Classic Interview: Strictly Star Bill Bailey

News: Bill Bailey Goes Smooth On Strictly

I've interviewed Bill Bailey twice during his career. Once on the way up in 2000. And then once again when he was on his way even further up in 2018, playing huge "enormodomes". Could he get any bigger? Tune in to BBC One on Saturday nights to see for yourself. Bailey started off as what was perceived by some as something of a novelty booking for Strictly Come Dancing, but as I write he is being talked of as a favourite to make the final and maybe even win.

Anyone who knows Bailey though should not be surprised. Not only does he have a natural sense of rhythm, being a brilliant, instinctive musician, but when he commits to something he really commits, whether it is learning to play an antique lute or dancing the American Smooth. Plus, he is incredibly nice. Go Bill!

A version of this interview first appeared in the Evening Standard in 2018. Read the original here.

Bill Bailey has recently announced a new post-lockdown tour. Details here.

 

It's Bill Bailey as you’ve never seen him before. He is sitting opposite me in his Hammersmith garden, but is not wearing one of his trademark black shirts. The genial 53-year-old is in blue. What has caused this radical style shift?

It’s our picture desk, apparently — they asked Bailey not to wear “black, grey, brown or white. Which is pretty much my wardrobe”. Luckily, he found something blue which rather suits him. But the anecdote shows how accommodating and easy-going Bailey is. No divas here. 

It is a shame Bailey is not big on dressing up because he is performing his acclaimed show Larks in Transit over Christmas at Wyndham’s Theatre and I was hoping he might be donning a Santa outfit and growing his increasingly white beard to mark the occasion. Sadly not. This will essentially be his touring set, with maybe the odd added death metal carol. He is no Grinch, though. Far from it. Doing these gigs means that he can spend the holiday period with his family and even cycle to work.

Bailey has lived around here ever since arriving from the West Country in his twenties. “I guess it’s the first place you reach. I used to live on a houseboat near Hammersmith Bridge. Sometimes in the night the keel got stuck in the silt, the boat would tip up and you’d wake up with your feet up the hull. Eventually, when we were looking for a house, the criteria got lower and lower. ‘What happens if the tide goes out?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘We’ll take it’.”

If he had stayed on the boat it would now resemble Noah’s Ark. The wildlife lover has assorted dogs, cats, snakes, chameleons, African land snails, parrots and cockatoos. Which makes me wonder, is this nascent national treasure really just a frustrated zookeeper?

“We’ve accumulated quite a lot. It started out with rescue animals; now we have enclosures and are registered by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums as part of its breeding/release programme. So I actually am a zookeeper.”

There are comedians who can be wonderful onstage and a challenge offstage. Bailey is wonderful onstage, where he mixes offbeat jokes with affectionate musical homages — Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water on cowbells, anyone? — and excellent company offstage. The only dark side seems to be that propensity for black shirts. 

He is probably the UK’s most well-balanced stand-up. This may be because despite his success on programmes such as Black Books and Never Mind the Buzzcocks he has resisted the showbiz lifestyle. His tours are the antithesis of drug-fuelled debauchery.

Which is not to say that he was not more rock ’n’ roll when first on the road. “As a young man, the temptation was to drink the minibar dry,” he says. “I did all that — now I prefer to get outdoors. We have a rule that we will always do something on days off. We ride bikes or go birdwatching, otherwise you get cabin fever.”

Recent events may have given him pause for thought. Last year comedian Sean Hughes died at the age of 51. And soon after this interview another comedian, James Miller, who Bailey played with in punk rock covers band Beergut 100, died unexpectedly in his fifties. Perhaps the business is not good for your health. “There is a propensity towards alcohol in comedy [gigging],” says. “You come offstage and somebody hands you a drink. It’s an irregular life with huge highs and lows. It’s very easy to slip into bad habits.” 

Bailey took over from Hughes as a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2002. “Mark Lamarr and Phill Jupitus wanted me. The producers thought ‘He looks a bit weird’, which I thought was my selling point,” Bailey says.

He and Hughes became friends away from the show. “We got on really well at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival. He loved his dog and we bonded over our pets. I knew him well then Sean drifted away. Latterly I heard he had health problems. It was tragic. I got the impression that he wanted to be taken seriously.”

When your contemporaries start dying, it must be a wake-up call. He nods: “Less profiteroles, more cycling. I live healthier now because of my youthful indulgences. I was doing myself no good at all.” He feels pretty good. “I just have to watch the sugar. When I started the tour I was on no sugar or carbs. After the show I had two boiled eggs and spinach and nearly passed out.”

He prefers more sedate perks, such as being invited to take part in a DNA study. “I discovered I’m 60 per cent Viking. Well, more Danish, I suppose. I’m also two-and-a-half per cent Neanderthal. I’d love to go way back and find I’m related to a tree shrew.”

Next year is shaping up to be busy. As well as more touring he will be filming a second series of Idris Elba’s semi-autobiographical Sky One series In the Long Run. “I really enjoyed working with Idris. He’s a fine, instinctive actor. We did lots of improvising.”

He will also continue to campaign against animal cruelty. It is a cause that Ricky Gervais also supports but Bailey has the ability to touch hearts, while Gervais is more of a blunt instrument. “I made a film about bear dancing in Agra in India which was shown in cinemas and had a huge effect. I’d be walking down Hammersmith Grove and old ladies would give me fivers.”

Despite his love of animals, however, Bailey does have a confession. He is not a vegetarian. “It’s a contradiction, I know,” he laughs. “I did try for two years but then I had a craving — it’s usually bacon. If you try to eat healthily on tour you have to be able to plan. Unless you are Sting and have your own chef.”

Picture: BBC

 

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