Davies – Stephen Fry’s excellent foil on QI and a comic in his own right – is currently in Australia. He came out to take part in a live QI tour and stayed on for his own stand-up tour. But our first topic of conversation is his most recent television project, the quite brilliant but sadly under-appreciated dramedy Whites, cancelled after its first season.
“Losing Whites is the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had in television.”
According to Davies, Whites took four years to reach the screen. Writers Matt King (a regular on Peep Show and Spirited, as well as a stalwart on the Aussie stand-up scene some years ago) and Oliver Lansley started by writing “a taster”, from which a pilot was commissioned. (They actually spent time training as chefs at one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, to authentically capture the feel). A year later, the series was made, followed by another year before it was broadcast. “It’s a long process,” Davies continues. “You can’t imagine a car company spending four years developing a car, putting it on sale, it proving really popular, and then stopping making it and deciding to make a different car. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Not least of all because it was cancelled after the script for a second season was commissioned, and with nothing selected to replace it in the schedule. “It had been very successful with the audiences and critically. It was a real shock and a huge disappointment because it was an ensemble of actors who were the best and the nicest bunch of people I ever worked with.”
Indeed. Isy Suttie, whom we also know as ‘Dobbie’ in Peep Show, was Kiki, the kooky waitress. More significantly, Katherine Parkinson – who’d replaced Julia Sawalha as Caroline Quentin’s replacement as the female lead in the most recent instalment of Jonathan Creek – played restaurant manager and maitre d’ Caroline.
“She’s a super bright woman,” Davies says of Katherine Parkinson. “Very smart, witty, great company and tremendous comedy actress. We’re great fans of hers from the IT Crowd. She came in and auditioned for Whites. No airs and graces about Katherine at all. Hands down she was the best for the role. It’s just part of the huge disappointment about the cancellation that we won’t be able to do any more of those scenes or get those characters going again, because I thought they were really great. That’s television, unfortunately. It’s quite impenetrable at times, and even thought I’ve been working on television for nearly 20 years, I’m as baffled as anyone this time.”
Nearly 20 years in television, huh? That in itself is baffling, given Alan’s perpetual youthfulness. Seems like only a couple of years ago he turned up as the tussle-haired lead with the cool accent in that – let’s face it – rather wussy, English kind of X-Files-lite (meant in the best possible way, of course) known as Jonathan Creek. You know, where he plays a magician’s assistant – the sort who helps devise the tricks offstage rather than donning lycra and tights to be sawed in half as part of them onstage – who also solves mysteries.
What was surprising was that – despite the presence of female lead Caroline Quentin, late of Men Behaving Badly, and the vaguely familiar Cleese-alike, in that first episode, who turned out to be an older Neil-of-the-Young Ones Nigel Planer – Jonathan Creek was ‘light entertainment’ more than ‘comedy’. No, actually, that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that, despite the show clearly being light entertainment rather than comedy, Alan Davies – whom we hardly knew in this country – started popping up in stand-up specials and shows that were more obviously sitcoms.
Turns out, hardcore comedy fans knew Alan Davies a lot better than TV viewers who’d stumbled onto Jonathan Creek. He had cut his stand-up comedy chops while developing his acting, as a student. Prior to Jonathan Creek, there was the excellent mini series Bob & Rose – as important a mainstream debut for writer Russell T. Davies as it was for actor Alan Davies. And as with Russell T’s best work, the drama was so potent because it effortlessly combined comedy in the process. Perfect for Alan. “I did a lot of acting at university andI always wanted to write and perform comedy, so the two things were going on at the same time,” he says. “I was okay in plays, but it was best if they were comedies.”
Alan gave comedy a proper go after he graduated in 1988. It was also the year Alan first visited Australia, where – it turns out – he had relatives.
“My mum died when I was only six and she had one sibling, my Aunt, who lived in Adelaide,” Alan explains. “My Gran lived with her. To hear anything about my mum or get to know that side of the family meant coming to Australia.”
After that initial visit, Davies returned repeatedly throughout the early 90s, gigging while here. Voted Best Young Comic by London’s Time Out magazine in 1991, he was playing the Adelaide Fringe in a split show with Judith Lucy and Jimeoin in 1992 – “I knew Jimeoin from the UK and the Australian promoter put us together with Judith”. He won the Critics Award for Comedy at Edinburgh Fringe in 1994, the same year he missed out on the Perrier (beaten by Aussies Lano & Woodley). He was at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 1995, when it was still a comparatively “low-key affair”.
And even though the success of Jonathan Creek meant slowing down a little – “it did take over my life a little bit and the stand-up started to fade” Alan continued visiting Australia, what with cousins dotted around the country and a best friend from his school days having emigrated to Sydney. Although things got a little busier of late, making his returns less frequent. “My wife and I came over in 2006 and we had Christmas in Adelaide. This is our fist trip since then,” he says.
But it’s only been five years since Alan Davies was last in Australia. It’s been ten since he was regularly performing as a stand-up comic, and, he says, “I have missed doing it. I never really anticipated being away from it for ten years. I can’t really see where those ten years have gone.”
Hmmm. I think I can. The last eight have involved seasons of QI, the game show with a difference, since rather than rewarding intelligence, as game shows used to, or cunning, as they did most recently, QI demands only that the panelists be interesting.
Alan’s involvement in the show came, he says, as a result of his late-’90s “move away from stand-up” when he “sold his soul” for four years, making television commercials for a bank. They were directed by John Lloyd, who’d produced such great comedy shows as Spitting Image, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Black Adder and the television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but hadn’t made a television show in a while, concentrating instead on advertisements.
“We got on very well while we were shooting things,” Alan says, “and he had an idea for a panel show and said ‘What do you think of a show where you get points for being interesting?’ I immediately bought into it. We talked about it a lot in the long breaks on set when we were doing those ads.”
A year later, Lloyd phoned Davies, announcing he’d “managed to get the money from the BBC” and was about to “make a pilot of the Quite Interesting Panel Show”; would Alan like to be involved? “I jumped at the chance,” Alan says.
They’ve made a season every year since 2003. The secret to its success is not merely because it lives up to its name, of being quite interesting (that’s what the ‘QI’ stands for) but, according to Alan, because of it’s ‘collaborative feel’:
“We don’t like feeling that people are elbowing each other aside for space and treading on each other trying to out-do one another. You can’t get the questions right. You’re very fortunate to even understand the questions, usually. It takes you into a topic where you don’t know what’s going to come next.” In order to pull it off, there’s “a huge amount of work” by a team of researchers, led by Jon Lloyd, “that goes on for months”.
Although Stephen Fry is so natural in his delivery, and such an intellectual Renaissance man that you’d easily believe that he would know all of the information presented on the show, there are ‘scripts’ provided with all of the material. But, Alan explains, “Stephen’s second to none at absorbing all this stuff and preparing the show. It looks like an effortless conversation, but there’s a huge amount of preparation.”
Meanwhile, the panelists are “totally in the dark”. They have the option of seeing the questions just before taping begins, “but they don’t make any sense to you”. So, according to Alan, “you go and have a conversation off-the-cuff; the whole thing’s spontaneous and really good fun to be part of.”
If you go and buy the boxed set of the first three seasons (through Roadshow, available at your ABC Shop) you’ll see some patterns emerge. Alan Davies loves doing his ‘Mexican impression’; Rich Hall subverts expectations by playing the game virtually against the rules – all non sequiturs and absurd utterances; Jo Brand likewise can stop just about anyone in their tracks with an unexpected – but hilarious – comment; Bill Bailey’s amoeba gag comes up a couple of times.
Alan agrees Rich Hall “has always been a minimalist contributor”, throwing in the occasional line that always gets a laugh. “Many others are much chattier,” he observes, noting that the show works best when you have “a good blend”. What he loves most is the fact he knows most of the guests from his time on the comedy circuit. “It’s like seeing old mates. It’s a very relaxed environment.”
Initially, they were “quite careful” about whom they invited on. After it became popular, people were “queuing up” for the opportunity. “There are still some people who you’d like to come on who won’t,” Alan admits. Who? Is he at liberty to say?
“Dawn French. I talked to Ricky Gervais a few years ago and he said, ‘there’s no way, I can’t do what you guys do’. I think he could, but if he’s not comfortable with these kinds of shows, don’t do them. There’s no need.”
Daniel Kitson, likewise, eschews such television shows. Alan’s been trying to get him on “for years, but he simply won’t”. Which is a pity – to my mind the show is practically designed for his intellect and humour, and Davies agrees. “He would flourish in that environment, and it would be lovely to have him there. But he has no interest in it.”
Although, as Alan notes, it took a long time to get Ross Noble on QI. “He’s started coming on in the last couple of years and he’s been terrific. Hopefully Daniel will, eventually.”
You can only imagine, when watching QI on television, that much more material is recorded than broadcast. Sometimes you can almost detect an abrupt edit. According to Alan, they record 90 minutes. Thus, “there’s usually about an hour or more of stuff that’s not broadcast. There are lots of opportunities in the show for us to do stuff that’s unbroadcastable for the benefit of the studio audience. But they give themselves scope to edit down a really, really tight, funny half hour.”
In more recent years, in addition to the 30-minute television version, there’s been a 45-minute QI XL edit of each episode. Makes perfect sense to make the most of the material produced.
The pity of the Australian tour is that it was intended “just for the ticket-buying public”; not recorded for posterity, let alone for broadcast. No ‘special Australian season’ the way British comedy used to be manufactured, back in the day when it was still Pomedy rather than Britcom – Aussie episodes of Love Thy Neighbour, Father Dear Father and Are You Being Served. Even the first season of Blackadder was a co-production with the ATN Seven network in this country.
“We were hoping that we could salvage Whites that way,” Alan says. “We did have a couple of conversations with the ABC about doing a second season on that basis, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition.” Clearly, the thing to have done was to tape the Aussie QI live season and package it up, to raise some coin for future seasons of Whites. Never mind. That’s only one missed opportunity with this tour. The other – that I’m still bemoaning – is that it doesn’t take in Sydney.
“That is a shame,” Davies says. “There was the intention of doing a show in Sydney, but the issue is Stephen Fry’s availability and the promoter failing to get a venue organised. My own promoter for my stand-up shows is very on the ball and she’s now done everything that we needed to get done.”
Whatever anxiety Alan had – and he admits there was a degree, having had such a long time away from stand-up – he’s tried to “channel into positive energy”, first with small UK gigs before arriving in Australia, and then with small club gigs before embarking on his stand-up tour proper, working up new material so that he’d be “nice and ready” to tour.
Some cheeky questions
Before I can leave Alan Davies to his own devices on it, I want to ask some downright cheeky questions. “May I?” I politely enquire.
“If you like,” Alan says, graciously.
I begin with Lou and Andy on Little Britain. You know, the characters – who allegedly happen to be named after Lou Reed and Andy Warhol – consisting of a malingerer in a wheelchair and his carer. To my mind, if Daniel Kitson were to pretend to be disabled and Alan Davies was to wheel him around, they’d be Lou and Andy.
“I think you’re stretching,” Alan says. “I don’t know who’d be more offended – me or Daniel,” he adds.
My next cheeky observation: that kid who plays the middle, naughty child on Outnumbered. With that hair, that face, and indeed, those speech patterns, he could be Alan Davies’ son.
“Yeah, well you’re about the 95th… thousandth… person to say that…” Alan dismisses.
“Has anyone else brought the ‘Lou and Andy’ comparison up?” I wonder.
“That shows that you do have capacity as an original thinker; good for you on that one. But no, I’m afraid the curly-headed kid on Outnumbered – I get that on Twitter virtually every day and I can confirm to you that he is not my son. But he’s a very good actor. He’s better than me, anyway.”
Well, we know that that’s false modesty; there are things like Bob & Rose early on, and Whites quite recently that demonstrate how good Alan Davies is. And again, we’re reminded how much of a pity it is that Whites ended when it did. It was a great show.
“It’s very gratifying to hear that,” Alan says. “I’ve had a lot of feedback from Australian viewers who were catching it, and now from people in the States who are fans of the new style of English comedy. It’s very gratifying that people would like it. Part of the impetus for getting me back up on stage as a stand-up comedian is the frustration and disappointment of these decisions. At least as a stand-up I can go onstage and there’s no one between me and the audience. I can go and say what I like, and that’s a refreshing change.”
A mate of mine who is a comedian updated his Facebook status with these words:
anyone know ant jokes? i gotta fill 20 minutes tomorrow
I didn’t really stop to think. If I had, I’d probably wonder why a young guy relatively new to the comedy scene with really only a killer five-minute set to rave about, would be doing 20 minutes.
I say “only a killer five-minute set”. I’m sure he has more material. There’s probably seven killer minutes that I can vouch for – that I’ve seen work and that will work time and again. No doubt he could stretch it to ten. Stuff might play to silence within that ten, but he can be confident in the knowledge that he can come back with something solid should an item not quite work. In fact, I reckon he could stretch beyond 10 with self-confidence, interacting with the audience. It might be the hardest 20 minutes he ever spends on a stage, and he’ll come away from it a better comic than from any of the five-minute killer sets he’s done that always work. Only, none of his stuff is about ants.
Still, I didn’t stop to think. Twenty minutes of ant material is a tough ask.
If I did stop to think, I’d wonder what sort of gig he’s landed. A corporate booking of some sort, surely. Perhaps he’s the comedy relief during the keynote dinner that opens an entomology conference; maybe he’s one of a number of comics doing animal-related material for a zoo – but if so, he drew the short straw since ants must be the animals least conducive to comedy. Hard to project character on to them. Can’t anthropomorphise them so easily as you might other animals.
Fact is, I’ve had a bit of experience with ants. And when I think about it, so have certain comedians. Specifically, George Smilovici wrote a book about ants – The Ant Book. It’s almost a joke book. It contains a lot of question/answer set-ups whose answers consist of words beginning, ending or containing ‘ant’ in them. But they’re not that funny. Not only that – all the answers are on the final page, jumbled in a way to make the shape of an ant. All I’m saying is it’s no help to my buddy.
But one of my favourite ‘dad jokes’ is about ants. It‘s a corker – although I wouldn’t risk doing it on stage:
A: What did the Pink Panther say when he trod on an ant? B: Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead aaaaant…
Of course, for the joke to work, you need to ‘sing’ the punchline to the tune of the main saxophone melody of the ‘Theme to the Pink Panther’:
(I know, it’s up there with the one about the Lone Ranger taking his rubbish ‘to the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!’)
I posted the Pink Panther joke as a comment to his Facebook thread, thinking at least he’d have one ant joke.
The 20-minute ant routine was starting to develop, even if it wasn’t going to contain anything original in it. Those bug-studiers at the conference were certainly going to get their money’s worth, I thought…
But then I noticed another comment on the thread, by the comedian’s mate:
Wha? How’s that an ant joke?
And then I realised: the status update contained a typo.
The comic wasn’t asking if we knew ‘ant jokes’ in order to fill a 20-minute spot; he was asking us if we knew ‘any jokes’ – (‘yeah, your face is a joke!’) – but had hit the ‘t’ next to the ‘y’ on his keyboard.
Oh well. At least now he has got about ten additional minutes of material – other people’s material, granted – albeit, about ants.
Ah, but – it gets better: the gig isn’t in front of a room full of entomologists – it’s in front of TAFE students. Building students. Somehow I reckon the ant stuff ain’t gonna cut it. The comic knows it, too. His most recent update:
if i am killed tomorrow by angry tradey/brickie tafe students, know that i loved you all.
Oh, but if they’re tradey/brickie students, I reckon he should do Gerard Hoffnung’s ‘Brickie’s Lament’ routine.
Good luck, mate. Whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Even if you ‘die’ in the process. (I mean, on stage, not at the hands of a horrible tradey/brickie students.)
<meisel> people ask me how do I tell the difference between ant and aunt </meisel>
“I had an ant farm... Those fellas didn’t grow shit! Plus if I rip off your arms you would look like snowmen.” - Mitch Hedberg
How could I also forget? Insect Nation, Bill Bailey’s musical about the ants enslaving humanity.
Another ‘book gag’: A man is standing in an elevator when all of a sudden 15 ants come in.
He turns to the ants and says, “Sorry, you can’t all come in here” “Why
not?” asks one of the ants. The guy points to a sign that
reads, “Tenants only”!
(As pointed out by other comics. Since original comic and initial commentator weren’t named, I’ve included these comments anonymously too.)
My interview with Bill Bailey, in preparation for the Australian leg of his Tinselworm tour. We covered a lot of ground, but I failed to ask about the current show’s title or content, and how they relate. I read elsewhere Bailey’s response regarding the title, that a ‘tinselworm’ was a cheap type of silkworm – which hasn’t revealed much more about the show than my interview does. But then, Bill Bailey isn’t the sort of comedian you go to see after finding out what his topics are this time round. You go to see him because he is Bill Bailey and he will be funny, with a lot of brilliant musical material, to boot!
This is the second time I’ve had a long chat with Bill Bailey. The first time was on the eve of the first ever Sydney Comedy Festival, in 1998. This was a time when both the Comedy Store and the Harold Park Hotel – later briefly known as the Comedy Hotel, before being sold to finance the Comedy Cellar and the inaugural Sydney Comedy Festival - were two massive and important venues for the development of local comedy. Ten years later, neither venue currently exists. Oh, but in a good year, Sydney has two comedy festivals: the Big Laugh and Cracker. Pity they have to compete with each other… None of this has anything to do with Bill Bailey’s tour, however….
That first time we’d chatted, all the interviews prior to mine ran over time, and I was being forced to keep it short – so I snuck Bill into a pub in order to talk for as long as possible without getting interrupted. This time, I told Bill up front that I wanted to cover a lot of ground – the main thrust would be forGQ– for the ‘Words for the Wise’ back page section – but I was also going to get half a page inFilmInkand I wanted ask a bunch of ‘comics on comedy’ questions, as usual. Bill told me that he was home from work and had nothing else to do. I insisted that he tell me when it was time for last question. An hour later, I wound myself up. All in all, a good job, I thought, until the following day, when the publicist informed me that I’d prevented the Daily Telegraph from securing their interview. Oops. Sorry. I’ll try to be less selfish when I speak to Bill again in 2018.
What was brilliant this time around was that, when I reminded Bill of the last interview, in the pub, interrupted mid-explanation on the differences between beers in England, he was able, ten years later, to pick up the interview where he left off. I remember being impressed when Wil Anderson was able to do callbacks to earlier gigs at the Falls Festival one year. Callbacks across separate gigs over four nights is pretty cool. But Bill Bailey has called back a decade. That’s a pretty high bar for any other comedian to come and jump.
Dom Romeo: Hi Bill, it’s Dom Romeo here. How are you?
BILL BAILEY: I’m very well, thanks.
Dom Romeo: You may not remember this, but nearly a decade ago I spoke to you in Sydney. I smuggled you into a pub so that we wouldn’t get interrupted before time. Do you remember that interview?
Dom Romeo: And a sense of rural despair, of course. So I think we should just pick it up from there, more-or-less.
BILL BAILEY: Well, nothing much has changed in the ploughman’s lunch. It’s still there, but it’s probably on a bill of fare with a bit of couscous, and some Thai sea bass. Maybe our palette has moved on a little bit and the standard bill of fare in a pub is a little bit more varied, but the ploughman’s lunch is still going strong and rural despair has only increased. And a general sense of agricultural malaise is probably worse than it’s ever been. So, yeah, things are okay!
Dom Romeo: So a decade on, we have more sophisticated palates. What has changed comedically?
BILL BAILEY: Comedically? I think that televised comedy has certainly changed in that time inasmuch as that naturalistic performances are the norm now and the kind of subject matter is very much about embarrassment and a sense of cringe-making and “I can’t bear to look at this… Oh god, what are they doing now…? Oh, Jesus!…” It’s actually just a mirror to what we feel about our own society. That’s what it is. Very much a self-reflexive, very personal comedy that’s the norm now.
Dom Romeo: How does that work with what you do? A decade ago, you had a lot of musical parody in your show. How has the change in televised comedy affected you as a live comedian?
BILL BAILEY: I think that the two have actually diverged quite a lot. There’s an appetite for performance of live comedy that has increased hugely in the last ten years, because the TV stuff is very different. The TV stuff is quite small and it’s quite studied. There’s no audience laughter. It’s quite theatrical. It’s moved away from what stand-up is. I’ve noticed the numbers of live comedy audiences have gone up. More people want to go see it and it’s taken on the role that used to be filled by musical audiences and festival-going crowds – people who want a different kind of performance. They like to see comedy in a different environment.
It’s quite claustrophobic, the comedy that you see on TV. It’s become very self-reflexive and very dark, and certainly there are elements of that in stand-up, but it’s become almost a sort of celebration, live comedy. And people like to see performance – they like the fact that my kind of stuff and other people’s stuff is almost a hybrid of a lot of different strands of comedy – a lot of music and parody and personal recollection and anecdote and observation – all that stuff you pick up on the way when you’re learning a trade, and it’s all fed into this performance which is live and spontaneous and happening right there, and it’s – hopefully – always a joyful occasion. You hope people are going to laugh.
That element of it is the key – people want a sense of community when they go out. TV is very much people sitting watching it at home, or watching it on YouTube, or watching it on the Internet, or sharing files at home… People not going out, people staying in and having their own personal connection with TV and the programs that they like and sharing them around. The live stuff is a different kind of need – people wanting to be part of something: a larger crowd, be it a sporting event, a rock gig, or in this case, a comedy gig.
Dom Romeo: So hit comedies are the acute studies of humanity at its most discomforting – versus a room full of people sharing the experience.
BILL BAILEY: It’s almost as though the two can co-exist quite happily, but they’re very different – they feed on different parts of people’s comedy appetite.
Dom Romeo: You’ve mentioned in the past – and you’ve done comedy about – coming from the West Country. But you don’t seem to have a West Country accent. Why is that?
BILL BAILEY: Well the thing is that – I suppose – my parents didn’t really have the West Country accent. My father was from the north of Britain, so he had a slight northern twang to his accent, and my mother was Welsh, so she spoke with a slight welsh accent. So I suppose, really, it was so hard to do; I’d be really hard-pressed to do a combination of Welsh/northern/West Country.
I was trying to adopt a very simple, very straightforward non-inflected accent that would do where ever I went – particularly when I went to London. When I left school, I went and lived in London and I was at college there for a bit and people make assumptions as soon as you open your mouth in Britain. We’re still riddled with class. And riddled with preconception. You open your mouth and you talk with a certain accent, people immediately – almost within the first sentence – they’ve already pegged you for background, social standing, tried to figure out how much money you’ve got, what kind of place you live in…
All these things come out in the accent, and it used to really bug me. And so I suppose I tried not to have an accent when I first went up to London. Inevitably, I did. There’s no way around it. You think you don’t; you think you’re talking without any accent. But people recognise various lilts and phrases. So I thought I was talking like this: “Hello, I’m from the West Country and it’s an awful pleasure to be here in London,” whereas what I sounded like was “’Ello mate, alroight?” like some blithering yokel. I resented that. I resented that preconception. I resented people thinking, “you’re some idiot yokel from the west country”. So I kind of tried on the idea of not having an accent and people have no preconception then. People have to take you as you are. It’s a simple thing, but if you don’t have an accent, people can’t quite figure you out.
Dom Romeo: It’s true. Traditionally, English comedians came from Liverpool because they were naturally funny, but to get work in London, had to lose the Liverpudlian accent. Your choice to ‘lose’ the accent is significant.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah. Now, of course, regionalism is encouraged and celebrated. People are encouraged to keep their accents and celebrate where they come from. For me, it was about the whole package – what I looked like; my appearance as well. If you look like a hippie, people assume you’re going to be like this, or they assume you’re gonna be like that. Most of the time, it’s not that. And I suppose there’s a bit of devilment, where I quite like that. I quite like people thinking it’s going to be one thing when it’s going to be something else. Already you’ve got a bit of an angle.
Dom Romeo: Isn’t a lot of comedy and show business like that, though? The professional misdirection. You think it’s going to be happening here, but it’s actually happening there, and part of the joke turns on the fact that it takes you by surprise.
BILL BAILEY: Well, for me, yeah, I think so. I quite like that. I quite like to be surprised by someone. You’ve worked out who this person is and what they’re gonna talk about – okay, this kind of thing… this is why, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see where we’re going with this – and then it’ll be somewhere different. It’ll be taken in another direction. or it’ll be confounding, or it’ll be surprising or enchanting… That I like. It’s a healthy exchange that you’ve had. Generally, in life, it’s a good thing: not to get drawn into pegging people, or things, or ways of thinking; not getting into a rut about things.
A great compliment was paid to me in a very downbeat, off-hand, almost-not-a -compliment-at-all way, in Los Angeles. I was doing a show there, and this head of a studio came to a show. He came backstage afterwards with his entourage and he couldn’t think of any sort of compliment like a normal person would say, like “well done” or “I enjoyed it” – that wasn’t in his vocabulary. He said, “I stayed to the end”. That was the greatest compliment he could think up. He’d obviously been trying to think: “What am I gonna say to this guy? ‘I liked it?’ No. ‘I loved it?’ No. ‘I thought it was funny…?’ No, I know: ‘I stayed to the end!’” And that was it. “I stayed to the end,” he said, “because every time I thought it was going one way, you went another way.”
And so an hour and twenty minutes went by. Maybe this guy watched the first five minutes going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Okay, your girlfriend, something happened, you came out, she told you, you spun it round, blah blah blah blah blah… Right, let’s go…” It took him an hour and twenty-five minutes and he just couldn’t figure me out. “I can’t believe it, I’m still here!” That’s what I’m aiming at.
Dom Romeo: That is a compliment in the end, though, from that sort of guy.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, I suppose. I take it wherever I can get it.
Dom Romeo: You take the mickey out of a lot of music and you do it very well. It's said that at the heart of every parody is a kernel of tribute. So considering ChrisdeBurgh and Kraftwerk just for a moment – is there a part of you that likes these people that you claim to dislike?
BILL BAILEY: Well, certainly, it’s the truth of Kraftwerk. I saw a live show. It was terrific. It was a brilliant kind of weird art installation-like gig. It was unlike any other gig you’ve ever seen. Four guys who looked like bank managers, operating machinery, were hardly moving for two hours, and people would go nuts. Of course, you never see that – it’s so different and it’s so studied and it seems so incredibly modern and futuristic, the fact that they’re not moving or seeming to enjoy it in any way or imparting any emotion into it at all. In two hours, they just operated machinery. Who knows what they were doing? Was it a tape? Were they checking their emails? No-one knows. At the end they were just, ‘thank you!’ and that was it. Fantastic.
I was kind of getting slightly hysterical watching them. A kind of hilarity washed over everyone because you couldn’t figure out whether they knew how funny it was, or whether they didn’t know how funny it was, or thought they were really taking themselves seriously, or they were sending themselves up… There were all sorts of layers going on and you couldn’t figure out… whichever one you picked was great. They know they’re in on it… they’re playing it… they don’t know they’re in on it… Ah! I’ve got a big glob of affection for them. I’ve been a fan of their stuff over the years.
I don’t know about Chris De Burgh. It’s very hard for me to say. That is a serious accusation saying that I secretly like him. I don’t know if I can go that far. That’d be too far. That’s insane. I’d be rambling or raging, like some lunatic.
Dom Romeo: Of course. I apologise for that one. Take a step back then – consider other musical entities you’ve made fun of like Peter Gabriel and Genesis.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, okay.
Dom Romeo: A bit of admiration or none whatsoever?
BILL BAILEY: A bit. I do have a prog rock sensibility that I caught the tail end of in my early teens. That was my first experience of big rock gigs: people in cloaks and make-up and people playing trilogies with masses of keyboards with gongs and smoke and dry ice. They’re very powerful images, steeled into my teenage brain. Better get ’em out. I was also blown away by punk, when I was older.
But you have to get to the nub of what it is that you’re making fun of, and in order for it to work, you have to really understand it and know what it is. Same with de Burgh: you’d have to know the kind of chords he would play and the turns of phrases and the mentality behind it. I think they become more affectionate tributes, in a way, like the Billy Bragg one and the Bryan Adams one. In the new show I’ve got a modern folk song and a tribute to emo – you know, the kind of overwrought sort of black fringed, goth, hand-ringing: “Why me? Everything’s gone wrong.”
Dom Romeo: So the danger is there: for you to make fun of it as well as you do, you have to know it very well, and it’s only a small step then – you might slip over and start to like aspects of it.
BILL BAILEY: Very true. It’s a risk, there’s no doubt about it. You have to be very, very disciplined. If you find yourself downloading the whole album of Evanescence ‘for reference’ – “Oh yeah, that’s ‘for reference’, is it, Bill…?” – then you have to get a grip on yourself. And if you wear black too often… You need someone keeping an eye on you, some sort of ‘parody buddy’ watching you, checking your moves.
Dom Romeo: Earlier on you used to wear black, way before emo. But it had a different meaning then – when you had the Bastard Bunny t-shirt… you did come from a purely musical background. How did you make the transition?
BILL BAILEY: I was in this band in the West Country. We were gigging around the area in little clubs and pubs. These guys I was in the band with, they were wanting to take it more seriously. I was just a young kid, really. I was in my teens and I didn’t want to take it too seriously; I was only really in it for a laugh. And then I realised that these guys really, really wanted this thing to work. It was like a big deal for them. One of them was a hairdresser and another one worked in a garage and the band was a big thing.
I just wanted to have a laugh – turn up for a gig in a pub somewhere and then fall asleep on the pool table – which is what I did. The seriousness of the muso element was really starting to bug me – people arguing about who wrote what riff in what song. I thought, “oh god, this isn’t what I wanted to join a band for – arguing over chords”. So I started doodling around with a mate. One night we did a comedy sketch and it was so liberating. I realised that you get locked into a kind of a routine in a band, if you’re not careful. It was like, “you are the keyboard player, this is what you do”. It was too limiting as a form of expression. I remember thinking, “Is this what I'm gonna do? Dance around behind a keyboard to try and make it look interesting, and not say anything?” I wasn't the singer… I realised quite luckily, very early on, I’d get bored and frustrated just doing that, and chucked it in very early. I made a conscious decision and I very clearly remember it. I was really young, 19 or 20, and I remember thinking, “Do I really want to struggle on with a band for years and years and years, or should I try my own thing?” It was very much a gut instinct that I had, and it turned out to be right. Although I would have loved to be the keyboard player in TalkingHeads, I must admit.
Dom Romeo: Is there a form of music so base and so beneath you, so abhorrent to you, that you wouldn’t even download a version in order to send it up?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, certain kids’ TV themes. Most music I can listen to, I can absorb and go, “yep, I can see what you're doing there but it’s not for me”. But if I hear ‘Barney the Dinosaur’, or any one of them, it’s like nails down a blackboard. I suppose it’s because I've got a four-year-old and heard them that many times now that I start to get a Herbert Lom-style twitch when I hear them. Just the eye – like when he says, “Clouseau? Clouseau? He’s here?!”
Dom Romeo: What about in comedy? Is there anything that makes you feel the same way?
BILL BAILEY: It’s probably an occupational hazard of all comics. It’s hard to enjoy it as a punter because it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday: “I like the structure of that; nice joke; ooh, that’s a nice joke, wish I’d thought of that…” If you start to analyse it, rather than just enjoy it, it stops being fun. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed American comics – they’re coming from a different cultural background, you can switch off that analysing button a little bit and enjoy it as part of the audience because of the ‘otherness’… the ‘differentness’. Can you say that? The ‘difference’… The ‘otherness’ of it.
But I suppose any comedy that’s just old retreads that I’ve heard for years that isn’t really moving it on at all, or the lack of ambition of it all – the leaden “here comes the punchline, clip clopping over the hill like a big, shy horse. Here it comes, clip, clopping, BONG!” That’s what’s depressing. You think, “but I heard this joke when I was 12…”. That’s what bugs me, I suppose.
When I hear jokes I grew up with, I think, “has someone gone over everyone with a neuraliser?” Maybe they’ve forgotten whole swathes of their childhood. Perhaps it’s endearing to be reminded of jokes. They like familiarity and something they can relate to. You can’t deny that and it’s no less valid if people are laughing – that’s the ultimate stamp of approval.
And the trouble is, naturally, I want to move it on and reflect more about where I am. You get older and think about things in a different way than you thought about them twenty years ago, and there are other things that you want to talk about and you want to keep things fresh so that you’re not getting bored with it, and you want to stay interested and stay challenged by it and at the same time you’re thinking about the audience…
“Avoidance of cliches” is the mantra I try to adhere to. You think of a joke, you think,“Has this been done before? Who might have done it? Is it new? have I heard it before?” You think “Maybe not,” so you move it along and try to mould subject matter into something that’s succinct or in a funny way or subject matter that isn’t really spoken about. Stuff like that is what keeps me going.
Dom Romeo: Do you consciously think of that when you’re coming up with material, or do you just find that if it makes you laugh, then it’s pretty much safe that it’s going to make your audience laugh? I mean, do you ever look at your material and think, “gee, all I’m really doing here is ‘the difference between cats and dogs’”?
BILL BAILEY: Am I now just doing the similarities? That’s the way! Let me just find the commonalities between all things…
It’s really just what’s going through your head at the time – what’s bothering you or what’s going through your head, and I’m hoping and trusting that my audience will be going with me on that. They’ll be the ones I’ve grown up with over the years, and they’ll know that this is the kind of subject matter that they’ll be talking about. You have to trust a little bit and take a risk, that’s the real trick of it.
If you’re not enjoying it, the audience will cop onto that pretty quickly. It’s in the eyes – if theres nothing in the eyes [they know you’re over it].
Dom Romeo: So what is the secret to longevity in comedy?
BILL BAILEY: I think you have to really want to do it. You’ve got to have the will, the appetite for it. Certainly with stand-up, you do. Because it only gets harder. It gets harder and harder as the years go on. Expectation gets higher, sitting down to write and focus on what is essentially a reckless, foolhardy occupation… your time gets squeezed.
There are other things to think about. There’s a family and responsibilities and reflection and all kinds of other things that crowd in the time you used to spend – the months you’d luxuriate in the time that there was to fashion an act and hone it to this beautiful, polished gem that could keep you going for a few years, and then you’d fashion another one, to be a show. The time’s just not there anymore. You kind of have to be very focused on it and know what you want to get out of it, but be sure that that’s what you want to do. That’s the key.
And don’t get distracted. If you really want to keep doing comedy, you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go for a second. You don’t want to get distracted doing too much for TV or other things.
All of that’s fine, it’s all part and parcel of it. If you’re a comic and if you’re reasonably successful, TV offers come battering through the door and you can’t stop them. Eventually you give in and you say, “alright, I’ll do some of this” and “that’s good” or “that might be good”. Undoubtedly, it can be a blessed relief after being on tour for years and years, working a solitary profession. Suddenly you’re on a team of people and it’s like turning up for work. You can kid on that you’ve actually got a job, you know: “I check in and get a special pass and then I go to my dressing room and people bring me pudding. Yeah, I get pudding, and there’s free fruit I can take – it’s free, have that – and there are biscuits and little sandwiches and a microphone and lots of lights…” It’s like having a holiday from your life.
It never felt real to me. I felt that stand-up was the real job; it’s the real graft. That’s you! Your thoughts. Your life processed into your – your reputation, whatever you want to call it. It's mentally stable as well. Don’t get carried away with it. That's the other thing.
Dom Romeo: Right. Given that, what do you do to relax? How do you maintain your mental stability? How you know when it’s time to take a step back from something?
BILL BAILEY: It’s good having a family. I think that’s great. I have a wife and a child and great friends and we have a great life. We travel a lot and go to great places. I think you have to go and get out of your little world you’re in. It can get a bit too claustrophobic sometimes. You have to get out of it and do something else – something that’s totally different from writing comedy. Something simple, physical… rafting or climbing… you find a lot of comics are into real ‘adrenaline’ kind of things. You need to get a hit from somewhere.
Dom Romeo: So what do you do?
BILL BAILEY: What we do is we go trekking in the jungle and white-water rafting and volcano climbing. That tends to knock the shit out of your head.
Dom Romeo: Are you serious? Is that really what you do to relax?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah.
Dom Romeo: If that’s the case, that you need a burst of adrenaline from those kinds of activities before you can relax, what sort of things actually scare you? What do you fear most?
BILL BAILEY: Losing my wits. Literally and figuratively. Not being able to be funny and actually starting to lose my mental facility terrifies me.
Dom Romeo: What or who inspires you most?
BILL BAILEY: I’m a bit of magpie – I pick up different bits of inspiration from different sources, sometimes from places I wouldn't imagine I would. From political leaders or writers and/or other comics, or even sometimes sporting figures who go through great strife and find some sort of mental strength to get them through it. And even people I know who have actually had to do that. Your friends and family who have gone through some strife and shown some sort of tenacity and not given up, who make you think, “god, that’s what I want to be like”. I don't know how that applies…
Anything like that I draw strength from because sometimes you do think about giving up – you’ve had a bad gig or your can’t think of anything new – and you think of someone who’s been in that situation in their own walk of life, and that gives you a bit of a sense of tremendous achievement that people have gone through.
Dom Romeo: When you have those moments of doubt, who do you think of? Is it a close friend who has been through those things, or is it a hero from history?
BILL BAILEY: You just think about some footballer who had an injury and was out for half a season and then he gets his chance in a game and it’s a big cup game, and suddenly he’s taking a penalty that could mean the difference between them being relegated or promoted. There’s a great honesty about sport where you can see the emotion. It’s right there on the face. Sometimes I vicariously enjoy that, that twirl of acting out and thinking through the mental process of that.
Dom Romeo: Are you a follower of sport? Do you barrack for a football team?
BILL BAILEY: Not really, no. I enjoy it in a more general sense of what it does, how it can elevate people. I love the fact that there’s a sense of community about people going to see sport and how it draws people together. There’s a tremendous sense of belonging that people crave. As humans, we need that. We need some sort of spiritual catharsis that sport can give us.
Dom Romeo: But if you don’t actually engage in that activity, what do you do for that spiritual catharsis, that sense of community, when you feel the need? [Duh! He does stand-up comedy! - Autocritic]
BILL BAILEY: I suppose huge events – huge, mass gatherings of people. You can draw on that. It could be a sporting event or a big gig… I suppose the big anti-war march in London is a good example. There was an incredible sense of shared feeling. That, I find, is inspiring. You get out there and see what people can achieve and you feel part of it. You think, this is great! There is hope! You can effect change! You feel helpless as an individual – what can you do? But thousands of people, millions, together – you feel empowered by it. You feel part of something. I always feel that that’s a very primal, human need. We’re very community-based animals, we like to be in a group. Modern life prevents that.
Dom Romeo: Can we talk about your television and film career? When you were first here ten years ago, you had just made a television breakthrough with the previous year’s Is It Bill Bailey? which involved sketch and stand-up. We’ve never seen it out here. Is there any chance it’ll be released on DVD?
BILL BAILEY: We were just thinking about that fairly recently. The director of that was Edgar Wright, who’s gone on to direct a few films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And SimonPegg was in it, who’s gone on to do these films. I was talking to Edgar when we were doing Hot Fuzz and he said he’d like to get everyone together to do cast interviews and gather together deleted scenes and really spend a bit of time on it… making it into a proper thing, rather than just banging it out as just another BBC bit of merchandise. So that’s hopefully what we’ll do.
Dom Romeo: I’m really glad to hear that, and now you’ve also put everything into perspective, including the Simon Pegg relationship which I thought had begun with Spaced.
BILL BAILEY: Simon and Edgar and Jessica [Hynes, nee Stevenson] who wrote that thing, thought up this character and wrote it with me in mind – this kind of comic book purveyor. It’s great when something’s written for you. You just have to turn up and speak.
Dom Romeo: How much is that character like you in real life? Are you into comic books? I know you’re into Bastard Bunny to some extent.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, it’s one of those things that you think, “oh no, that would be too much of a cliché if that’s what I was like”, and then you think, “no, I’ll resist that…” and then you realise, “no, actually, I have bought some comics and I am quite into it”. And then people send me this stuff. I get sent all these kinds of graphic novels and stuff, and I guess I love it, really. But I’m trying not to become these characters.
Dom Romeo: I think I knew that. But you must have liked the role, seeing as you were there for three seasons and each season was better than the previous one.
BILL BAILEY: Well I think it was just one of those rare moments where there was a great chemistry between the actors and there was a very good relationship with the production team. Everyone had a very sympathetic and very supportive climate going into it. It was very much a case of the broadcasters letting the production team get on with it. There was no meddling, there was no interference from broadcasting. “You do it your way.” You were encouraged to be as individual about it. And from what I’ve experienced from television over the years, that’s quite rare. It was a very happy time.
The rehearsal period was great fun. A lot of things happened in the rehearsals that then ended up in the show. It had quite a rough and loose feel about it. It was never quite set in stone; it wasn’t rehearsed into the ground. We would rehearse it up to the shoot, then shoot it in front of a live audience and then something would go wrong so then we’d just improvise a scene then something else would go wrong with that scene – someone would put a coffee cup down in the wrong place – so we’d improvise another scene. There’d be four different versions. It was a very fertile environment to work in and it was great fun working with Dylan [Moran] and Tamsin [Greig].
Dom Romeo: You also appeared in Wild West, a strange little comedy vehicle for Dawn French which also featured Catherine Tate before we knew her here. It was set in the West Country, so it’s right up your alley. How was it to be a part of that?
BILL BAILEY: That was a project that Dawn French had been thinking about for a long time. It was very edgy and again very personal to her and quite different – a departure from what she’d done before. Quite dark and slightly surreal – it was actually a lesbian couple living in this sort of rural idyll. That’s a classic case of where there was a bit of meddling – the BBC getting involved and the focus groups having a go at it – “no, no, no, don’t do it like that, do it like this…” One of them had boyfriend and it was all a bit wacky – it didn’t have the same clarity of what the thing was gonna be.
It was great fun to do it because obviously, we were filming in Cornwall, which is beautiful. And I had to try and speak with a Cornish accent, which is always a challenge.
Dom Romeo: You were in Hot Fuzz, on one level a send-up of The Wicker Man. What was it like working with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright again, on that? Fun, I’m sure…
BILL BAILEY: Oh yes. What larks! It was terrific fun and it was a double-wigger for me, which is always a joy. Two wigs. “‘Wigs’ Bailey”, I was known as. And they’re great guys. Edgar is such a film buff. He knows so much about films and scenes and lines from films. You know that every scene he does, he’s thought about a hundred different ways – how he can reference some other film into it. And that, I think, particularly for myself and Simon who have absorbed so much popular culture into stand-up, it’s such a rich source of material, you’re almost speaking the same language as him.
Dom Romeo: Bill, I want to give you back to your family and your life – but I have one last topic to cover. Do you know what a ‘skullet’ is?
BILL BAILEY: I do, yes. I have knowledge of that and I’ve seen it mentioned with my name attached to it. I am delighted that somehow tonsorial laziness has actually now got a name. It’s actually been enshrined as a kind of a hairstyle. I didn’t even know it was a ‘style’, but now apparently it is. So I’m delighted.
Dom Romeo: Well, there are a whole lot of us, when our hair starts to go, we now have something to aspire to.
BILL BAILEY: Absolutely. It’s no longer just a bloke going a bit bald with his hair long at the back… No, it’s a ‘skullet’! It’s perfect. And also it’s an instruction to people to drink.
Dom Romeo: I’ll drink to that!
Bill Bailey, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you live again.
BILL BAILEY: You’re welcome. See you then.
For more details of the Australian leg of the Tinselworm tour, almost totally sold out before it begins, check out the website of Adrian Bohm Presents.
Despite being so on the ball as to have realised Bill Bailey was ‘touring’ Australia (that is, doing a couple of dates in Sydney and Melbourne) a whole week before this ‘tour’ began, it turns out that he has cancelled his return downunder due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. Pity. But he will be back later in the year or next year.
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!