Bill Bailey tells Liam Rudden about the importance of Edinburgh to his act.
QUALMPEDDLER! What a great word. Just the sort of word you’d expect comedian and musician Bill Bailey to dream up, and you’d be right. It’s the title of his latest tour, which checks into the Festival Theatre tomorrow, for a three-night run.
Bailey, you see, had doubts about the modern world. These doubts have now grown into qualms, all of which he will share with the help of his folk bouzouki, a re-appraisal of some of the world’s greatest works of art and perhaps a dub version of Downton Abbey.
Described as a brilliant mix of stand-up, stories, music and old-fashioned wit, Qualmpeddler is distilled from Bailey’s own extraordinary experiences and addresses topics as diverse as the consequences of lies, the unending search for the Higgs boson and the hiding skills of dentists.
With all the classic Bill Bailey elements - trademark musical mash-ups, multi-lingual riffs, films, songs, philosophising and silliness - it’s a show that, while bearing little resemblance to, owes a huge debt to his Edinburgh debut back in 1995.
The 49-year-old explains, “The first year I came to the Fringe to perform stand-up on my own I played the Gilded Balloon, in a little room upstairs at the Cowgate.
“It was a late-night show, 11.45pm, the only slot I could get. As you can imagine, there was a rowdy element to the audience, who’d been in the pub first.
“It was extraordinarily warm that year, and the venue was insanely hot. With no air-conditioning, this enormous gas-powered blower was brought in to remove the warm air between shows. Occasionally, during the show, it got so stifling I had to stop while they put it on for a bit. “
Today, Bailey sells out vast arenas, 18 years ago it was a very different story, as he recalls.
“It was difficult getting an audience - nobody know who I was. I remember my girlfriend at the time out in the streets, with leaflets, shouting, ‘Free show! 11.45!’”
It was also a steep learning curve for the comic, more used to appearing on stage with the musical comedy group the Rubber Bishops, formed with Toby Longworth the year before, using cassocks borrowed from a church here in the Capital.
“1995 was my first full solo show and I was really nervous about it,” he admits. “I’d to do an hour, which seemed like an age, so I put everything I had into it. I took the guitar up, had a space pod made to put the keyboard in and did a spoof rock opera with lots of songs and stories.
“It was actually the first time I’d thought about the structure and pacing of a show. I even put in a few lighting effects to make it more theatrical.
“That was the turning point, the moment I knew what was going to happen in my shows from then on.”
Despite the deprivations of the Fringe, 1995 turned out to be the year that made Bailey a star. He left Edinburgh with management, tour and DVD deals.
“It was very exciting, but I soon realised just how much was riding on it. I’d put all my money into it. So it was a bit of a punt. Sometimes you have to take that risk.
“Then, I remember looking out one night, after a bit of a buzz had developed about the show, and seeing these stars of TV in the audience and thinking, ‘This is a bit weird.’ That was it really.
“After that show it was a case of putting the foot to the floor and hanging on.”
Fame followed quickly, making Bailey one of the most respected stand-ups in the country, although on Twitter that did cause him a problem or two.
“You have to embrace new technology rather than try to resist it, but at first I was resistant to it,” reveals Bailey.
“I remember doing an episode of QI. Stephen Fry was talking about Twitter and I thought, ‘This just sounds ridiculous. Why would anyone want to listen to the burblings of complete strangers?’ Then I discovered there was somebody pretending to be me on Twitter and he had about 30,000 followers.
“It was quite surreal, like watching this avatar of yourself garner popularity. People were asking questions and he was just playing along.
“At one stage, there were four different accounts all claiming to be me, which was very odd. Then one of them just stopped. Another shut down and another drifted off, but this one guy kept going.
“In the end I had to join. I began following myself for a bit to see what I was up to, which was actually a lot more interesting than what I was actually up to,” he laughs.
“For a long time, virtually every other message I got from people was, ‘Is it really you?’ This went on and on until eventually I got so p***ed off with it I got the legal department in and they contacted Twitter saying, ‘This is really irritating and annoying and potentially damaging...’
“You never know what someone is going to say on your behalf - look at how, over the last few years stray emails, tweets and messages have been incredibly damaging to people. An ill-thought out tweet gets picked up by the media, inflamed into something else and ends up being a full-blown PR disaster.
“So we shut the guy down. He sent me a message saying, ‘Oh, sorry Bill, I was just a fan.’
“I thought, ‘Yeah but fans just come up to you in the street and say they really like your stuff, they don’t pretend to be you.”
Right now, though, Bailey’s focus is on his Edinburgh shows, and the Festival Theatre where he has only appeared once before.
He says, “I’ve seen a lot of shows there but it’s the only Edinburgh theatre I’ve not played with one of my shows... although years ago I was part of a benefit there after the Gilded Balloon’s Cowgate fire.”
Bill Bailey: Qualmpeddler, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, tomorrow-Saturday, 8pm, £26.50, 0131-529 6000