Comedian Bill Bailey has been a permanent fixture on our TV screens and stages for two decades, performing stand-up, presenting documentaries, writing and starring in hit shows and appearing as a regular panellist on some of the nation’s favourite comedy instalments.
He spoke to CALIBRE about his 20-year career, his highlights, regrets, finding out he had died via Twitter and how he believes comedy is one of the last bastions of free speech. The West Countryman’s last tour – Larks in Transit – focused on tales, anecdotes and hilarities that have been experienced during two decades of touring the world.
The 88-date tour, which began in January 2018 at Warwick Arts Centre and still has some dates to go, is billed as a ‘compendium of travellers’ tales and the general shenanigans of 20 years as a travelling comedian in which Bill tackles politics, philosophy and the pursuit of happiness through musical virtuosity, surreal tangents and his trademark intelligence’.
“It’s about the experience of travel, how that has informed the comedy and how the comedy has come from it,” he explains. “The stories I tell in the show are about situations, places and experiences I’ve had because I’ve been there on tour with a comedy show – more broadly about performing comedy around the world over the years, what I’ve gleaned from it and how I’ve changed as a person.
“It’s all about having fun along the way and what you draw from it – it’s a light-hearted bit of fun which is what comedy should be about and I never take my eye off that – shows are all about comedy first and if it’s a more serious subject you can slip that in under the radar.
“Larks in Transit brings together my favourite memories over the years, the relationship with fame, celebrity and how that affects you and those around you. The odd situations you get into – for example, even in the remotest parts of the world you still find people who have see an episode of Black Books or Buzzcocks. There are so many odd connections and weird conversations I never would have had.”
The show is, in effect, an autobiography of Bill’s career, and revisiting the past was eye-opening.
“It’s only when you pause and look back that you realise ‘God, I have actually done quite a lot’. All manner of things – different kinds of work, stand-up, acting, comedy, sitcoms, plays, musical shows, books, documentaries, panel shows – every kind of show there is really. It’s a lot of experience to draw from and it’s been great looking back over so much of it.”
In such a long and diverse career, mistakes happen, but Bill regrets little of it. Apart from choosing comedy in the first place.
“I regret not pursuing more of an academic career at one stage – I would have loved to have gone on to and carried through a more academic life, got more qualifications and written a dissertation. But I was very much in a hurry, impatient and wanted to get on. That said, I have probably compensated for it over my career and have tried to study more as I go along.
“I made a documentary about Alfred Wallace, a British naturalist and explorer, a few years ago and that was almost like my dissertation. I spent years researching the subject and talking to other people, reading all the books about him and educated myself about him to the point that I was able to give speeches and talks about him as I knew the subject inside out. That’s something I like a lot and get a lot of satisfaction from.”
If skipping an academic career was a regret, there must be career highlights to balance that. The conversation continues around Wallace.
“The Alfred Wallace Documentary is probably the piece of work I’m most proud of. The other project I’m extremely proud of and which was immensely satisfying was the collaboration with Anne Dudley – one of the founders of the Art of Noise – on The Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra. The project aimed to demystify the orchestra and to encourage people to listen to orchestras in a different way. That again took a year of my life and I was completely immersed in it.
“Working with orchestras was a revelation – and I pushed myself to the limit. I was writing comedy, researching the history of instruments, trying to write a narrative line and I had to perform the music with an orchestra on the night to a very highly polished level – more so than I would if it was just me. Everything had to be accurate. That was a huge challenge to take on but it was worth it just because of the amount of life that this show has had since we recorded it for DVD a few years ago. I get an enormous amount of correspondence from schools who say they use it as a teaching aid which is hugely satisfying. It was also fantastic to be in collaboration with another artist.
“Collaboration is a real treat for a stand-up because our job by its very nature is quite solitary. Working with other people, often you bring out something different, something else you perhaps wouldn’t have done working on your own. It was initially a collaboration with the BBC Concert Orchestra who asked me to work with them on a one-off project for Children In Need. I then carried on the association which led to working with Anne Dudley. It was a really exciting project because nobody really knew how it was going to end up.
“Also, nothing like that had really been done before – a deconstruction of the orchestra in that way. There was the Young person’s Guide to Orchestra but that was very formal and old-fashioned, but I wanted to do something different that blended comedy and an education about the orchestra. It was quite an all-consuming time though – but it was immensely satisfying.”
The hard work continues, but we wonder if Bill’s work ethic has changed over the years. Does experience make you wiser?
“Yeah, definitely – it’s impossible not to be. The benefit of age – and having had a successful career – is that I am not only able to choose what I do and when I do it, but that I actively make those decisions because I know what I like and what I like to do.
“Becoming a dad actually had a massive impact on my work ethic (Bailey and his wife Kristin have a son called Dax, who was born in 2003). Before becoming a dad I would agonise over a certain phrase or word, but after my son was born I realised I was maybe being way too precious about it. Your priorities change when a child is involved – things were a lot simpler. More straight-forward. It actually had a positive impact on my work – instead of having the luxury of time to overthink things, my work became very focused. I had less time to work, but somehow my time spent working was done so with more purpose.”
Age, experience and wisdom have an effect on all of us, and Bill thinks it’s been positive for his work and work/life balance.
“The big difference for me as I get older is that I can choose exactly what I do and when I do it – within reason – but I have a very strong work ethic and get a bit twitchy when I’m not doing anything. I have the luxury nowadays of being able to think about, write about and talk about the things that make me laugh and I’m less bothered about whether or not what I’m saying is what people expect of me – but the end result is that what I’m doing is what I truly believe in and the people who follow my work always appreciate that honesty – they are happy to join me on my journey of discovery and where my thoughts lead me. That isn’t always the case in the early years as a comic where you find yourselves doing shows and gigs you wouldn’t normally do, but feel you ought to do. Everyone has to go through that, but the end result is that the hours under your belt lead you to your own path in the end.”
Such a strong work ethic can make it difficult to relax, which is something Bill can understand.
“I always feel like I need to be working, but there’s some good in that because it keeps you sharp, alert and thinking. I’ve tried just completely shutting off and doing something totally different and I didn’t like it! I spent a while where I consciously chose not to do any gigs – to step back a bit, do other things, read, walk, be in the countryside, but I already do and love all that anyway. I need to have a challenge, a project and endpoint otherwise I get a bit antsy which is exactly what happened so I threw myself back in to work.”
An average day doesn’t start unusually early and sees Bill working through the day, ready for the evening.
“I get up around 7 a.m. – when it’s first light. You can get some really good stuff done at the start of the day. I write during the day, go out and exercise and then we all sit down for dinner together. Then I spend the evening writing, catching up on something or watching a TV show, reading a book or composing a little bit of music. Even though I’m up early, I’m also a bit of a night owl – I love the peace and quiet of the night.”
Success brings benefits but doesn’t change a daily routing seemingly. We wonder if there’s anything in Bill’s career that he would change?
“The one thing I would love to do more of/have done more of is to do more collaborative projects, more writing with other folks in films or TV. It takes the pressure off a little bit from stand-up because it’s relentless – I’ve been on tour for off and on for two years. It’s pretty all-consuming but after a couple of weeks of doing nothing, I find myself a bit antsy and need to do something. I would probably make more effort to make more plans, collaborate more and do more stuff – that’s definitely something I will be doing in the future.”
Bill dedicates a lot of his time and efforts to charity work – inspired by the loss of his mother Madryn to cancer – and believes supporting causes close to your heart is a genuine responsibility of ‘celebrities’ or those in the public eye.
“When you’re in the public eye you have an ability to bring focus to something, to really make a difference – I almost feel there is a duty, an obligation, to do that. It doesn’t make me proud exactly – it’s more a sense that I’m using whatever fame, notoriety, spotlight is on me it in a good way – making the most of it. The light is on me, I have a bit of attention so it’s about using it in a good way.
“In practical terms I can reach a lot of people – and you realise there is a tangible benefit to be brought from it. It should be part of the experience of being in the public eye – I can’t see a reason not to do it – particularly now in our world of social media where we have a reach in many more ways than we had before.”
Bill’s charity work has many branches – but he is heavily involved with Stand up to Cancer, inspired by the loss of his mum, Bowel Cancer UK, inspired by his father-in-law’s fight with the disease, Asthma UK, inspired by his own history of the condition, numerous animal charities inspired by his love of animals and a fantastic independent mental health charity – Cherry Tree Nursery in Portsmouth – whose work struck a chord with him.
The passage of time and reaching ‘a certain age’ also opened his eyes wide.
“Losing my mum to cancer made me much more aware of the impact that charities have and the importance of their work. Her passing really brought it home to me and I really did throw myself into a lot of fundraising efforts. As a man, when you reach a certain age of 50 and beyond that is when you really have to start thinking about these things so it seemed like the time was right to be involved. I’ve subsequently been involved in a lot of charities.”
Bill’s work as one of the patrons of Cherry Tree Nursery – a garden centre where people with mental health problems and mental illness can work – has its own special place in his heart.
“I receive 30 or 40 letters every week requesting charity support, but was struck by the work of Cherry Tree when they made contact. Mental health is a big issue for me. I am lucky enough to have all my wits about me – but losing them is something that probably scares me the most in life. I am so reliant on them – that’s what I do. I mean, I could still do stand-up even if I couldn’t stand up – but I couldn’t do it, or any of the projects I do without my wits.”
He went on to describe the ‘amazing’ work they do at Cherry Tree Nursery – giving people a place where they can work, produce flowers and vegetables and the benefit that has is amazing.
He added: “It really struck a chord with me – a lot of people in that situation are put away in places, in doors, and given nothing to do, but Cherry Tree Nursery gives them something worthwhile to do. You can see a great correlation between people’s improved mental health and feeling a sense of self-esteem by working in the garden. When they wrote to me I thought what a wonderful idea’ and so now I’m one of their patrons. It’s only right that a personal incident or something that has affected you is the reason you get involved. I always try and make the charity work I do about personal things. You feel an affinity with people suffering.”
Bill’s charity work is ongoing, but his latest fundraiser was a 100-mile walk along the Ridgeway through Wiltshire and Berkshire for Stand up to Cancer – part of Cancer Research UK. The effort raised over £10,000 which will be used to fund groundbreaking research and treatment – work Bill believes is leading a revolution in the way cancer is treated.
“I’m genuinely fascinated by the work of Cancer Research UK and what is brilliant about what they do is they are speeding up the effects of research – getting them into treatment. We are working towards a revolution in the way cancer is treated – almost to the point where one day, and hopefully that day is not that far off, that people will get their very own tailored bespoke treatment and obviously we are ways away from it now – but we are knocking on the door – it’s so close.”
Bill believes we are not only on the cusp of life-changing breakthroughs for cancer – but a total change in the way society views health.
“There is a real impetus towards being fit and healthy and going to the gym. It’s a profound cultural change which can only be a good thing and its come at a time where we have a very visual culture – everyone shares a picture of themselves and they want that picture to look good. Part of the reason for doing the walk was to promote the healthier way of life – to encourage people to get out and about, to enjoy the countryside.”
“When I had my son, who is 13 now, I made a real effort to take care of myself and do to this day. I still wanted to be able to kick a ball around a park, to go running and cycling with him – to keep up with him – all these things are so important to me.”
Bill doesn’t smoke (his one brief flirtation with the habit induced asthma) and while he ‘enjoyed his fill’ of ale in his 20s, he now keeps his alcohol intake to a sociable minimum. Instead, he enjoys walking, paddle boarding along the Thames – his favourite thing to do – and generally being outdoors.
Bill Bailey’s Quick(ish)-Fire Questions
Favourite joke? “You know the Free Tibet bracelets – they’re made in China.” Robin Williams.
Comedy heroes? “Growing up my inspirations were Billy Connolly, Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson, classical musician and comedian Victor Borge and Latterly there are a lot of stand-ups I like, Dylan Moran, Shaun Lock, Rich Hall – people I’ve toured and work with and have a lot of admiration with.”
Biggest non-comedy inspiration? “I had a wonderful piano teacher at school who was a huge inspiration to me – Linda Phipps. I was the only A-Level music student at my school so it was just me and her. It was a wonderful one on one relationship and one-to-one teaching – it didn’t feel like a lesson, she taught me piano, music theory and also she was very enthusiastic and encouraging. She encouraged me to take risks and go beyond my comfort zones and capabilities – she encouraged me to perform recitals and take exams I thought were beyond me.
“She had a very profound influence on me and sadly passed away a number of years ago. At a time when I was coasting at school – I wasn’t that bothered with it, yet was totally focused on her lessons. That ability to inspire someone, instil self-belief is truly amazing.”
Who would play you in a film of your life? “I tell you who I think is a terrific actress is Emily Blunt – she’s brilliant – and versatile – yeah, I’d love her to play me in a film of my life.”
What would like on your gravestone? “Thank you and goodnight.”
Rumours are circulating you’re becoming something of a national treasure – do you think TV producers have got a tribute lined up for you in case you dropped down dead tomorrow? “I have no idea, but I do have a strange story about my death. I was on tour last year and was feeling pretty rough – I had picked up some tropical bug in Indonesia and was in a bad way. I woke up feeling rough and looked at my phone and Twitter feed and it said Bill Bailey dies aged 52.
“I was annoyed as they’d robbed me of a year as I was 51. There was a photograph and story saying Bill Bailey dies aged 52 and was a bit shocked as you would be when you’re alive. It was an over-enthusiastic BBC web journo who’d seen a news item of Bill Bailey dying overnight – it was 4 a.m. – but it was American DJ Bill Bailey from Kentucky.
“They put it up first thing in the morning and almost immediately took it down noticing their mistake – but by that time somebody had grabbed a screenshot of it and spread it on Twitter and social media.
“I stared death in the face- and I was quite pleased with the photo they used.”
Piano or guitar? “Piano.”
Top five albums? “Remaining Light by Talking Heads; Combat Rock by the Clash, Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie, King Curtis live at Philmore West which is knockout; an album by fretless bass player Jaco Pastorius and Oscar Peterson live at the Canadian Ballroom – one of the great jazz pianists of all time.”
Favourite place to be? “Somewhere outdoors – don’t mind where it is… I like being in the English countryside. I have travelled to many parts of the world, but there are not many places better than England. It’s a green marvel.
Favourite thing to do? “Work, doing what I do, thinking up a new routine or joke, telling to an audience for the first time – I still get a great thrill from that.”
Favourite food? “A Malaysian dish called Kwai Teow– noodles, aubergines and chilli – once you’ve tried it nothing quite matches up.”
If you had three genie wishes? “Slightly longer arms – my wife says they are too short. The ability to speak and understand any language, and the ability to travel back in time – just five minutes – to think of something clever to say in an argument.”