Since winning the prestigious Perrier Best Newcomer award in 1996, MIlton Jones has cut a distinctive figure in the comedy world.
With his trademark messy hair and array of loud shirts, he’s had audiences in stitches with his deadpan one-liners.
Over the course of 12 series of his own shows on Radio4, as well as dozens of appearances on the satirical BBC show Mock The Week, a brace of spots on Live at The Apollo and countless other TV guest appearances, he’s become one of our most well-loved stand-ups.
And on March 1 he returns to Portsmouth to headline the second Big Mouth Comedy Club at Portsmouth Guildhall. Joining Milton on the night are Jo Caulfield, Larry Dean and Ivo Graham. The following day it’s The Best of Edinburgh Fringe and Q&A sessions with comic actors John Thomson and Neil Morrissey. On March 7 it’s comedy play Police Cops in Space, before the UK’s Hottest New Acts – a line-up of rising talent, wraps things up on March 8.
‘Portsmouth is always one of the noisy ones,’ he tells The Guide, ‘in a good way. People say what they think in Portsmouth.
‘I remember my old days from [Gunwharf Quays comedy club] Jongleurs and stuff, half of the crowd would be from navy boats tied up in the docks and they would be equally vociferous – you knew what they thought!
‘I tend to enjoy that though. The worst thing about doing a tour or lots of shows is indifference – that's the killer rather than anything else.’
With his rapid-fire approach to comedy, Milton admits that his biggest problem is coming up with new material all the time.
‘Once I was on telly more regularly I had to triple or quadruple my output. It's that old cliche of it you're in a band people want to hear the old songs, but if you're a comedian, they don't necessarily want to hear the old jokes.
‘Having said that I do get people come up to me after the show and say: “Oh, you didn't do that one about so and so – I really wanted my friend to hear it”. You slightly can't win, but even for your own sanity you have to do new stuff.’
But shows like Mock The Week favour his style of short-and-to-the-point jokes.
‘It suits me to do short bits on telly – it's much harder for someone who does stories to go on something like Mock The Week, but conversely when I do a full show, you have to vary the angle of attack. No matter how good you are at one-liners, after about 15 minutes you can start to see blood coming out of people's ears.
‘It's so much information, so there needs to be music or sound effects, or props, so a longer show I do will have sound cues, or a song or whatever, I mean, it's all still jokes, but I've used old-school over head projectors, and all sorts – it's more variety.
‘When I do a short slot, I can come in and throw a grenade and get out again.’
Speaking of props, for his 2017 tour Milton had an outfit made in the shape of a map of Britain for a Brexit gag.
‘I thought it would a one-off thing that would quickly disappear,’ he gives a dry laugh. ‘But I could probably do the exact same thing with just a few tweaks and it would be equally as relevant now.’
Two years down the line though, he admits that people might find it harder to laugh at if he did it today.
‘I think people have moved on and are just really quite angry about the whole thing. If I did it now, I think people would just be crosser. Maybe in a year's time if it all gets sorted out, then we can look back on it in some way. I did a week's tour in Ireland, and it's quite tricky turning up as Great Britain in Ireland! It wasn’t totally popular in all the places I went to. I started it there by coming on as Great Britain and just apologising for everything. That sort of won them over. Briefly.’
In conversation Milton is much more measured than his stage persona suggests. So is there much difference between Milton the performer and Milton the everyday guy?
‘I have this conversation with TV producers who are interviewing me for shows, and I always say to them, there are 10 levels of Milton. If I'm doing the late show at The Comedy Store, I'm 10. I've also said, the thicker the crowd, the higher the hair has to go – that will be a 10, the hair will be up and it's the mad starey eyes.
‘When I'm doing panelly stuff on TV, that's about five because you're having to interact with other people. And talking to you now, maybe 0.5, or even nought.
‘I think there are two types of comedian, there's the one who's the same all the time, and then there's... I started off trying to be an actor years ago, so I think of it very much as when I step over that line, I think of it as being someone else. Then when I step back again I am normal. I'm fairly schizophrenic in that respect.’
When off-stage, he also tends to travel incognito.
‘I've got to wear plain shirts when I go out, even if it's a slightly patterned shirt people comment and go: “Ooh, not so zany today, then!” I've got to keep it really simple and calm. I keep the zany shirts for work only.’
Does he get recognised much when he’s out?
‘People often say hello to me, but they're not sure why they're saying hello to me – they half recognise me but can't place me.They think I'm a neighbour or someone they went to school. It's only when I'm gone they realise it was from the telly.
‘That's quite good in a way, I've been with people like Michael McIntyre or Ricky Gervais who are stop-the-traffic famous, and that becomes quite painful. But I'm not at that level, I can get away with people half-recognising me – which is quite nice actually.’
Is acting something he’d like to go back to do more of?
‘It is. But I've got a lot of stand-up work at the moment and there are a lot of good actors who are unemployed, so I'm quite happy to get on with what I've got.
‘And if I do go for an audition, it's usually as the crazy neighbour or something like that – you do tend to be a bit typecast in terms of what people will perceive you should be good at, and also what people will buy tickets for.
‘Do you really want to see a comedian in a Shakespeare play? You might do, but there's a danger it might turn into a bit of a vanity project, just for me to say that I could do it.
‘And when I do Radio 4 stuff, I work with some really good actors. when you work with someone who's really good at what they do, you think: “Oh, yeah, I'm not that good am I?”
‘I've found a thing I am good at and can get away with doing, so I might be better to stick with that... But I am absolutely open to trying other things. I'd love to have a go at other stuff, to try vary it up for my interest as much as anything.’
One of those ‘really good actors’ was Olivia Colman, who was with him in the 2003 radio show The House of Milton Jones. Olivia is currently riding high for her Bafta-winning portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite, which is also in the running for Best Actress Oscar.
‘It's been amazing to see that – it would be great if she got an Oscar. She played my sister in a radio show I did – I've got lots of tapes of her shouting at me, basically.
‘I haven't seen her in a while, but I think she's done all right,’ he deadpans.
The Big Mouth Comedy Festival is at Portsmouth Guildhall on March 1, 2, 7 and 8. For more information go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.