There are many ways to sum up Bill Bailey, the clever, musically inclined comic with receding rock-star hair and the startled, affable demeanour. Drinking tea in his Hammersmith office – which is adorned with old enamel advertising signs, a stuffed owl and a fake cherry tree – he is pondering descriptions that he has read online. ‘I quite like “prominently eyeballed enigma”,’ he chuckles. ‘Another was “hirsute polymath”. I might put that in Who’s Who.’
The Bath-born comic, 48, who hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of television yet has a million followers on Twitter, is about to embark on the second leg of his blockbuster Qualmpeddler tour, in which he explores his myriad doubts about modern life. His live shows are a zany mixture of wordplay, musical interludes (including a reggae version of the Downton Abbey theme), shaggy-dog stories, observational humour, social commentary and audience participation (though never humiliation).
Wild about wildlife
But he doesn’t confine himself to the comedy circuit. He has hosted TV series on bird-watching and baboons and recently presented a BBC documentary following in the footsteps of his Jungle Hero, the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. As a gifted guitarist and pianist, he headlined a show, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, examining the dramatic properties of different instruments, though, privately, his preference – ‘when we’re dancing round the room in a silly way’ – is still for the punk anthems of his youth.
Although he was steadily building up a reputation through the Nineties, winning a British Comedy Award for Best Live Stand-up and having his own BBC2 show Is It Bill Bailey?, he was 40 before he was selling out stadiums on solo tours. As he described it in his 2007 show Tinselworm, it was a meteoric rise – ‘if the meteor was being dragged by an arthritic donkey across a ploughed field in Poland’.
It was what he calls the ‘perfect storm’ of his role in the sitcom Black Books and his long-running team captaincy on the irreverent pop panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks that introduced him to a wider audience. ‘Suddenly, it was Wembley I was playing, standing on stage in front of 12,500 people, thinking, “How did I get here? Last week, I was in Hull, in a pub where they turn the telly off when the comedy comes on”. It was an effort to concentrate.’
Bailey (real first name Mark) was nicknamed Bill by a teacher who was fond of the song Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey. Music was an early career option for him, but he also enjoyed penning ‘daft sketches’ for school revues, listening to old comedy records with his friends and sitting round the TV with his family laughing at Les Dawson.
So comedy eventually won out and he is proud that the inclusivity he remembered from growing up has found its way into his act. ‘I’ll look out and see a father who’s brought his teenage son, and I’ve had an 84-year-old grandmother write to me saying how much she enjoyed it. That’s brilliant.’
Bailey is fascinated by the volume of feedback that social media unleash. He spotted a pattern that surprised him: what people most appreciated at his gigs was the lack of swearing. The seeds were sown when he was performing at The Comedy Store and decided to play around with the ‘tsunami’ of invective that usually issued forth.
‘We used to swear all the time. It was a common argot. Then one night, out of devilment or boredom, I tried replacing all the swear words with olde English words, like rascal or mountebank or flibbertigibbet, and it got an equal if not bigger laugh. That was a lightbulb moment. I’m not a prude, and a well-chosen swear word can be a linguistic bomb going off, but we have this incredibly rich language, so why not use it?’
Although Bailey doesn’t set out to be gratuitously offensive, he has strong, leftish political opinions and these surface in his shows. ‘If you think about the world, you have opinions, and sometimes you get angry and the language can be spiky.’ He doesn’t hold back from barbed insults either, though he refuses to ‘mock the weak’.
He dubbed Simon Cowell ‘Agent Orange’ for being ‘a toxic blight on a generation’, and described footballers as ‘a bunch of vain, illiterate, millionaire borderline rapists whose job it is to shepherd a piece of leather into an outdoor cupboard’. So he baulks at the idea that he might be approaching ‘national treasure’ status, as one reviewer suggested. ‘I’m not quite ready to be laminated to a plinth. There’s a bit of mischief in me that wants to stick the thumb up at that.’
Only children are often maverick thinkers and Bailey acknowledges that growing up without siblings might have influenced his career path. ‘I think your imagination works a bit harder.’ Another trait is a tendency to ‘over-analyse’ everything, hence the list of qualms (see below) he has about the world.
Comedy's no joke
His jokes are described as ‘anti-jokes’ in that there’s no anticipated punchline. ‘I dread hearing, “Have you heard this one about the nun?”, where you feel you’re being strong-armed into a laugh at the end.’ What sort of comedy does he like? ‘A well-turned phrase, satire, the puncturing of pomposity. Some of The Simpsons’ writing is top-notch. And Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy – that’s beautiful knockabout stuff.’
Bailey’s shows are thoroughly researched and tested, which is a lengthy topsy-turvy process, so he welcomes occasional breaks. ‘When you’re on tour, it’s an intense feeling that’s difficult to come down from – for weeks, months. So, perhaps for your own health, it’s good to focus on something else – not have pressure to be funny the whole time.’
To that end, watching wildlife has long been a favourite pastime.
He lives with his wife Kris, their son Dax, nine, and a menagerie of cats, dogs, parrots, monkeys, ducks – and Madagascan spitting cockroaches. His holidays are spent trekking, rafting and diving, so Jungle Hero was a pet project, for which he proved to be a curious and articulate host.
But Bailey has no plans to give up the day job. He relishes mixing the music and madness. ‘Playing music is a great joy, but I have an equal love of the spoken word. People often say comedians are frustrated rock stars. If I was a rock star, I’d be a frustrated comedian.’ He laughs and thinks for a moment. ‘A hybrid! That’s what I am.’
A very popular one, too.
Bill Bailey's top ten qualms about modern life
I was becoming that person I never wanted to be, who says: ‘These are not tunes! You can’t whistle ’em.’ So I compared the current charts with the charts when I was a teenager in the early Eighties. The charts now are very homogeneous. Then, they were all over the place: a rock song, disco, punk, a novelty song about a chicken. It was about fun. That’s what’s missing from modern music.
In Western culture, we’re very bad at revering older people. My grandparents lived with us and my memory of coming home from school is talking through the business of the day with them. I liked that. But a lot of older people find themselves on their own and that’s a tragedy. When I go to Indonesia, I see huge extended families. It might be chaotic and cramped, but everyone’s included.
I react badly when I’m introduced as ‘a celebrity’. When I was growing up, there were astronauts and scientists who attained celebrity as a consequence of talent. That process has been eroded to the point that you can now be ‘a’ celebrity – or that horrible abbreviation ‘celeb’. It sounds like a cross between a slug and a shed.
Sometimes people who are unashamed about self-promotion are the ones history remembers. But there’s a treasure trove of people who, for the luck of history or their self- effacing manner, were not in the spotlight. If I could, I would devote time to telling their stories.
Science versus God
What I find amusing is that the Higgs boson particle scientists were searching for was nicknamed the ‘God particle’. Yet, if it was found to exist – which they now say it does – it would mean perhaps there is no God. But nobody could agree whether it existed or not; even now it’s just dots on a screen. It’s been said that the higher you get into science, the more conceptual conversations start to resemble religious conversations. Perhaps science is the new God.
I don’t like cruelty in comedy, ill-thought-out routines that get a reaction because there’s a shock to them, when the subjects of the jokes are vulnerable people. Comedy should be escapist and thought-provoking. In straitened times, comedy is a useful safety valve for peopleto let off steam. It’s a way of airing a sense of injustice in public so that politicians and bankers are brought down to size.
Teaching and ignorance
I was horrified by a survey where a depressingly high number of kids couldn’t match up chops with the correct animals. So I jumped at the chance to do a campaign – Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) – to reconnect kids with food. Parents have an obligation to get their kids outside because teachers are bogged down with the curriculum.
I’m a terrible one for gadgets. But what bugs me is that you buy something and six months later the update doesn’t fit with it. It’s our own fault. We’re constantly shown glittering images of new devices and they’re impossible to resist.
Britain’s global tinkering
We imagine ourselves to be more important than we are. What was a global empire is now a small country in northern Europe. The myth is: We’ll send the chaps in… bish, bash, bosh! Then they all leave in tanks and planes, waving ‘Jolly good luck!’ It doesn’t happen like that. You get embroiled in a long, costly war of attrition that never seems to achieve anything. Afghanistan is just tragic.
These are when one worry splits like an amoeba in two, then into four, then suddenly you’ve got 64 worries. On a trip to the shops, you can’t park. Then you think, I shouldn’t be driving… But I need a car to get all the stuff. Do I need all that stuff? I should be growing my own vegetables. But I live in London and there’s not enough space… Aarrgghh!
Book tickets to see Bill Bailey on tour here
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