He came up with the idea for his latest show, En Route to Normal, before Covid, or “BC” as he puts it.
“It started as a reaction to the way things were then, when the future was looking precarious, the old norms were crumbling away and there were new systems and governments and I was thinking ‘this isn’t what I thought the future would be like’. And then there was a once-in-a-century global pandemic. So I feel like I predicted it. I feel it may even be my fault, for which I apologise unreservedly,” he says, with a chuckle.
Bailey is one of our most popular and recognisable comic performers helped, perhaps, by his distinctive appearance (he was once described as looking like a Viking god caught in a wind machine), but more due to his unique blend of surreal comedy, acute observations and musical dexterity. All of which feature in his new tour which heads to Leeds, Hull and Sheffield in the next few weeks.
He ponders the questions thrown up by history and ruminates on the strange unreality of our new world and his own experiences during the past 20 months. “It’s not all been bad. There have been some positives and hopefully I capture some of the absurdity of the situations we found ourselves in,” he says. “I talk about memory and how in times of great strife we tend to look back to happier times and reflect on the past and nostalgia.”
Bailey is a keen ornithologist and, like many people, he found himself drawn to nature during lockdown. “You heard birds you don’t necessarily normally hear because they’re masked by other sounds. For a time there were hardly any planes or trains and I read somewhere that it’s the quietest Britain had been since the Industrial Revolution,” he says.
“It occurred to me that birdsong is so much more prevalent when other sounds are tuned out and it’s interesting that I found myself listening to music by people like Anton Bruckner, who incorporated birdsong into his compositions. And that made sense, because if you lived in a pre-industrial age, of course you would hear more birdsong, so why wouldn’t you incorporate the sounds that you hear around you?
"So I tried to do that and because we were doing a lot of video calls I thought ‘these are the sounds of lockdown’ so I sampled the Skype ringtone and put that into some music and it turned into a 90s club banger. I was quite chuffed with it.”
Bailey also filled his time by archiving transcripts of old shows. “I realised the thread running through it all was the nature of happiness and what it means, because happiness in this country is different to other parts of the word – the UN actually publishes a happiness index based on all kinds of criteria. And during the lockdown I think we were all reflecting on life, and happiness is one of the big things.”
It prompted him to write a book about it called Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness, which came out last autumn and coincided with the 56-year-old becoming the unlikely star of Strictly Come Dancing, when he helped lift the nation’s spirits during some of the darkest months of the pandemic.
“Strictly came at a time when goodness knows people needed a bit of cheering up and it’s a show that has that ability even in normal times,” he says.
“But I think last year because everyone was confined to their homes and nobody could socialise and meet family and friends, it took on a greater significance. It really brought people together, and it certainly brought my family together.
"We had a big family WhatsApp group and people in different countries were getting involved. It was a way for people to have a focal point around which they could meet once a week.
“As contestants, we all talked about it and said it felt special, a unique moment in the show’s history and we were privileged to be a part of that. The fact it went ahead at all was a bit of a miracle.”
He went on to lift the coveted glitterball trophy and found the whole experience emotional and uplifting. “The confidence it gives you, dancing in front of millions of people is immeasurable. I’ve played to big crowds but this was something entirely different.”
Bailey grew up in Somerset and showed musical promise from a very young age. “We had a piano in the front room and I’d knock out tunes. I’d listen to music on the radio and I had an ear for it and my parents encouraged me to carry on. So I thought that music might be the way that I would pursue a career.”
He did music A-level and worked his way through the piano grades and also taught himself how to play the guitar, drums and percussion. “At the same time, with my cousin, we used to listen to old Monty Python records. My dad was a fan of the Goons and I realised that I equally loved the spoken word and music. I loved what words can do in front of people, and the fun you can have with it and the suppleness of the English language.”
He set out to become a performer but was far from an instant success. He spent the early 80s touring with a Welsh experimental theatre troupe before going on to form a comedy double act called the Rubber Bishops, and it was only when he started performing solo in the mid-90s that his career gained traction, a key moment coming when his live show Bill Bailey’s Cosmic Jam won the Edinburgh Festival Critics Award in 1995.
Six years later he won Best Live Stand-Up at the British Comedy Awards and broke into TV when he co-starred in Dylan Moran’s sitcom Black Books. Since then he’s become a familiar face on TV panel shows like QI and Have I Got News for You, appeared in films and TV dramas and enjoyed a string of sell-out tours.
Performing, whether it’s on stage or in front of a camera, is at the heart of what he does. “Everyone’s got their own thing that they love to do and for me it’s being in that live situation. It’s where I feel the most freedom. You can interact with the crowd and feel its energy and for me an ideal show is where the audience plays a part, you play a part and somewhere between the two you create something that’s greater than those two sums.”
And the buzz for Bailey is fusing music and wordplay. “I wouldn’t be able to do one without the other. Just standing and talking wouldn’t be enough. I need to be playing an instrument and vice versa. I still haven’t quite figured out what I’m supposed to be doing... maybe one day.”
Bill Bailey’s tour, En Route to Normal, stops off at the Leeds First Direct Arena on December 18, Hull’s Bonus Arena on December 19, and the FlyDSA Arena, Sheffield, on January 9.