“Depressive”, “intense” and “awkward” are the most common adjectives used by the press to describe the comedian, musician and actor Julian Barratt. But none of those words actually fits the sweetly shambling man I find having a pot of tea on his own in the Highgate pub near his home in London. Instead, the adjective that comes to my mind upon spotting him in his high-waisted cotton trousers, mismatched jacket and skew-whiff hair is “gentle”.
Unlike his comedy partner Noel Fielding – with whom he made the surreal TV series The Mighty Boosh – Barratt has never seemed all that comfortable in the spotlight, which explains the slightly bemused descriptions of him. It’s true that, after he realises the photographer and I are already at the pub when he thought he would have half an hour to himself, he does take his teapot and flee to a table as far from us as possible. But once the PR person does finally drag him over, he is as amenable as a lamb, willingly striking whatever pose the photographer asks and, afterwards, striding towards me with a grin that verges on goofy.
This, it turns out, is not because he especially wants to talk about his latest project. Rather, he wants to discuss twins. Barratt has eight-year-old boys, Walter and Arthur, with his partner, fellow comedian and actor Julia Davis. The Guardian photographer mentions to him that I recently had twins, too, and before I can even introduce myself properly he’s asking about them and eagerly looking at photos.
“My life is divided up into before I had kids and after,” he says, and it is pretty obvious which he prefers. Barratt may be the first person I have interviewed who so clearly prefers to talk about his personal life rather than his work. When he mentions his boys, he can’t hide his delight but, after 10 minutes of the two of us swapping twin tales, I say we ought to talk about Flowers, a six-part drama/black comedy on Channel 4 in which he co-stars with Olivia Colman. Barratt’s face visibly falls: “OK, yes, yes, right. Sure. I haven’t seen the show, but yes, go ahead,” he replies, his body anxiously twisting in his seat.
The reason he hasn’t seen it is because Barratt – predictably – hates to watch himself on screen. It just feels, he says, “weird and painful and strange”. He is not wild about doing standup, either. Last year, he decided to dip his toe back into that again and remembered, too late, that he hated it. “It’s the thing of being on a bill,” he says, almost spitting out the last two words. “I was never any good at fitting in on a bill, and the tone is set by whoever went before. So I shot myself in the foot, really …”
Of course, he could always focus on his writing, but just the word makes him wince. “It sort of drives you insane, writing on your own, doesn’t it? Because your self-worth is really brought into the light that way. I have trouble keeping a lid on the self-hatred,” he says.
He can’t even go down the usual route for comedians today of appearing on panel shows. “I wish I could,” he says, sounding genuinely anguished about his inability to get into the swing of things on 8 Out of 10 Cats. “I think that – because of how my face looks – people take it as a dissing of the whole process. I’d love to have the ease on those shows that Noel has. But I have such a difficult relationship with that environment, so I don’t know …”
This all makes Barratt sound absurdly gloomy, but he leavens the misery with plenty of self-deprecating laughter, and – for someone who sounds so down on himself – he is extremely warm and amusing company. But given that, in Flowers, he is playing a creative man who finds work a struggle, is the father of twins and is possibly depressed, it is hard to resist asking if he found a personal connection to the show, and I don’t resist.
“Right, right, yes, no, that was very, um …” is his somewhat nonplussed reply, and I don’t really blame him. In the show, he and Colman, who plays his wife, have a miserably open marriage and all the members of the family betray and abandon one another at different points. So it is understandable if he would rather not draw too many similarities between that family and his own.
“[The characters] are pretty dysfunctional, and hopefully we won’t get to that point,” he says, but then can’t resist following the idea through. “Of course, there are times when you find yourself unable to cope and wondering what would happen if you just ran away. But no, I just enjoyed the script, and I liked the idea of the man sort of locked in his own world.”
That is a pretty good description of Barratt’s character in The Mighty Boosh. As Howard Moon, the zookeeper and wannabe jazz musician, he lived in a fantasy world created by his own vanity. An even more obvious comparison is Dan Ashcroft, the self-loathing journalist who hates himself only marginally more than he hates the ridiculous hipster world he documents for Sugar Ape magazine, in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s astonishingly prescient 2005 show Nathan Barley.
“Just the other day I was watching a documentary about something called Unicorns, who are people dress up and have orgies and try to maintain a Burning Man vibe in London. It was quite sad, and I thought, ‘That’s quite Nathan Barley,’” Barratt says. The unicorn documentary was, of course, on vice.com, which was itself the inspiration for Sugar Ape magazine.
“And Vice is doing really well, isn’t it? The idiots have won, I think the line was,” Barratt smiles.
But it’s The Mighty Boosh – the long-running live show that became a 2004-2007 TV series – for which Barratt is still best known. Radio Times recently claimed that he and Fielding were to “reunite for a new project”, and the story was picked up nationwide. This, sadly, turned out to be wishful thinking – all Barratt said was that he would like to write with Fielding again – but the eagerness with which the story took off reflects the affection in which the Boosh is still held. Barratt recently developed a deeper fondness for it when he showed it to his sons.
“They don’t like it when they see me getting beaten up by a kangaroo, but I hear them talking about it and they seem proud. And that’s nice,” he says.
Barratt, 47, grew up in Leeds, the son of a teacher and a market researcher. He initially thought he’d be a musician and set off as a teenager to pursue that dream: “You know the well-known saying: leave home at 17 and make your fortune in London as a jazz drummer,” he says drily. This, after various detours, led him to comedy, where he met Fielding, and the two bonded over a shared love of Vic and Bob. While he and Fielding always seemed absurdly different – Barratt all shy nerviness and Fielding the glitter-sprinkled party monster – they are still close friends, even living on the same street, and he talks about him with brotherly fondness.
The only time Barratt looks happy discussing work is when we are on the subject of his two favourite collaborators: Fielding and Davis. He and Davis met through work, and while they don’t tend to work together now because of childcare arrangements, they still show one another everything they are working on: “She’s pretty honest, so I trust her judgment,” he says, and when I ask about his favourite comedies, he lists one of hers, Hunderby.
If Davis provides reassurance, Fielding brings the fun. Finding a sympathetic collaborator silenced the self-loathing.
“Me and Noel went to HBO once and pitched this really ludicrous idea about us driving around in a haunted car and they just stared at us. Literally stared at us! It was awful,” he says, still a little horror-struck. “Luckily, we were together so we could laugh about it, but if we were on our own it would have been one of the worst moments ever.” And the memory of the two of them laughing together makes him laugh again.
The interview is over, to Barratt’s obvious relief and, instead of making shows for HBO, Barratt is going to spend the rest of this afternoon drinking tea and waiting to pick up his boys from school. He could not look more content about this.
The six-part series Flowers starts 25 April on Channel 4.