Yay! Bill Bailey’s back downunder. Prior to Black Books – a fantastically silly Britcom – and cameos in Spaced – another fantastic Britcom – Bailey actually made it to Australia as part of the 1998 Sydney Comedy Festival. The following piece was written for that. I apologise for the silliness of its narrative structure At the time, I had a creative editor who encouraged experimentation. So every Sydney Comedy Festival 1998 article I wrote – apart from the review of the gala (therefore, it’d be more accurate to say ‘both of the Sydney Comedy Festival 1998 articles I wrote…) – was part of a continuing film noir saga loosely based on Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The first piece was called The Big Laugh, but I don’t recall if I was that clever with a title for the Bill Bailey piece. Truth be told, the only Chandler I’ve ever read is The Big Sleep, so my parody is clearly superficial . Also built into it is a psychodrama parodying some of my perceived journalistic peers at the time. There really was a guy from another free weekly advertising compedium-cum-entertainment rag hogging the talent, who blamed the talent-hogger before him, and who saw me smuggle Bailey into the pub across the road. There really was an allotted three quarters of an hour per interview. Them were the days – before you had to join the queue of interviewers, each filing into the room for an allotted seven minutes in which to hopefully trigger the star’s ‘key anecdotes’ without boring them rigid with the same old questions.
But what, you may be wondering, ever happened to the Sydney Comedy Festivals? Well, they've continued, more or less, in a slightly different incarnation, centred around the Parramatta Riverside Theatre. Funnily enough, they are now known as The Big Laugh Comedy Festivals (!) and have no spiritual or corporate relationship to those initial festivals of the late 90s. None of this has anything to do with Bill Bailey’s current visit, however. Nor does the interview that follows, but read and enjoy nonetheless.
“I shoulda known it’d be you hoggin’ the comic” I say as Bernie, my long-time rival from another publication, throws open the doors of the conference room of the inner city hotel in which visiting English comic Bill Bailey is subjecting himself to interviews. I’ve been waiting in the lobby for over half hour, meaning that the forty five minutes I was allotted for the interview will be up in about ten.
“Me?” Bernie says, making some pretence to an excuse that amounts to blaming the guy before him. We eye each other, each awaiting the other to make the first move, not sure if this round will remain a verbal bout or escalate to a physical one. I know which I’m in favour of as I put my briefcase down and start rolling up my sleeves. Bernie tries to do the same but he’s wearing a t-shirt. Schmuck!
“I take it you’re here to interview me,” a voice brings me back to earth.
“Oh shit, sorry. You must be Bill Bailey. How are you?” As Bernie takes the opportunity to skulk off, I proffer an open hand to a tall, solid man with long hair, dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt. He looks as though he has just stepped out of a heavy metal band, and from the accent - which pronounces the word ‘exactly’ as ‘za’-ly’ - my guess would be Spinal Tap. “Nice shirt,” I say, admiring the logo emblazoned on the chest. It is a send-up of the Warner Brothers crest but instead of ‘WB’ it bears the initials ‘BB’. For ‘Bill Bailey’, no doubt.
“This actually stands for a comic-strip in a music magazine, called Bastard Bunny,” Bill explains, “a cute, lovable rabbit: he’s an underground dj with a speed problem. When I met the guy who does the comic strip he seemed quite cool about me wearing the shirt because it’s free advertising for him.”
“You’re not selling them after gigs or anything are you?” I politely enquire, a prelude to, “may I have one?”
But Bailey claims that he’s not into the “big merchandise scene, man”.
“I’m not into bread,” he says. “In fact, I accidentally left them at Heathrow. Actually, I had fifty t-shirts but I sold them in Nottingham before I came.”
This, obviously, is going to be fun. But I’m going to have to think fast. We’re likely to be interrupted in no time at all.
“Do you mind if we adjourn to a more conducive venue, do this over a beer maybe?” I offer. I’d noticed a pub across the road while I was awaiting my turn with the comic.
As we cross the road I notice Bernie getting into his car. I give him a facetious little wave.
We grab a couple of pints and I ask Bill Bailey how he got into comedy. “It’s lost in the mists of time,” he says, taking a pensive sip. “I was in a band, in the West Country , in Bath. And it was going nowhere. They were taking themselves very seriously and I just thought, ‘I can’t handle this; too serious’.”
Bailey, whose stage routine has included Richard Claydermanesque renditions of ‘Three Blind Mice’, a Eurotrash jazz version of the Doctor Who theme and musings on the life of a professional xylophone player, began his own career playing keyboards in a prog rock band Behind Closed Doors.
“Behind Closed Doors is where we should have been,” he says, “and that’s the way we remained to this day.” Bailey admits to having been in a few other pop bands, all of them consisting of “pretty low-grade pop”. From there, Bailey and a buddy took to comparing gigs for other local groups, eventually developing into an act known as The Rubber Bishops.
“We just started expanding the comparings themselves, beyond the usual ‘and next is… whoever’. We started shoving in the odd gags and managed to create a bit of a titter. The basic tone of the act was to get people away from the bar so it wasn’t that subtle. It was quite crude. We fashioned the act into a blunt instrument. We would beat the audience over the head with it until they came around to our way of thinking. Obviously, over time, it’s become refined”
Bailey claims the process of developing into a full-time comic was gradual: “You just did it because you loved doing it. And you’d think, ‘people are going to pay then? Wa-hey, they’re going to pay me for doing this. That’s great.’ Normally I’d be doing three or four different things: I would do a gig every two weeks, then I’d do another job, then I might have an acting job, then I’d do something else. Suddenly I realised that the whole week was filled doing comedy. And that was it: I’m a comedian now.” For Bailey, the realisation that his gags had “some sort of currency somewhere else, not just in front of a few mates,” gave him the encouragement to continue. “When you realise that it makes you laugh, and your mates laugh, and other people laugh as well, then you’re on your way.”
Prior to full time comedy, Bailey’s acting jobs consisted mostly of touring in musicals with small-scale companies. “I did a lot of comedy acting before I got into stand-up, and I’d like to do more of that,” Bill says. He has written a musical called Insect Nation, about insects taking over the world. “It’s got a green theme to it,” Bailey says. “The destruction of the planet is imminent so the insects take over and rule the earth. But then they’re just as corrupt as the humans.” Bailey will no doubt play the hero, “either a dancing ant or a human who falls in love with a female ant but whose love could never be fulfilled because of the difference between the ant and human cultures”. That, according to Bailey, basically sums up Insect Nation. “It’s a farce,” he says.
Time for more beer.
I come back to find Bill writing furiously. A gag has revealed itself to him and he is committing it to paper while it is fresh. “I write down little odd things as they occur to me. I try to keep it working all the time, develop and chuck new stuff in all the time otherwise it gets boring.” Although Bailey has been an international-calibre comic for quite a few years now, he claims that coming up with locally-inspired gags is “quite a new thing” for him.
“When I started out I’d write the act down at home, like a school essay, and then memorise it: ‘this is my act, right, there it is, thank you, good night.’ But as I got a bit more confidence and more control over the performance I’d absorb a bit more and roll a bit more with what was happening.”
Influenced by Bailey’s earlier career, his comedy is full of musical jokes and observations. “I pick out lots of bits of music that we hear in daily life, stuff that you hear but are not aware of.” He gives the example of ‘hold’ music, which is almost always classical, in order to give the impression that the firm that has put you on hold is an high class establishment. “If you really want to be ‘out there’, Bill offers, “it should be John Cage’s two minutes of silence. People’d go, ‘there’s nobody here!’ and you’d come back on and go, ‘did you enjoy that? That’s John Cage. I’m sure you’re aware of that.’”
More importantly, Bailey needs to put the boot into the people he really hates, like Chris De Burgh. “I reserve a special sort of loathing for people like Chris De Burgh. Any sort of pompous musical style that takes itself too seriously.”
“Well then,” I offer, “how about Peter Gabriel?” He ought to be fair game, being based in Bath and having pretentious prog rock origins as a founder member of Genesis.
“Yeah,” Bill takes the baton. “He left Genesis and obviously thought, ‘that’s it, Genesis is nothing without me’. And suddenly the drummer’s singing now. Suddenly the drummer is a massive star. If Peter Gabriel hadn’t left Genesis, Phil Collins would still be the drummer. He’d know his place. None of this ‘my wife’s left me’. ‘Oh really, who cares, Phil? Nobody’s interested about your tawdry private life. Or your acting career for that matter. You’re a drummer, that’s it’. No offence to drummers.”
I ask Bill to take me through the aesthetics of English beer, which he begins to explain from basics: ‘lager’ is a light colour, imbibed cold. ‘Bitter’ is a darker beer, usually served from a pump. “But ale,” he says, “real ale, has got a cache amongst connoisseurs.” Ales, according to Bailey, are strong and usually served straight from the barrel. “They normally keep these barrels in the cellar so that they stay cool but it does not go through a chiller or a pump. There are no additives. It’s usually a sort of opaque, aromatic, strong liquid.” With the twigs still in, we both joke.
In order to finish his explanation, Bill wants to know how we designate alcoholic strength in this country, “by percentage or by gravity?” Which cracks me up, because I’ve had a few by now, so I want to know how you measure strength of a beer by gravity. “Is it a measure of how fast you hit the ground?” I ask. Like, if you have a six pack and hit the ground, it can’t be as strong as if you have one and hit the ground.
But before I can find out, a voice says, “so here you are!” It’s Bill’s minder. She says, “you’re keeping Tony Squires waiting,” but I refrain from saying “stiff shit, I was kept waiting” ’cause I like Tony - or at least, I might want to interview him some day. As Bill disappears he calls over his shoulder, “ale is something that you have with a ploughman’s lunch, which consists of pickles, cheese and bigotry. With the twigs still in.”
But I’m not listening because I’m trying to work out how on earth they found us here. And then I realise: Bernie!
Bizarrely, this interview kind of continues, ten years later…