Interview: Bill Bailey on living in ‘Limboland’

BILL Bailey is difficult to categorise. Which is just the way the musician, comedian, eco-warrior and actor likes it, he tells Janet Christie ahead of the Scottish leg of his UK tour
Bill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford BrownBill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Bill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Bill Bailey is in Limboland and plans to stay there for some time. The comedian, actor and musician who with his trademark bald meets flyaway hairstyle is one of the country’s best known TV faces, is poised on the brink of touring a new live show that kicked off in Dublin this week and culminates next summer in Nottingham. On the way he will take in Glasgow and Edinburgh with a show that examines the gap between how we imagine our lives to be and how they really are: a place he calls Limboland.

“It’s about when things don’t pan out the way you want them to. That’s a rich seam comedically, the gap between how we imagine our lives to be and how they really are. We all think to ourselves, what if things had been like that, what if our lives had been different?”

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Bailey has already toured Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong with the show that is his most personal and political so far, a result of him turning 50 and pausing to reflect.

Bill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford BrownBill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Bill Bailey. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

“This birthday was a milestone and affected me more than others. It made me look back, not in a negative way, more like walking up a mountain and not wanting to look back until you’ve got a decent view.”

The show has had a work out in the Southern Hemisphere where it went down well and will evolve as Bailey tours the UK.

“It’s a bit different to previous shows in as much as it’s more focused on personal accounts which is quite daunting at first, but you get a panic on and that helps. Lots of the stories require people to imagine what you’re describing. I do a lot of political stuff and tell stories about my family holidays that go wrong, and travels in the Arctic and jungle.”

We’ve all had family outings that go awry but Bailey’s are a bit more life and death, as befits someone who likes to globetrot.

Bill Bailey, left, in Black Books. Picture: C4Bill Bailey, left, in Black Books. Picture: C4
Bill Bailey, left, in Black Books. Picture: C4

“I had this desire to take my whole family to see the Northern Lights, so I persuaded them all to come to Norway. In my mind I had a vision of how it was going to be, a transcendent experience, us shushing beautifully through the snow then all standing in a wood surrounded by Sami tribesmen looking at the Northern Lights overhead, but… well, it was probably my own fault, but the reality was very different.

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“Instead we were on a white knuckle ride in the dark on a dogsled pulled by baying hounds and it was very scary. We had various spills and terrible moments. People were screaming and we lost members of our party. My wife’s father fell off the back of the sled and I thought he was a goner. It was January, minus 22 and bitterly cold. And it was all my idea. All the time I was thinking ‘what the hell am I doing? Why didn’t we just go to Brighton or watch a documentary about the Northern Lights?’ I had a terrible sense of guilt. At the same time, a little bit of you is thinking, well, if everyone survives, this is going in the show.”

Everyone did survive and Bailey’s family have forgiven him, just. “Yes, we laugh about it now,” he says.

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Pushed to describe his wide-ranging, genre-straddling shows Bailey pauses and I suggest something I think I read on his website about his shows mixing his stand-up with whimsical, post-modern rambles and devastating musical parodies.

“Oh yes, that’s good. Where did you get that?” he says.

“I think it was on your website,” I say.

“Oh. Must have got that from the side of a bus.”

Music is integral to Bailey’s show, and he mixes everything from jazz, to prog rock, classical and rave on keyboard, guitar, theremin, kazoo and bongos. Limboland sees him playing a country and western ballad on a Bible, a morose version of Happy Birthday and his version of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. Along with his musical deconstructions there are whimsical flights of fancy and the airing of gripes: targets include David Cameron and One Direction. This is his fourth stage show: Tinselworm (2008), Dandelion Mind (2010) and Qualmpeddler (2012), all went to the West End.

A look at Bailey’s awards demonstrate his eclectic talents across TV, stage and the natural world. Along with an honorary doctorate of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, for his work in environmental conservation across Southeast Indonesia and Indonesia, Bailey has campaigned against dancing bears, owl cafes and in support of orangutans. He also made a series on baboons for ITV. There’s also a plant named after him, the Nepenthes x ‘Bill Bailey’, a pitcher plant.

“They chose it for me and I’d rather have a large pendulous, carnivorous plant that absorbs insects than something too genteel like a begonia,” he says.

TV appearances include team captain for Never Mind the Buzzcocks from 2002-8, nature programme Wild Thing I Love you, QI, Black Books with Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig, the cult sitcom Spaced with Simon Pegg and teen show Skins. His film tally includes Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 2005 and Hot Fuzz 2007.

Theatre credits include 12 Angry Men and Oscar in the Odd Couple, which garnered praise from critics, and his career has seen him play both Knebworth and Wembley. It’s this ability to slip between stand-up, drama, wildlife documentary, game shows and musical comedy that characterises Bailey’s ability to avoid being pinned down.

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“I almost deliberately try to make them uncategorisable so as soon as I start becoming one kind of comedian I’ll do something else. I don’t like labels. I have always fought against that as a stand-up. It’s one of the last bastions of free speech and if you can use it, why not? It’s meant to be entertaining and fun and to take people out of themselves for a couple of hours and if you can slip something in you’ve picked up along the way, that’s good.

“If there’s one key thing that runs through it all, it’s a desire to share my knowledge with others, that’s the most I hope for in a show or artistic endeavour.”

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Born an only child in Keynsham, a town between Bristol and Bath, Bailey grew up with a love of the countryside and natural world. “My mother used to say I want you to love nature, as a mantra. I’m grateful for that.” He was christened Mark, the name his father still uses, but to everyone else he is Bill. It was a geography teacher who used to sing Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey at him and it stuck.

“It’s been Bill for so long people think my name is William, but it’s not, it’s Mark. My wife Kristin calls me Bill because that’s who I was when she met me.”

Bailey’s wife was born in Aberdeen, studied at Edinburgh College of Art and was running a bar on the Mound when they met in Edinburgh in 1987.

“She had a very distinctive style. She had this long brocade coat and I realised she was a free spirit and did her own thing. We ended up chatting away and all went to a party and she put me up on her sofa. I sent her some flowers to say thanks and started writing. The correspondence went on for a year. I didn’t have a computer for email, phoning wasn’t easy. It was very old fashioned,”

Bailey wrote letters for a year before they got together and ten years later they married in Indonesia where they were touring. Their son Dax is named after the child of friends they met there.

Raised by a GP father and nurse mother, Bailey had the benefit of his grandparents living in an annex on the house.

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“My grandparents would have big, long arguments that were entertaining and that’s where I first noticed, and was thrilled by, political discourse. I loved hearing them going at each other ding dong. They had profound differences. My grandfather was a socialist and my grandmother an advocate of Thatcher. They would have fantastic arguments, then resolve them over a glass of sherry.

“It gave me my love of politics and debate. Limboland is more political. it’s hard not to be if you’re interested in the world and in events that affect us all. It’s inevitable that it ends up in the show more and more over the years.”

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So in Scotland Bailey will be talking about recent events, such as the election of Corbyn, who he calls “the man of the moment whatever happens”, and the referendum.

“I think there’s a re-engagement in politics because of Jeremy Corbyn that is similar to what happened with the SNP in Scotland and young people engaging in politics,” says Bailey, who is also a feminist and supporter of the Fawcett Society.

A long-time Labour Party supporter, he likened Ed Miliband to a plastic bag in a tree during the recent general election, saying “no-one knows how he got up there and no-one can be bothered to get him down”.

“Corbyn proves you don’t have to compromise principles for power. It’s a measure of how far to the right politics has swung that talking about the re-nationalisation of public services sounds radical. It’s not a leftist rant, it’s just common sense and it’s not just Labour supporters that feel that, most people in Britain think that. We’re a tolerant nation and are not comfortable with people earning vast amounts of money. When there are food banks and austerity because a City full of testosterone-fuelled men took the financial institutions over a cliff, there’s anger smouldering that hasn’t gone away. So more of the same limp Labour, slightly alternative to the Tories, wasn’t enough.”

As for the referendum, the Bailey household enjoyed the debate, although being resident in England, Kristin didn’t get a vote. Did she mind?

“She did a bit,” he laughs. “I always thought Scotland could be independent and always got a sense as I got to know more about Scotland that so many things are different: the legal system, the education system and this sense of otherness and pride. There’s an independence of mind and soul and it’s a natural progression. It made me cringe all those people coming out of the woodwork, saying ‘don’t leave’. it only made people more determined to leave. Scots are sick of Westminster meddling, trying out the poll tax. What was fantastic was the wonderful regeneration of interest in politics.”

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The young Bailey was academic at school but stopped winning prizes when he discovered music at 15. He went to university to do an English degree but left in the first year. He later applied to Music college and is an Associate of the London College of Music, but his career had begun to take off and he toured the club circuit performing musical comedy with the Rubber Bishops, formed in 1984, using cassocks borrowed from St John’s Church on Princes Street.

“There was something about stand-up that music wouldn’t give me, which was my love of the spoken word and the mercurial tendency of language to respond to what happens to you. Language is more adaptable and I love to speak out. That side of me meant a music career wouldn’t do it. I regret not pursuing an academic career or music course in some ways, but I was in a hurry and that seemed like years stretching off into the future.”

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Instead Bailey spent the 1980s touring with a Welsh experimental theatre troupe and appearing on stage with the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, also working as a lounge pianist, keyboard player in a jazz trio, playing the piano for a mind-reading dog in children’s TV show, Motormouth, and as a crematorium organist. His musical influences range from Billy Bragg, who he performed with at Glastonbury, the BBC Concert Orchestra who he also performed with Kraftwerk, Deep Purple, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Metallica and Royal Blood. It was John Hegley who inspired him to fuse music, jokes and theatre into stand-up comedy.

“I remember seeing him in a club in North London, this eccentric chap with a suit and glasses playing a mandolin and thinking this is like nothing I have ever seen, musically brilliant, funny and passionate,” he says.

In 1994 Bailey performed Rock at the Edinburgh Fringe with Sean Lock, a show so poorly attended that one night only comedian Dominic Holland was in the audience. This led Bailey to accept a telesales job but he was sacked after refusing to wear a tie so continued with the comedy. In 1995 he went solo with Bill Bailey’s Cosmic Jam, which led to a one hour TV special and a Time Out award. A Perrier nomination at Edinburgh the next year saw him get his own TV show in 1998, Is it Bill Bailey? Since then Bailey has mixed up live shows with TV, from 11 series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks to wildlife documentaries such as the award-winning Jungle Hero, a BBC documentary about Alfred Russel Wallace who travelled in Indonesia and came up with the theory of evolution along with Darwin.

“He appeals to me because of his punk aesthetic. He was working class, self-taught and did it himself. He discovered the Wallace line, a natural boundary in Malaysia between animal families of Asia and Australia and the Theory of Evolution was originally called the Darwin Wallace theory, but his name fell off the ticket. I loved following in his footsteps.”

Nowadays Bailey lives in Hammersmith, London with Kristin, Dax, 11, and a menagerie of animals including dogs, parrots and ducks.

“Having a child changes you. Your priorities and obligations become clearer. Necessity is a very good creative spur.”

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This summer Bailey undertook a six-day, 87-mile walk across Britain along The Ridgeway, at 5,000 years old, the oldest walkway in Britain, to raise money for Cancer Research.

“It was the tenth anniversary of my mum passing away so that was why I did it. Having a profile means I can raise awareness and use it for good causes. And it was a wonderful experience, walking an ancient path that’s been in constant use for so long, from Buckinghamshire, through the Chilterns to the North Wessex Downs, the Avebury Stone Circle.”

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After the tour, there’s a TV drama and musical Bailey is currently working on, based on a spoof rock opera he wrote called Insect Nation that has morphed into an “apocalyptic, dystopian mickey take”.

He’d also like to play an ice-cold villain who is good with gadgets before he plays another bewildered farmer like his role in Nanny McPhee.

“I have done one too many bug-eyed men. When I get a script I look through it and if there’s a shambling, bug-eyed, bewildered man, I think, here we go. I loved doing 12 Angry Men because I was unrecognisable. Friends came to see it and said it’s a pity you weren’t in it!”

What he won’t be doing is any ads, despite hefty offers.

“No, I won’t do them. And if I appear on Strictly you’re entitled to take me out with a tranquiliser dart.”