Ask bill bailey about his stand-up tour and somehow you end up with a lesson on the behaviour of cockatoos. What to do? Throw away the script and enjoy the surreal ride
To visit Bill Bailey’s production offices in west London is to enter the recesses of his mind. It’s a surreal place, as you might imagine from a comedian who makes punchlines out of dark matter, reggae out of Downton Abbey, and who once swallowed The Little Book of Calm. It’s the office of a comedian who has always done his own thing. Lots of vintage paraphernalia that you can imagine him picking up in flea markets and car boot sales over the years.
A giant Toblerone with his name printed on it, displayed on top of a grand piano. An even bigger stuffed owl. French horns on the walls instead of paintings. And what appears to be a sphinx; a hairless cat like the one villainously stroked by Dr Evil in Austin Powers. Not stuffed, but prowling around. Actually he’s a Devon Rex with a recessive gene and, on closer inspection, a few sorry tufts of hair. “That’s Casper,” Bailey explains as we settle down on sagging sofas with glasses of water. “A lot of people think there’s something wrong with him. We get concerned calls saying ‘there is an abandoned, starving cat in your office!’.”
Bailey is a committed animal lover, birdwatcher and conservationist, as well as an accomplished musician, actor, and – oh, yes – comedian. He recently toyed with writing a stand-up routine “about the human and emotional side of natural science” to be specifically performed in the Natural History Museum.
And so we stay on the subject of his menagerie a little longer. “We have a lot of dogs and cats,” he continues. “They tend to chase each other which is why the cats are here and the dogs are at the house. Along with the parrots, cockatoos, and the chameleon in the bathroom. The rabbit has carked it unfortunately. He had a good innings though.” So basically instead of a TV in every room, he has an animal? “Yeah, that’s right,” he laughs. “I’m not that fond of television. I prefer to watch animals.”
I’ve also heard he turned one of the rooms in his house into an aviary. “That’s where the cockatoos hang out,” he nods. “They’re very sociable.” Doesn’t it get a bit noisy? “Noooo,” he says, sounding offended on their behalf. “Well, only in the evenings. In the wild birds will scatter during the day, feeding and foraging, and then at dusk they call to let everyone know where they are so they can roost together. So that’s all they’re doing. It doesn’t last long and then they go to their cages and sleep. It’s all very organised.”
This is a typical Bill Bailey exchange. You start off intending to discuss one thing – his international comedy tour, Qualmpeddler – and end up with a lesson on the behaviour of cockatoos in the wild. His is the kind of comedy – surreal, satirical, never cruel, always clever – that teaches as it tickles. Bailey accumulates knowledge (and animals) like other comedians accumulate jokes. The best thing to do is throw out the list of questions, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
And so we talk about Indonesia, where he returns every year, and his obsession with Victorian naturalist and Darwin contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who this year celebrates his centenary. Most recently, Bailey has been on our screens presenting a BBC documentary series about his hero, which involved trekking through Indonesia, trying to catch butterflies with a net, and sidling up to primates in the wild, all of which he did with typical affability and enthusiasm.
“It’s been a big project for me,” he says. “I pitched it to the BBC five years ago. But my interest started years before that when I was birding on an island in the eastern part of Indonesia. There is no tourism, no westerners, and it’s quite inaccessible. A beautiful part of the world: very rugged, lots of mountains, islands, beaches, crystal clear waters, reefs. I discovered that this area was called Wallacea and it sparked my imagination. I had read Wallace’s travelogue The Malay Archipelago, decided to read it again, and became more and more interested in his story. I realised he had independently originated a theory of evolution. He lived out there for eight years. And then I got really interested. I wanted to tell his story. So this documentary has been the fulfilment of a long held ambition.”
He loves Indonesia so much, in fact, that he named his nine-year-old son, Dax, after someone he met there. “Actually it turns out it’s a European name from the south of France,” he corrects. “A medieval name for Jack.” We move on hastily, lest we get sidetracked into medieval French history.
Bailey is one of those satisfying people who is exactly the same as his public persona. He is just as nice, mellow, and knowledgeable as he appears when he is performing in front of thousands on one of his hugely successful tours, appearing on TV panel shows (Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI), and sitcoms (Black Books, Spaced). And, of course, he looks exactly the same too: those expressive googly eyes, appley cheeks, and the long, straggly hair, a style he calls the skullet. “When I was a teenager I was a punk with white spiky Billy Idol hair,” he explains. “Then I went to NY and felt I stood out so I grew my hair really long with a beard to try and look like a hobo. It sort of stuck. Over the years the volume of hair has changed but the look has been maintained.”
People most often compare him, in an affectionate but potentially annoying way, to a hobbit. There was even a petition signed by hundreds seeking a part for him in Peter Jackson’s ongoing trilogy. He has riffed on his appearance himself, calling a tour Part Troll and using journalists’ descriptions of him as “a medieval roadie” with a head like “a large egg” as source material. But I wonder if it gets to him? “Enough with the hobbit!” he laughs. “Actually I did get to the point last year when I felt like it had gone on too long. The online petition wasn’t my doing. I thought it would just piss off the film crew. So yes, I’m done with the hobbity thing.”
He grew up in Keynsham, a town near Bristol. His real name is in fact Mark Bailey, but a music teacher called him Bill because he could play Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey? so well on his guitar and it stuck. An only child, he lived with his parents – his father was a GP, his mother a ward sister – and grandparents under one roof. “My grandad was quite a dominant patriarch who would hold court and talk about politics,” he recalls. “He was an outspoken socialist and would sit at the end of the table, banging his stick and drinking. Quite a character. My other grandmother, the paternal one, would argue with him. They would have these great big ding dongs, which I found very entertaining.”
He fell in love with nature, particularly birdwatching, at a young age. “My grandfather and I would go out for walks and he would know the names of every flower and bird,” he says. “All our family days out seemed to be trips to wildlife reserves or bird sanctuaries. I could name all the wading birds at the local reservoir. It’s very satisfying to know these things, especially as a kid. You get a little bit of power with the knowledge that what you’re seeing is a crested grebe.” He laughs. “A lot of people go through life with the natural world remaining a mystery. All they can identify is a pigeon. It’s amazing how many people I’ve got into birdwatching over the years.”
On his comedy tours he frequently takes members of his crew out with a pair of binoculars, a sandwich, and a bird book. “These are great big humphers who are into lager and pies and they all have binoculars now and will come up to me and whisper ‘guess what? I think I saw a goldcrest the other day’.”
He sighs. “I love that! It’s very wholesome and most importantly it gets you outside.”
From his father, he inherited a sense of humour and from his mother, an aptitude and passion for music. “She loved to sing and encouraged me to play the piano,” he says. “We would play music at family gatherings and sing songs with my cousins who all played instruments.”
Bailey suspected he would be a musician. He had perfect pitch, could pick up any instrument, and was the only child in his school to do an A-level in music.
“I had a teacher who was a great inspiration and she encouraged me to do it,” he explains. “Roll call didn’t take long. I was the only one there!” He assumed he would play in an orchestra or become a music teacher. Or play in a band.
“I was convinced I would be in Talking Heads,” he laughs. “I thought they would somehow find me, the doorbell would ring, and it would be David Byrne asking me to come on tour.” Yet he loved language too and couldn’t bear the thought of a life devoted to music. “I saw that if I was in a band I wouldn’t have a voice and being a keyboard player wouldn’t cut it for me. I figured that out very early on and I’m grateful I did.” He laughs. “So actually if David Byrne had turned up I probably would have said ‘look I’m only coming if I can do some freeform poetry in the middle’. Knowing David Byrne, he would probably have said yes.”
Although Bailey excelled in every subject and won every prize going, institutions bored him. “I suppose there is some sort of fever in me,” he admits. “A wilfulness. I found school very stifling and boring and I couldn’t get on with the teachers. I always wanted to move on to the next thing. It was the same at university. I was restless. It seemed to me like we were constantly treading old ground.”
In the end he dropped out of university and joined a French speaking theatre company. He started writing his own material, making up songs with a friend, and the penny dropped. “I realised... this is more like it,” he says. He ended up trying his luck at the Edinburgh Festival. “I first went up with a student production of Under Milk Wood,” he remembers. “I must have been about 19 or 20. It was the furthest I had ever driven. I went with my friend Toby who I was in a double act with and another friend who had a Ford Fiesta. Somehow we got lost and ended up going up some farm track in Leeds thinking we were in Edinburgh.”
Fourteen hours later he arrived in the capital and was blown away. “It was a gloriously sunny morning and we drove up Leith Walk and the colour of the stone and height of the buildings were incredible. A feast for the eyes. We stopped to get a cup of tea and there was a pub open and people were already drinking. We were like, my god, this is Xanadu! Paradise! We stayed in a flat with 20 random people, went out every night, ate salt ‘n’ sauce with our chips, drank 80 shilling. It was the full induction into Edinburgh Festival life.”
Edinburgh is where he did his first solo show and, in 1996, was nominated for the Perrier Award, which he narrowly lost to Dylan Moran, his future collaborator on Black Books. It’s also where he met his future wife. “We met after one of my gigs,” he says. “She was in the audience and afterwards we just got chatting. She was living in Edinburgh and I was in London and we communicated for months and months by letter. It was 25 years ago and all very old fashioned. Letters beginning with my dear... all of that.” He chuckles.
“Maybe that’s why we’ve lasted as long as we have. It wasn’t an immediate fling. It was a slow burn.”
There are so many strings to Bailey’s bow these days that I wonder whether comedy is beginning to lose its lustre. “No, no, not at all,” he says, looking horrified. “Qualmpeddler is the best tour I’ve ever done.” And, erm, what is a qualmpeddler anyway? “Someone who airs people’s worries, whether they are day to day concerns or a much deeper existential angst,” he explains. “It’s a good euphemism for stand-up. What else are comedians but worrymongers who get up in front of people and talk about it? I always think it’s a shame that stand-up is seen as the poor relation of theatre and performing arts. It’s perceived as bawdy, one dimensional, and a bit end-of-pier. But at its best, stand-up can be just as good as going to a great play. I always strive for that.”
The stage, then, is still where he is happiest. Bailey nods vigorously. “It’s my natural habitat,” he says. “I love it. I still want to make it better every time. It’s a life’s work. All the other stuff is great fun, the pursuit of knowledge is important in itself, but you know, everything I do will at some point make it into the stand-up anyway. It’s the cypher for everything. Comedy is the reason I get up in the morning.”
• Bill Bailey, Qualmpeddler, is at the Alhambra Theatre, Dunfermline, 8, 9 May; the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, 10, 11 May; HMT Aberdeen 13, 14 May; and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre 6, 7, 8 June, tickets from £25, www.billbailey.co.uk