The interview: Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey
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Off-the-wall comic, TV and radio regular, actor and multi-instrumentalist Bill Bailey is bringing his latest tour to Lancashire. MALCOLM WYATT asks him how to survive life in Limboland

Apparently, Bill Bailey’s current tour involves tales of the comic finding himself in a halfway place, railing against a world that doesn’t match up to expectations, while contemplating the true nature of happiness.

Anything to keep me from sitting at home eating cake

Bill Bailey

He’ll no doubt touch on his countless global travels, too, while recounting a disastrous family trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights, and… well, you never quite know what you’re going to get with Bill.

The 51-year-old remains a familiar face on TV, whether Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI, Black Books, Spaced, Dr Who – you name it.

His latest tour has already won rave reviews in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore, and this past week was in Ireland for the first eight UK dates of more than 90 – taking him to mid-January and culminating in 30+ shows in London’s West End.

It’s not all over then either, Limboland continuing right through to early July 2016 – another 50-plus dates.

As you can imagine, the world’s press were waiting on the line to speak to him, so I only had 15 minutes and structure was always going to be key – not so easy with someone known to take conversation off into other realms.

We packed a lot in, though, and his ready wit was to the fore, with this Somerset-born comic never less than genial, our conversation punctuated with laughter at both ends of the line.

He might have just been humouring me, of course, but I was impressed all the same. Sometimes you just know you’re talking to a genuine, good bloke.

Limboland’s already gone down a storm internationally, with plenty of packed houses and critical acclaim.

But from a love and appreciation of history and science to a penchant for pop culture and his boundless imagination and creativity for music and comedy, there’s always plenty of substance in a Bill Bailey live performance.

So Bill, Limboland is – I understand – about the gap between how we imagine our lives to be and how they really are. Was that the outcome of a comic’s whiteboard session, or just a late deadline for the posters?

“Perhaps it was. I have a flip-chart in my office, but there’s just a lot of nonsense and doodles written on it.

“It’s not that helpful, to be honest.”

So what’s it all about?

“Comedy stand-up shows, I find, progress in a rather haphazard way, and you get ideas and inspiration from all kinds of random sources – things that happen to you, like family holidays that go wrong or the daily frustrations of just living, moments of reflection, a bit more kind of contemplative wider things that all sort of coalesce into one.

“Gradually, that’s what happened with this show. I realised a lot of the stories and routines were sort of veering towards a similar theme that was emerging – that life doesn’t quite match up to how you imagine it’s going to be.

“But that’s fine, because actually what you end up with is what life is, and I identify that as quite a rich area for comedy.”

No Bill Bailey show is complete without music, so there may also be his version of the protest song, a heart-rending country’n’western ballad played on a Bible, and a fabulously downbeat Happy Birthday.

So will he stick to the plan, or veer off wildly (as we probably expect)?

“I do tend to, yes. Sometimes it goes completely off the rails, and I always like the shows to be not too polished and slick – otherwise I’ll lose interest. I need to churn it up a bit.

“As a show progresses and you tour, material changes and things come in, while others are dropped. It sort of rolls forward, in a slightly organic way.

“Sometimes I deliberately send it off the rails, thinking, ‘I quite like the way we’re going with this – let’s do a song about something that’s just happened!’

“I like there to be a combination of set-pieces which are worked on, alongside a slightly unpredictable element.”

The sheer size of this tour is colossal. Do you look at all those dates and wonder what you’re letting yourself in for?

“It is a bit daunting, and there are the ups and downs, like being away from home. The novelty of hotels wore off a long time ago.

“What I tend to long for are the other experiences – to explore wherever I am, to get out there and get into the outdoors and educate myself a bit about every place I go to.

“I recognise I’ve been fortunate, and it’s a fortunate profession to be in, and I don’t want to squander that opportunity. I get the chance to go all around Britain, and see so much of it.

“I get the chance to go watching birds, go walking and hiking. There’s always somewhere nearby which will offer up some sort of interesting quirk about Britain, hitherto not known.”

Does he have such plans for Blackburn and Preston while he’s here?

“Absolutely – if I can get out and about, I will. You’ll probably see me striding around. With my binos? Definitely.”

You must miss your wife, Kristin, and 12-year-old son Dax. What does your lad make of it all?

“He’s grown up with it over the years, so he knows the score. Years ago I remember him asking, ‘How was the gig?’ when I came in, and he was only around five.

“He knows the life we have and fits around it. And occasionally, if there’s time or if it fits with school holidays, he’ll come out on a few dates.

“I remember when he came on tour when he was about two or three. We were in a hotel, an odd, slightly-rarified life, and he was watching a cartoon on TV and just reached over for the phone by the side of the bed. He picked it up – without taking his eyes off the screen – held the phone to his mouth, said, ‘More biscuits!’ then put it down. And it worked!”

Home for Bill between dates is Hammersmith. Handy for the Westway and returns to the West Country?

“Definitely. West London has been our home for the last 25 years, and it’s good for getting away, overseas as well as to the Motherland.”

Looking at your parents’ work – his father was a medical practitioner and his mother a hospital ward sister – did a career in the health profession not beckon?

“It did at some stage. I did consider following in Dad’s footsteps. But I was so much drawn to the other side – the arts, performance and music – I felt it wasn’t the right fit for me.

“Mum and Dad – God bless ’em – were very supportive and didn’t divert me from that. They were brilliant.”

Going back to your formative days in showbusiness, what were Behind Closed Doors, your first band, like?

“Essentially a kind of pop, prog rock band, I suppose, with no shortage of ambition in terms of the epic-ness of what we were aiming at, with sweeping piano riffs and big choruses.

“It was quite something, although we didn’t get many gigs – obviously a problem.”

Where did the pitch-perfect Bill Bailey’s musical genes come from?

“I don’t know. My Dad liked to play the guitar, and Mum loved singing. There was always singing in the house, with the radio on.

“My Grandad was in a choir, while my uncle was in a barber shop quintet, and my cousin is a professional trumpet player in Portugal.

“There was always music around, and a slight Von Trapp element to Christmas parties – without the Nazism.”

This British Comedy Award winner has seen success the world over these past two decades, and from sell-out comedy tours and festivals around the world to Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, it’s been a blast.

He’s performed at the Edinburgh Festival almost every year since his 1995 Cosmic Jam debut, while branching out as an actor, big screen roles including Saving Grace, Hot Fuzz, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, and Chalet Girl.

You can also factor in 11 series as a team captain from 2002/08 on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, three of Channel 4 hit Black Books and a role in Spaced (Channel 4).

Then there was Is It Bill Bailey? (BBC2), Bill Bailey Live (Channel 4), parts in Jonathan Creek (BBC1), teen drama Skins (Channel 4), plus Have I Got News for You (BBC1) and QI (BBC1), and a role in a 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special.

How’s your supposed (half-hearted) retirement from panel shows going?

“It’s gradually petering out.”

Is it a case of being strong and showing great resolve – until you get a call from Stephen Fry and Alan Davies?

“Yeah, it’s a case of ‘Oh, go on then’ or ‘Who’s on? Carrie Fisher? Ooh! I’m on with Princess Leia! Alright then, I’ll do it.’”

Bill loves his wildlife, too, hence Wild Thing I Love You (Channel 4), Bill Bailey’s Birdwatching Bonanza (Sky1), Baboons with Bill Bailey (ITV1), and Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero.

He supports numerous charities, including International Animal Rescue, Good Vibrations and The Music House for Children, as well as his role as an Ambassador for Youth Music.

Then there’s the Sumatran Orangutan Society, Bowel Cancer UK, Prostate Cancer UK, The Asthma Society and Reprieve, among others.

Wild Thing I Love You and your charity work showcase conservation credentials – be it caring for baboons, bears, birds or orangutans. Are there any campaigns we should be aware of?

“There are those I support all the time, like International Animal Rescue. We’re involved with sanctuaries in the Far East, and also here.

“Wild Thing I Love You was about practical ways to help animals in strife, and I think that’s something everyone can get involved in.

“We have such a fantastic range of bird and wildlife here. We’re only a small country, and there’s not an enormous amount of room left.

“If we can preserve the wild places, it means they’re going to be around for a while. Because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Have you had much call to take advantage of your honorary membership of the Society of Crematorium Organists of late?

“Er, no. I think the focus is on the word ‘honorary’ – rather than it being some kind of hotline where someone phones and says, ‘We need an organist now – go, go, go!’

“Occasionally, if I know there’s someone from the organisation in, I’ll throw in a bit of crematorium organ, just to keep my hand in.”

I wonder if your six-piece The Famous Five and the mighty Beergut 100 were the finest bands I never heard. Any reunions planned?

“The Famous Five are all scattered to the four winds… or largely around the West Country, whichever way you look at it. I’m trying to grab some of the original members back. It’s 20 years since we did a gig at the Edinburgh Festival, so we may well get together.”

Was the Bovington Gurney School of Performing Arts and Owl Sanctuary the making of you?

“I think it probably was, yes. It’s become prophetic actually – comedy and some kind of owl salvation has featured largely in my life.”

From voicing a sperm whale in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to narrating animated books for dyslexic children, and early antics accompanying a mind-reading dog, it’s not the average CV. What can we expect next (in an unexpected way)?

“I’m about to record a very lovely audio book version of the Jungle Book, and I’ve been involved with the Outward Bound Trust, so I might be involved in some preposterous kind of hair-raising activities to raise money for them.

“I’ve just done a long walk across the Ridgeway to raise money for Cancer Research (raising more than £10,000), and I’m developing all sorts of ideas for TV – comedy ideas and perhaps something about the first man to discover Alaska, and first Englishman to arrive in Australia. All in all a few diverse and eclectic projects to keep me from sitting at home and eating lemon drizzle cake, while looking out of the window… which of course I’ll be doing as well.”

Bill Bailey is at Blackburn King George’s Hall on October 23 and 24, details on 01254 582579, and at Preston Guild Hall on November 13 and 14, with details on 0844 844 7710.

Shows start at 8pm, with all tickets £25 plus venue administration fees. For more tour date and ticket information try www.TicketMaster.co.uk or call 0844 844 0444.

For all the latest from the man himself, head to www.BillBailey.co.uk