tones, his chat peppered with “ye na’s” and “it’s a bit like’s” and “ah always think’s”.

“It’s called Brain Dump because that’s what it is. With my show titles I attempt to become the Ronseal of Comedy: they do exactly what they say on the tin.”

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Previous tours have included, ‘Things’, ‘Fizzy Logic’ and ‘Randomist’.

Ross Noble in his 'anti-travel' show, FreeWheeling. Picture: Contributed

“So this is dumping all the stuff that’s in my head into a theatrical context. The title came from a bad review on Amazon of one of my DVDs, from someone who preferred a more linear performance, ye na, not quite as all over the place. Saying it was like a brain dump was them slagging me off, but I thought what a good description of what I do. I think it’s a positive, a celebration, so I’ve called it that.

“It’s just getting everything out and into the room. And as soon as it’s out, space becomes available and it gets restocked. It makes me laugh when people ask if I ever worry about running out of things to talk about. As if there’s a finite amount of thought, or information that I can do. It’s more about whether or not I can handle the information, as opposed to whether or not there’s stuff in there.”

It seems Noble’s brain is like the internet. The capacity is infinite.

“Some shows I go on and talk to the audience and that might make me improvise for 20 minutes. In an hour and a half there will be four or five things that I’m going to talk about, but along the way all these other things come up and rather than it being a show that’s set in stone, it’s constantly evolving its flow of things, coming and going. My mind works like that.”

Ross Noble in his 'anti-travel' show, FreeWheeling. Picture: Contributed

Noble is dyslexic and says he has always found it hard to write things down or think in lists. At school he was known for arriving on a unicycle and practising his juggling in the playground.

“My brain thinks in pictures,” he says. “Cartoons, that sort of things and then those start integrating with each other. It’s a collage.”

He’s not one of those stand-ups who sweats pints before going on stage for fear of forgetting his routine. Losing the thread holds no fear for him.

“I do that all the time. That’s the joy of it. Losing the thread of what you’re talking about or straying into a weird area, that’s the fun. It all boils down to playing, being in the moment, enjoying yourself rather than thinking ‘what’s happening?’ I don’t get nervous. I get an adrenalin rush of excitement, the same as a water slide. You’re not sat at the top going OMG what if I hit my head and am unconscious and drown. You’re at the top going, this is going to be fun, getting a surge of excitement, knowing you’re going to go down a tube and shoot out into the pool and have fun.”

So for Noble, engaging with audience members is full of fun potential and he can’t wait to get started on the 55-date tour that will take him from Aberdeen to Yeovil, winding up with four homecoming nights at Newcastle City Hall in December. Even so, there have been occasions when he has had cause for regret for picking people out of the crowd.

“There was one woman who I asked what she did for a living and she said she stayed at home and cared for her severely disabled son. You can feel the audience tensing up and thinking ‘oh, this has gone terribly wrong, there’s no comedy here’, but what you have to do is say, ‘let’s deal with this’. You keep talking and turn it around. You don’t have to make jokes about disability. This woman has a sense of humour. She’s here because she likes a laugh. So you acknowledge what she has to deal with in her life and that’s the start of a conversation. I started talking about my dad, and pushing him around in his wheelchair, how everywhere he wanted to visit was places with lots of cobbles, usually maritime museums. We can laugh about that, about where we are, without it being at someone’s expense. It’s not them and us, it’s a conversation involving people.

“Oh, and there was another time,” he says, “when I was talking to a woman and she was really shy and I said ‘why are you turning your head away? You’re an attractive woman.’ Her friend was saying ‘what about me?’, trying to divert attention, and I said, ‘you’re attractive too, but not a patch on her,’ just as the other woman revealed herself to have only one eye. So it happens all the time, but you turn it round, include everyone in the conversation, share a moment together,” he says.

You can see how Noble does it, with a brand of comedy that is more surreal than scathing, charming rather than cutting. He’s champion of the victim-less joke, unless the joke’s on him.

Another element of his show is the practice of members of the audience bringing along random items for Noble, conversation pieces that set him musing for their entertainment. Favourites have included a three piece suit made out of bubble wrap, and a portrait in oils.

“The suit was amazing. A great idea, but you’d just be rolling around popping it all day, you’d get nothing done. And the oil painting was me in a heroic pose, wind rippling my hair and with a six pack. Then from the waist down I was a horse, and there was a French fancy flying through the air beside me. I’d put it above the bed, but my wife wouldn’t want that,” he says.

Born in Cramlington, Northumberland, Noble’s comic career began at 15 at local comedy clubs, sneaking out through the kitchen because he was under age. He began in small venues then built up a following, so by the time he was nominated for a Perrier award in Edinburgh in 1999, he’d already tasted success.

“But what I love about Edinburgh is it’s a chance to do a show every night in a theatre for people who have come specifically to see you. From the start that was always the dream, and then in 2000 I started doing small tours and it was very quick after that. I had built up a live following around the country anyway, and when Edinburgh caught the London press’s attention, they noticed. It was the same in Australia, play small venues and build a following and it builds up.”

He went on to become one of the nation’s favourite stand-ups, touring a live sell out show every year and winning Barry and Time Out awards. His shows were best sellers at the Edinburgh Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival and as well as live success, he also became a TV comedy regular, although Noble insists that his appearances are greatly exaggerated.

“They’re repeated so much that people think you’re always on. I’ve recently done three QIs and two Have I Got News For Yous. That’s only five shows but they’ll be repeated and it’s the equivalent of being on all the time. So I have always been picky, otherwise you become one of those faces when people flick the channels and think “Oh God, not them again.”

Noble goes on to expound his views on the press and reviews, revealing his irrepressibly upbeat nature in the process. “It’s the same as reviews. People have weird ideas about critics, but the way I look at it, if reviews are good, that’s a good thing, and if they’re bad... that’s a good thing too, although you’re not going to sell as many tickets.”

One of Noble’s big passions is motorbikes, and he’s a fan of MotoGP, World Superbikes and The Isle of Man TT. Competing in races such as The Romaniacs and 24-hour Dusk 
to Dawn, he brings his love of bikes into his work, with his travelogue series FreeWheeling that went out on Dave in 2014. A motorbike journey around Britain, this show also demonstrated his willingness to go with the flow, by eschewing any format and handing over control to his 500,000 plus Twitter followers. Their suggestions dictated his route and the people he met, from armwrestling grannies to attempting to find an Abba wrist watch in Aberystwyth.

Noble has just completed another trailbike tour this summer with his pal Austin Vince. Called Stairway to Devon, they’ve uploaded it to YouTube and if a TV network takes it up, so much the better, but Noble isn’t motivated by ratings.

“My whole thing with the telly stuff is to get to be fun, and do something a bit different. It’s got to be fun. FreeWheeling was Twitter-mania, the idea being to find a way of making a TV show that was completely unplanned and didn’t have a format. I wanted to put stuff on TV that you’d never see on TV, an anti-travel show, an antidote. So it’s a reality show about me making a TV show, turning all the tropes on their heads and putting people on the telly who normally don’t get on.

“This latest thing is me and Austin going around Devon on unmarked dirt roads, crossing moorland and rivers, eating rice pudding and sleeping wherever we found ourselves. My friend is a very eccentric history teacher and round the world adventurer so knows all these incredible places, lots of military installations. If you pitch something like that to a TV Channel, they go, how are you going to get a camera crew up those roads? So we just did it and put it online. Somebody might like it. That’s what happened with FreeWheeling. You just do it for a laugh. It’s not about being on the telly. It might end up there, but that’s not why you do it.”

Noble also appeared as Franz Liebkind in last year’s touring production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers and has also written and starred in a one-off horror show for Sky for Halloween.

Aged 40 and what he calls “financially very comfortable”, home for Noble is now Kent, with his wife Fran and young children Elfie and Willow. He met his Australian wife while touring Down Under but she’d never been to a comedy show and had no idea who he was.

“We met through friends and she was unimpressed by showbusiness or the Melbourne Comedy Festival.”

Not by Noble, though, and as it turned out she did have a sense of humour. Noble reckons she’s the funniest person he knows.

“She has a very dry sense of humour and we revert to naughty kids at things like parents’ night, so the teachers look at us like we’re idiots.”

Fran was equally unimpressed by the Northumbrian climate when the family decided to relocate to the UK after a bushfire destroyed their home on a farm 20 miles outside Melbourne, a catastrophe that saw many of their neighbours lose homes and lives.

The Nobles consider themselves lucky. Ross was at a gig performing, his family were staying elsewhere with the in-laws, so they were safe, but their home went up in flames and everything was lost, including 2,500 DVD and vintage vinyl record collection, comedy memorabilia, toys and classic motorbikes. Noble was left with an overnight bag of clothes. While they miss Australia, if they do ever decide to relocate, it’s more likely to be in the city, where raising a family might be easier.

“I don’t mind the city, I lived in London for a while, but I love living out in the countryside. I grew up in a new town, but we were the last house before the fields, so we could sort of imagine we were in the country,” he says.

“I’ve always said if it wasn’t for the weather I would live in the wilds of Northumberland,” says Noble. “Close enough so I could whip over the Wall. Who knows what’s going to happen,” he says, referring to Brexit.

Suddenly we realise that our time is up and that despite his raspy throat, Noble has blethered away on random topics for nearly an hour without surcease. When he says he’s never going to run out of material, you believe him. Catch him when he whips over the Wall for his latest brain dump. n