The Big Interview: Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey
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“MADNESS, music, mayhem and mandolins ... but no magic.” That’s how Bill Bailey describes his latest comedy tour, Dandelion Mind, which wends its merry way to Yorkshire next month with gigs in Sheffield and York.

Following a sell-out tour in Australia and New Zealand he took up residency with the show in London’s West End at the end of last year and is about to spread his musical and comic gospel to the rest of the country. Dubbed “the jedi of juxtaposition”, Bailey is known for his surreal stand-up and his new show features his trademark observations, stories and musical interludes – he demonstrates his prowess on a variety of instruments, both old and new, sings an internet love song, plays Iranian hip-hop and a mean folk-bouzouki.

Despite its epic scale, the show’s genesis has humble origins evolving from gigs in small clubs and community centres dotted around Scotland’s Highlands and islands.

“It was a conscious decision, it wasn’t a case of going to some random places to do a show, although it is a beautiful part of the world,” explains Bailey. “Four years ago I did an arena tour where I just played these enormous domes and I found I was writing material to suit a big space and that felt a bit weird, I didn’t like it. I enjoy playing big venues now and again but afterwards I wanted to get back to playing smaller, more intimate venues.”

Regular appearances on TV shows like QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, where he was a team captain, have helped make Bailey a household name. But it’s his live tours – including Tinselworm, Bewilderness and Part Troll – that established his reputation as one of our most creative comic talents.

Born and raised in the West Country, his fascination with music and comedy dates back to his school days. “I always thought I was going to be a musician.” A rock star, presumably? “No, a keyboard player – that would have done me.” As a teenager he joined a series of bands including The Famous Five – an unsuccessful group with only four members. “All this time I was into comedy, stuff like Monty Python, Not The Nine O’clock News and The Ruttles and it felt like it was something else I could do.”

He also harboured theatrical ambitions and spent the early 80s touring with a Welsh Experimental theatre troupe, and appearing on stage with the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

He supplemented this with stints as a lounge pianist, and a keyboard player in a jazz trio which helped pay the bills. “I worked as a pianist in hotel lobbies, I could play anything. People would come up to me and say things like, ‘can you play that song from the wool advert?’ In one place they’d built the bar around the piano which had a padded shelf so people could slump on it. You had blokes crying into their beer saying, ‘can you do Song For Guy, I bloody love that song’.

“I was equally drunk most of the time because what else is there to do when you’re playing the piano? I think I’d still be doing that today if the comedy hadn’t taken off, or perhaps I’d have moved on to cruise ships and be sitting there drinking a huge pina colada.” He chuckles at the idea of his imagined alter ego.

It was only after he moved to London and went to watch John Hegley perform one night that he was inspired to become a stand-up. “He did poetry, music and comedy and I’d never seen anything like this, it seemed totally revolutionary – it was like a lightbulb going off in my head.” Even so, he describes his early routines as “a bit haphazard”, although there weren’t the same opportunities for aspiring young comics as there are today.

“Comedy clubs didn’t really exist back then, it’s not like it is now with so many comedians on TV. There are branded comedy clubs in just about every town but when I started you played the odd music venue and a few pubs and that was about it.”

He formed the Rubber Bishops with Toby Longworth in 1984, using cassocks borrowed from a church in Edinburgh, and together they became well known on the club circuit for their off-the-wall musical comedy. A decade later he teamed up with Sean Lock for the Edinburgh show Rock, before going solo the following year with his stand-up show Cosmic Jam earning him a Perrier nomination in 1996.

But he admits it was a hard slog in the early days. “We were doing two or three gigs a night. You would do 15 minutes in one place and get on a bus to the next one and by the end you’d say ‘sod it’ and get a cab to the last gig and spend all the money you’d earned.

“Then we got a car and ended up driving all over the place. We’d be doing gigs in London, Oxford and Birmingham – all in the same night. There was a lot of camaraderie in those days but it was tough you wouldn’t want to be doing that for 10 or 15 years.”

Bailey’s rise up the comedy ladder was measured, rather than meteoric, what he jokingly calls a “slow, torturous shuffle”. But by the late 90s his stage shows were garnering plaudits as were his performances in the award-winning Channel 4 sitcom Black Books, in which he starred alongside Dylan Moran. “I was quite lucky because I was doing solo shows just when there was a boom in international comedy festivals.”

These days, comedians are feted like rock stars playing the kind of gigs once the preserve of pop stars. “British comedy is reaching something of a peak, it’s extraordinary. There’s a lot more comedy now than there was when I started out. There’s all kinds – confrontational, edgy, observational, there’s something to cater for all tastes. There are guys I used to work with on the club circuit who are playing arenas now. It used to be a big thing to play somewhere like the 02 Arena, but now nobody bats an eyelid.”

Why is live comedy so popular right now? “It’s partly down to the recession, people want a laugh and a bit of escapism. But also they want to be part of something whether it’s live comedy or music, or going to the theatre. Rock music festivals sell out in a couple of hours because people want to step out of the grind for a few days and they want that sense of belonging.”

What then is the appeal for him of television shows like QI on which he’s become a regular guest? “Stand-up can be a very solitary profession. You spend a lot of time on your own in hotel rooms or out on stage, so it’s nice to do panel shows because they’re a team game and you’re working with people you know. I really enjoy doing QI, it’s genuinely fun and that’s quite rare with some of these panel shows.

“I don’t like Mock the Week, they’re a bit like stags locking horns and it doesn’t seem very spontaneous, it’s just people doing their acts. When I was doing Never Mind the Buzzcocks we just turned up and you didn’t know what was going to happen, you didn’t know if someone was going to walk out.” He’s referring to the occasion when singer Samuel Preston walked out of a recording after taking exception to host Simon Amstell reading extracts from an autobiography written by his wife, Big Brother winner Chantelle Houghton. Bailey has also branched out into acting. He played Oscar in a well-received production of The Odd Couple and last year appeared as Farmer Macreadie in Nanny McPhee and The Big Bang. But it is comedy and music that remain his twin passions.

“I like to go and watch something a little bit different. I enjoy learning about different cultures and sounds and instruments where people aren’t sure if it’s a gizmo, a toy, or an instrument. Some instruments can create patterns of light as well as sound and that really intrigues me. I like to bring things that are unusual and mysterious into my shows because if I was going to a show I’d want to see something I’d not see before.

“As a family we used to sit and watch Les Dawson and Morecambe and Wise and combining comedy and music is a tradition that goes back to the 19th century and the days of Victorian vaudeville. If you look at Morecambe and Wise some of their most famous treasured moments blend music and comedy, like the stripper sketch and the scene with Andre Previn when Eric grabs him and says, ‘I’m playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order.’

“What I do is really just a continuation of that longstanding tradition.”

Bill Bailey plays Sheffield Arena, November 4; The Barbican, York, November 12 and the York Opera House, November 20.