âThe logic of it fails me,â Alan Davies insists.
Davies â Stephen Fryâs excellent foil on QI and a comic in his own right â 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.
âLosing Whites is the biggest disappointment Iâve ever had in television.â
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 âa tasterâ, from which a pilot was commissioned. (They actually spent time training as chefs at one of Jamie Oliverâs restaurants, to authentically capture the feel). A year later, the series was made, followed by another year before it was broadcast. âItâs a long process,â Davies continues. âYou canât 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 doesnât make any sense at all.â
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. âIt 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.â
Indeed. Isy Suttie, whom we also know as âDobbieâ in Peep Show, was Kiki, the kooky waitress. More significantly, Katherine Parkinson â whoâd replaced Julia Sawalha as Caroline Quentinâs replacement as the female lead in the most recent instalment of Jonathan Creek â played restaurant manager and maitre dâ Caroline.
âSheâs a super bright woman,â Davies says of Katherine Parkinson. âVery smart, witty, great company and tremendous comedy actress. Weâre 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. Itâs just part of the huge disappointment about the cancellation that we wonât be able to do any more of those scenes or get those characters going again, because I thought they were really great. Thatâs television, unfortunately. Itâs quite impenetrable at times, and even thought Iâve been working on television for nearly 20 years, Iâm as baffled as anyone this time.â
Nearly 20 years in television, huh? That in itself is baffling, given Alanâs perpetual youthfulness. Seems like only a couple of years ago he turned up as the tussle-haired lead with the cool accent in that â letâs face it â 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 magicianâs assistant â the sort who helps devise the tricks offstage rather than donning lycra and tights to be sawed in half as part of them onstage â who also solves mysteries.
What was surprising was that â 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 â Jonathan Creek was âlight entertainmentâ more than âcomedyâ. No, actually, that wasnât the surprise. The surprise was that, despite the show clearly being light entertainment rather than comedy, Alan Davies â whom we hardly knew in this country â 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 whoâd 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 â as important a mainstream debut for writer Russell T. Davies as it was for actor Alan Davies. And as with Russell Tâs best work, the drama was so potent because it effortlessly combined comedy in the process. Perfect for Alan. âI 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,â he says. âI was okay in plays, but it was best if they were comedies.â
Alan gave comedy a proper go after he graduated in 1988. It was also the year Alan first visited Australia, where â it turns out â he had relatives.
âMy mum died when I was only six and she had one sibling, my Aunt, who lived in Adelaide,â Alan explains. âMy Gran lived with her. To hear anything about my mum or get to know that side of the family meant coming to Australia.â
After that initial visit, Davies returned repeatedly throughout the early 90s, gigging while here. Voted Best Young Comic by Londonâs Time Out magazine in 1991, he was playing the Adelaide Fringe in a split show with Judith Lucy and Jimeoin in 1992 â âI knew Jimeoin from the UK and the Australian promoter put us together with Judithâ. 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 âlow-key affairâ.
And even though the success of Jonathan Creek meant slowing down a little â âit did take over my life a little bit and the stand-up started to fadeâ 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. âMy wife and I came over in 2006 and we had Christmas in Adelaide. This is our fist trip since then,â he says.
But itâs only been five years since Alan Davies was last in Australia. Itâs been ten since he was regularly performing as a stand-up comic, and, he says, âI have missed doing it. I never really anticipated being away from it for ten years. I canât really see where those ten years have gone.â
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.
Alanâs involvement in the show came, he says, as a result of his late-â90s âmove away from stand-upâ when he âsold his soulâ for four years, making television commercials for a bank. They were directed by John Lloyd, whoâd produced such great comedy shows as Spitting Image, Not The Nine OâClock News, Black Adder and the television version of Hitchhikerâs Guide To The Galaxy but hadnât made a television show in a while, concentrating instead on advertisements.
âWe got on very well while we were shooting things,â Alan says, âand he had an idea for a panel show and said âWhat do you think of a show where you get points for being interesting?â I immediately bought into it. We talked about it a lot in the long breaks on set when we were doing those ads.â
A year later, Lloyd phoned Davies, announcing heâd âmanaged to get the money from the BBCâ and was about to âmake a pilot of the Quite Interesting Panel Showâ; would Alan like to be involved? âI jumped at the chance,â Alan says.
Theyâve 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 (thatâs what the âQIâ stands for) but, according to Alan, because of itâs âcollaborative feelâ:
âWe donât like feeling that people are elbowing each other aside for space and treading on each other trying to out-do one another. You canât get the questions right. Youâre very fortunate to even understand the questions, usually. It takes you into a topic where you donât know whatâs going to come next.â In order to pull it off, thereâs âa huge amount of workâ by a team of researchers, led by Jon Lloyd, âthat goes on for monthsâ.
Although Stephen Fry is so natural in his delivery, and such an intellectual Renaissance man that youâd easily believe that he would know all of the information presented on the show, there are âscriptsâ provided with all of the material. But, Alan explains, âStephenâs second to none at absorbing all this stuff and preparing the show. It looks like an effortless conversation, but thereâs a huge amount of preparation.â
Meanwhile, the panelists are âtotally in the darkâ. They have the option of seeing the questions just before taping begins, âbut they donât make any sense to youâ. So, according to Alan, âyou go and have a conversation off-the-cuff; the whole thingâs spontaneous and really good fun to be part of.â
If you go and buy the boxed set of the first three seasons (through Roadshow, available at your ABC Shop) youâll see some patterns emerge. Alan Davies loves doing his âMexican impressionâ; Rich Hall subverts expectations by playing the game virtually against the rules â all non sequiturs and absurd utterances; Jo Brand likewise can stop just about anyone in their tracks with an unexpected â but hilarious â comment; Bill Baileyâs amoeba gag comes up a couple of times.
Alan agrees Rich Hall âhas always been a minimalist contributorâ, throwing in the occasional line that always gets a laugh. âMany others are much chattier,â he observes, noting that the show works best when you have âa good blendâ. What he loves most is the fact he knows most of the guests from his time on the comedy circuit. âItâs like seeing old mates. Itâs a very relaxed environment.â
Initially, they were âquite carefulâ about whom they invited on. After it became popular, people were âqueuing upâ for the opportunity. âThere are still some people who youâd like to come on who wonât,â Alan admits. Who? Is he at liberty to say?
âDawn French. I talked to Ricky Gervais a few years ago and he said, âthereâs no way, I canât do what you guys doâ. I think he could, but if heâs not comfortable with these kinds of shows, donât do them. Thereâs no need.â
Daniel Kitson, likewise, eschews such television shows. Alanâs been trying to get him on âfor years, but he simply wonâtâ. Which is a pity â to my mind the show is practically designed for his intellect and humour, and Davies agrees. âHe would flourish in that environment, and it would be lovely to have him there. But he has no interest in it.â
Although, as Alan notes, it took a long time to get Ross Noble on QI. âHeâs started coming on in the last couple of years and heâs been terrific. Hopefully Daniel will, eventually.â
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, âthereâs usually about an hour or more of stuff thatâs not broadcast. There are lots of opportunities in the show for us to do stuff thatâs unbroadcastable for the benefit of the studio audience. But they give themselves scope to edit down a really, really tight, funny half hour.â
In more recent years, in addition to the 30-minute television version, thereâs 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 âjust for the ticket-buying publicâ; not recorded for posterity, let alone for broadcast. No âspecial Australian seasonâ the way British comedy used to be manufactured, back in the day when it was still Pomedy rather than Britcom â 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.
âWe were hoping that we could salvage Whites that way,â Alan says. âWe did have a couple of conversations with the ABC about doing a second season on that basis, but so far that hasnât come to fruition.â 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. Thatâs only one missed opportunity with this tour. The other â that Iâm still bemoaning â is that it doesnât take in Sydney.
âThat is a shame,â Davies says. âThere was the intention of doing a show in Sydney, but the issue is Stephen Fryâs availability and the promoter failing to get a venue organised. My own promoter for my stand-up shows is very on the ball and sheâs now done everything that we needed to get done.â
Whatever anxiety Alan had â and he admits there was a degree, having had such a long time away from stand-up â heâs tried to âchannel into positive energyâ, 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 heâd be ânice and readyâ 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. âMay I?â I politely enquire.
âIf you like,â Alan says, graciously.
I begin with Lou and Andy on Little Britain. You know, the characters â who allegedly happen to be named after Lou Reed and Andy Warhol â 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, theyâd be Lou and Andy.
âI think youâre stretching,â Alan says. âI donât know whoâd be more offended â me or Daniel,â 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 Daviesâ son.
âYeah, well youâre about the 95thâ¦ thousandthâ¦ person to say thatâ¦â Alan dismisses.
âHas anyone else brought the âLou and Andyâ comparison up?â I wonder.
âThat shows that you do have capacity as an original thinker; good for you on that one. But no, Iâm afraid the curly-headed kid on Outnumbered â I get that on Twitter virtually every day and I can confirm to you that he is not my son. But heâs a very good actor. Heâs better than me, anyway.â
Well, we know that thatâs false modesty; there are things like Bob & Rose early on, and Whites quite recently that demonstrate how good Alan Davies is. And again, weâre reminded how much of a pity it is that Whites ended when it did. It was a great show.
âItâs very gratifying to hear that,â Alan says. âIâve 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. Itâs 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 thereâs no one between me and the audience. I can go and say what I like, and thatâs a refreshing change.â
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 didnât really stop to think. If I had, Iâd 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 âonly a killer five-minute setâ. Iâm sure he has more material. Thereâs probably seven killer minutes that I can vouch for â that Iâve 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 heâll come away from it a better comic than from any of the five-minute killer sets heâs done that always work. Only, none of his stuff is about ants.
Still, I didnât stop to think. Twenty minutes of ant material is a tough ask.
If I did stop to think, Iâd wonder what sort of gig heâs landed. A corporate booking of some sort, surely. Perhaps heâs the comedy relief during the keynote dinner that opens an entomology conference; maybe heâs one of a number of comics doing animal-related material for a zoo â 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. Canât anthropomorphise them so easily as you might other animals.
Fact is, Iâve 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 â The Ant Book. Itâs almost a joke book. It contains a lot of question/answer set-ups whose answers consist of words beginning, ending or containing âantâ in them. But theyâre not that funny. Not only that â all the answers are on the final page, jumbled in a way to make the shape of an ant. All Iâm saying is itâs no help to my buddy.
But one of my favourite âdad jokesâ is about ants. Itâs a corker â although I wouldnât 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 aaaaantâ¦
The 20-minute ant routine was starting to develop, even if it wasnât going to contain anything original in it. Those bug-studiers at the conference were certainly going to get their moneyâs worth, I thoughtâ¦
But then I noticed another comment on the thread, by the comedianâs mate:
Wha? Howâs that an ant joke?
And then I realised: the status update contained a typo.
The comic wasnât asking if we knew âant jokesâ in order to fill a 20-minute spot; he was asking us if we knew âany jokesâ â (âyeah, your face is a joke!â) â but had hit the âtâ next to the âyâ on his keyboard.
Oh well. At least now he has got about ten additional minutes of material â other peopleâs material, granted â albeit, about ants.
Ah, but â it gets better: the gig isnât in front of a room full of entomologists â itâs in front of TAFE students. Building students. Somehow I reckon the ant stuff ainât 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 theyâre tradey/brickie students, I reckon he should do Gerard Hoffnungâs âBrickieâs Lamentâ routine.
Good luck, mate. Whatever doesnât kill you will only make you stronger. Even if you âdieâ 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>
âI had an ant farm... Those fellas didnât grow shit! Plus if I rip off your arms you would look like snowmen.â - Mitch Hedberg
How could I also forget? Insect Nation, Bill Baileyâs musical about the ants enslaving humanity.
Another âbook gagâ: A man is standing in an elevator when all of a sudden 15 ants come in.
He turns to the ants and says, âSorry, you canât all come in hereâ âWhy
not?â asks one of the ants. The guy points to a sign that
reads, âTenants onlyâ!
(As pointed out by other comics. Since original comic and initial commentator werenât named, Iâve 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 showâs title or content, and how they relate. I read elsewhere Baileyâs response regarding the title, that a âtinselwormâ was a cheap type of silkworm â which hasnât revealed much more about the show than my interview does. But then, Bill Bailey isnât 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 Iâve 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 â 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 otherâ¦ None of this has anything to do with Bill Baileyâs tour, howeverâ¦.
That first time weâd chatted, all the interviews prior to mine ran over time, and I was being forced to keep it short â 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 â the main thrust would be forGQâ for the âWords for the Wiseâ back page section â but I was also going to get half a page inFilmInkand I wanted ask a bunch of âcomics on comedyâ 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 Iâd prevented the Daily Telegraph from securing their interview. Oops. Sorry. Iâll 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. Thatâs a pretty high bar for any other comedian to come and jump.
Dom Romeo: Hi Bill, itâs Dom Romeo here. How are you?
BILL BAILEY: Iâm 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 wouldnât 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 ploughmanâs lunch. Itâs still there, but itâs 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 ploughmanâs lunch is still going strong and rural despair has only increased. And a general sense of agricultural malaise is probably worse than itâs 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 âI canât bear to look at thisâ¦ Oh god, what are they doing nowâ¦? Oh, Jesus!â¦â Itâs actually just a mirror to what we feel about our own society. Thatâs what it is. Very much a self-reflexive, very personal comedy thatâs 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. Thereâs 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 itâs quite studied. Thereâs no audience laughter. Itâs quite theatrical. Itâs moved away from what stand-up is. Iâve noticed the numbers of live comedy audiences have gone up. More people want to go see it and itâs taken on the role that used to be filled by musical audiences and festival-going crowds â people who want a different kind of performance. They like to see comedy in a different environment.
Itâs quite claustrophobic, the comedy that you see on TV. Itâs become very self-reflexive and very dark, and certainly there are elements of that in stand-up, but itâs become almost a sort of celebration, live comedy. And people like to see performance â they like the fact that my kind of stuff and other peopleâs stuff is almost a hybrid of a lot of different strands of comedy â a lot of music and parody and personal recollection and anecdote and observation â all that stuff you pick up on the way when youâre learning a trade, and itâs all fed into this performance which is live and spontaneous and happening right there, and itâs â hopefully â always a joyful occasion. You hope people are going to laugh.
That element of it is the key â 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 homeâ¦ 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 â 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 â versus a room full of people sharing the experience.
BILL BAILEY: Itâs almost as though the two can co-exist quite happily, but theyâre very different â they feed on different parts of peopleâs comedy appetite.
Dom Romeo: Youâve mentioned in the past â and youâve done comedy about â coming from the West Country. But you donât seem to have a West Country accent. Why is that?
BILL BAILEY: Well the thing is that â I suppose â my parents didnât 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; Iâd 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 â 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. Weâre still riddled with class. And riddled with preconception. You open your mouth and you talk with a certain accent, people immediately â almost within the first sentence â theyâve already pegged you for background, social standing, tried to figure out how much money youâve got, what kind of place you live inâ¦
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. Thereâs no way around it. You think you donât; you think youâre talking without any accent. But people recognise various lilts and phrases. So I thought I was talking like this: âHello, Iâm from the West Country and itâs an awful pleasure to be here in London,â whereas what I sounded like was ââEllo mate, alroight?â like some blithering yokel. I resented that. I resented that preconception. I resented people thinking, âyouâre some idiot yokel from the west countryâ. 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. Itâs a simple thing, but if you donât have an accent, people canât quite figure you out.
Dom Romeo: Itâs 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 âloseâ 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 â what I looked like; my appearance as well. If you look like a hippie, people assume youâre going to be like this, or they assume youâre gonna be like that. Most of the time, itâs not that. And I suppose thereâs a bit of devilment, where I quite like that. I quite like people thinking itâs going to be one thing when itâs going to be something else. Already youâve got a bit of an angle.
Dom Romeo: Isnât a lot of comedy and show business like that, though? The professional misdirection. You think itâs going to be happening here, but itâs 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. Youâve worked out who this person is and what theyâre gonna talk about â okay, this kind of thingâ¦ this is why, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see where weâre going with this â and then itâll be somewhere different. Itâll be taken in another direction. or itâll be confounding, or itâll be surprising or enchantingâ¦ That I like. Itâs a healthy exchange that youâve had. Generally, in life, itâs 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 couldnât think of any sort of compliment like a normal person would say, like âwell doneâ or âI enjoyed itâ â that wasnât in his vocabulary. He said, âI stayed to the endâ. That was the greatest compliment he could think up. Heâd obviously been trying to think: âWhat am I gonna say to this guy? âI liked it?â No. âI loved it?â No. âI thought it was funnyâ¦?â No, I know: âI stayed to the end!ââ And that was it. âI stayed to the end,â he said, âbecause every time I thought it was going one way, you went another way.â
And so an hour and twenty minutes went by. Maybe this guy watched the first five minutes going, âYeah, yeah, yeahâ¦ Okay, your girlfriend, something happened, you came out, she told you, you spun it round, blah blah blah blah blahâ¦ Right, letâs goâ¦â It took him an hour and twenty-five minutes and he just couldnât figure me out. âI canât believe it, Iâm still here!â Thatâs what Iâm 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 â is there a part of you that likes these people that you claim to dislike?
BILL BAILEY: Well, certainly, itâs 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 youâve 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 â itâs so different and itâs so studied and it seems so incredibly modern and futuristic, the fact that theyâre 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, âthank you!â and that was it. Fantastic.
I was kind of getting slightly hysterical watching them. A kind of hilarity washed over everyone because you couldnât figure out whether they knew how funny it was, or whether they didnât know how funny it was, or thought they were really taking themselves seriously, or they were sending themselves upâ¦ There were all sorts of layers going on and you couldnât figure outâ¦ whichever one you picked was great. They know theyâre in on itâ¦ theyâre playing itâ¦ they donât know theyâre in on itâ¦ Ah! Iâve got a big glob of affection for them. Iâve been a fan of their stuff over the years.
I donât know about Chris De Burgh. Itâs very hard for me to say. That is a serious accusation saying that I secretly like him. I donât know if I can go that far. Thatâd be too far. Thatâs insane. Iâd be rambling or raging, like some lunatic.
Dom Romeo: Of course. I apologise for that one. Take a step back then â consider other musical entities youâve 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. Theyâre very powerful images, steeled into my teenage brain. Better get âem 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 youâre 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: youâd 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 Iâve got a modern folk song and a tribute to emo â you know, the kind of overwrought sort of black fringed, goth, hand-ringing: âWhy me? Everythingâs gone wrong.â
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 itâs only a small step then â you might slip over and start to like aspects of it.
BILL BAILEY: Very true. Itâs a risk, thereâs no doubt about it. You have to be very, very disciplined. If you find yourself downloading the whole album of Evanescence âfor referenceâ â âOh yeah, thatâs âfor referenceâ, is it, Billâ¦?â â then you have to get a grip on yourself. And if you wear black too oftenâ¦ You need someone keeping an eye on you, some sort of âparody buddyâ watching you, checking your moves.
Dom Romeo: Earlier on you used to wear black, way before emo. But it had a different meaning then â when you had the Bastard Bunny t-shirtâ¦ 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 didnât 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 â turn up for a gig in a pub somewhere and then fall asleep on the pool table â which is what I did. The seriousness of the muso element was really starting to bug me â people arguing about who wrote what riff in what song. I thought, âoh god, this isnât what I wanted to join a band for â arguing over chordsâ. 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 youâre not careful. It was like, âyou are the keyboard player, this is what you doâ. It was too limiting as a form of expression. I remember thinking, âIs this what I'm gonna do? Dance around behind a keyboard to try and make it look interesting, and not say anything?â I wasn't the singerâ¦ I realised quite luckily, very early on, Iâd 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, âDo I really want to struggle on with a band for years and years and years, or should I try my own thing?â 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 wouldnât even download a version in order to send it up?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, certain kidsâ TV themes. Most music I can listen to, I can absorb and go, âyep, I can see what you're doing there but itâs not for meâ. But if I hear âBarney the Dinosaurâ, or any one of them, itâs like nails down a blackboard. I suppose itâs 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 â like when he says, âClouseau? Clouseau? Heâs here?!â
Dom Romeo: What about in comedy? Is there anything that makes you feel the same way?
BILL BAILEY: Itâs probably an occupational hazard of all comics. Itâs hard to enjoy it as a punter because itâs a bit of a busmanâs holiday: âI like the structure of that; nice joke; ooh, thatâs a nice joke, wish Iâd thought of thatâ¦â If you start to analyse it, rather than just enjoy it, it stops being fun. Thatâs why Iâve always enjoyed American comics â theyâre 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 âothernessââ¦ the âdifferentnessâ. Can you say that? The âdifferenceââ¦ The âothernessâ of it.
But I suppose any comedy thatâs just old retreads that Iâve heard for years that isnât really moving it on at all, or the lack of ambition of it all â the leaden âhere comes the punchline, clip clopping over the hill like a big, shy horse. Here it comes, clip, clopping, BONG!â Thatâs whatâs depressing. You think, âbut I heard this joke when I was 12â¦â. Thatâs what bugs me, I suppose.
When I hear jokes I grew up with, I think, âhas someone gone over everyone with a neuraliser?â Maybe theyâve forgotten whole swathes of their childhood. Perhaps itâs endearing to be reminded of jokes. They like familiarity and something they can relate to. You canât deny that and itâs no less valid if people are laughing â thatâs 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 youâre not getting bored with it, and you want to stay interested and stay challenged by it and at the same time youâre thinking about the audienceâ¦
âAvoidance of clichesâ is the mantra I try to adhere to. You think of a joke, you think,âHas this been done before? Who might have done it? Is it new? have I heard it before?â You think âMaybe not,â so you move it along and try to mould subject matter into something thatâs succinct or in a funny way or subject matter that isnât really spoken about. Stuff like that is what keeps me going.
Dom Romeo: Do you consciously think of that when youâre coming up with material, or do you just find that if it makes you laugh, then itâs pretty much safe that itâs going to make your audience laugh? I mean, do you ever look at your material and think, âgee, all Iâm really doing here is âthe difference between cats and dogsââ?
BILL BAILEY: Am I now just doing the similarities? Thatâs the way! Let me just find the commonalities between all thingsâ¦
Itâs really just whatâs going through your head at the time â whatâs bothering you or whatâs going through your head, and Iâm hoping and trusting that my audience will be going with me on that. Theyâll be the ones Iâve grown up with over the years, and theyâll know that this is the kind of subject matter that theyâll be talking about. You have to trust a little bit and take a risk, thatâs the real trick of it.
If youâre not enjoying it, the audience will cop onto that pretty quickly. Itâs in the eyes â if theres nothing in the eyes [they know youâre 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. Youâve 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 occupationâ¦ your time gets squeezed.
There are other things to think about. Thereâs a family and responsibilities and reflection and all kinds of other things that crowd in the time you used to spend â the months youâd 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 youâd fashion another one, to be a show. The timeâs 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 thatâs what you want to do. Thatâs the key.
And donât get distracted. If you really want to keep doing comedy, you have to keep working at it. You canât let it go for a second. You donât want to get distracted doing too much for TV or other things.
All of thatâs fine, itâs all part and parcel of it. If youâre a comic and if youâre reasonably successful, TV offers come battering through the door and you canât stop them. Eventually you give in and you say, âalright, Iâll do some of thisâ and âthatâs goodâ or âthat might be goodâ. Undoubtedly, it can be a blessed relief after being on tour for years and years, working a solitary profession. Suddenly youâre on a team of people and itâs like turning up for work. You can kid on that youâve actually got a job, you know: âI 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 thereâs free fruit I can take â itâs free, have that â and there are biscuits and little sandwiches and a microphone and lots of lightsâ¦â Itâs like having a holiday from your life.
It never felt real to me. I felt that stand-up was the real job; itâs the real graft. Thatâs you! Your thoughts. Your life processed into your â your reputation, whatever you want to call it. It's mentally stable as well. Donât 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 itâs time to take a step back from something?
BILL BAILEY: Itâs good having a family. I think thatâs 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 youâre in. It can get a bit too claustrophobic sometimes. You have to get out of it and do something else â something thatâs totally different from writing comedy. Something simple, physicalâ¦ rafting or climbingâ¦ you find a lot of comics are into real âadrenalineâ 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 thatâs 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: Iâm a bit of magpie â 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, âgod, thatâs what I want to be likeâ. I don't know how that appliesâ¦
Anything like that I draw strength from because sometimes you do think about giving up â youâve had a bad gig or your canât think of anything new â and you think of someone whoâs 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 itâs a big cup game, and suddenly heâs taking a penalty that could mean the difference between them being relegated or promoted. Thereâs a great honesty about sport where you can see the emotion. Itâs 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 thereâs a sense of community about people going to see sport and how it draws people together. Thereâs 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 donât 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 â huge, mass gatherings of people. You can draw on that. It could be a sporting event or a big gigâ¦ 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 â what can you do? But thousands of people, millions, together â you feel empowered by it. You feel part of something. I always feel that thatâs a very primal, human need. Weâre 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 yearâs Is It Bill Bailey? which involved sketch and stand-up. Weâve never seen it out here. Is there any chance itâll be released on DVD?
BILL BAILEY: We were just thinking about that fairly recently. The director of that was Edgar Wright, whoâs gone on to direct a few films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And SimonPegg was in it, whoâs gone on to do these films. I was talking to Edgar when we were doing Hot Fuzz and he said heâd like to get everyone together to do cast interviews and gather together deleted scenes and really spend a bit of time on itâ¦ making it into a proper thing, rather than just banging it out as just another BBC bit of merchandise. So thatâs hopefully what weâll do.
Dom Romeo: Iâm really glad to hear that, and now youâve 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 â this kind of comic book purveyor. Itâs great when somethingâs 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 youâre into Bastard Bunny to some extent.
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. âYou do it your way.â You were encouraged to be as individual about it. And from what Iâve experienced from television over the years, thatâs 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 wasnât 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 weâd just improvise a scene then something else would go wrong with that scene â someone would put a coffee cup down in the wrong place â so weâd improvise another scene. Thereâd 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 itâs 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 â a departure from what sheâd done before. Quite dark and slightly surreal â it was actually a lesbian couple living in this sort of rural idyll. Thatâs a classic case of where there was a bit of meddling â the BBC getting involved and the focus groups having a go at it â âno, no, no, donât do it like that, do it like thisâ¦â One of them had boyfriend and it was all a bit wacky â it didnât 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, Iâm sureâ¦
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. ââWigsâ Baileyâ, I was known as. And theyâre 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, heâs thought about a hundred different ways â 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, itâs such a rich source of material, youâre almost speaking the same language as him.
Dom Romeo: Bill, I want to give you back to your family and your life â but I have one last topic to cover. Do you know what a âskulletâ is?
BILL BAILEY: I do, yes. I have knowledge of that and Iâve seen it mentioned with my name attached to it. I am delighted that somehow tonsorial laziness has actually now got a name. Itâs actually been enshrined as a kind of a hairstyle. I didnât even know it was a âstyleâ, but now apparently it is. So Iâm 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. Itâs no longer just a bloke going a bit bald with his hair long at the backâ¦ No, itâs a âskulletâ! Itâs perfect. And also itâs an instruction to people to drink.
Dom Romeo: Iâll drink to that!
Bill Bailey, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you live again.
BILL BAILEY: Youâre 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 âtouringâ Australia (that is, doing a couple of dates in Sydney and Melbourne) a whole week before this âtourâ began, it turns out that he has cancelled his return downunder due to âunforeseen circumstancesâ. Pity. But he will be back later in the year or next year.
Yay! Bill Baileyâs back downunder. Prior to Black Books â a fantastically silly Britcom â and cameos in Spaced â another fantastic Britcom â 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 â apart from the review of the gala (therefore, itâd be more accurate to say âboth of the Sydney Comedy Festival 1998 articles I wroteâ¦) â was part of a continuing film noir saga loosely based on Chandlerâs The Big Sleep. The first piece was called The Big Laugh, but I donât recall if I was that clever with a title for the Bill Bailey piece. Truth be told, the only Chandler Iâve 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 â 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 starâs âkey anecdotesâ 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 Baileyâs current visit, however. Nor does the interview that follows, but read and enjoy nonetheless.
âI shoulda known itâd be you hogginâ the comicâ 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. Iâve 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.
âMe?â 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 Iâm in favour of as I put my briefcase down and start rolling up my sleeves. Bernie tries to do the same but heâs wearing a t-shirt. Schmuck!
âI take it youâre here to interview me,â a voice brings me back to earth.
âOh shit, sorry. You must be Bill Bailey. How are you?â 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 âexactlyâ as âzaâ-lyâ - my guess would be Spinal Tap. âNice shirt,â I say, admiring the logo emblazoned on the chest. It is a send-up of the Warner Brothers crest but instead of âWBâ it bears the initials âBBâ. For âBill Baileyâ, no doubt.
âThis actually stands for a comic-strip in a music magazine, called Bastard Bunny,â Bill explains, âa cute, lovable rabbit: heâs 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 itâs free advertising for him.â
âYouâre not selling them after gigs or anything are you?â I politely enquire, a prelude to, âmay I have one?â
But Bailey claims that heâs not into the âbig merchandise scene, manâ.
âIâm not into bread,â he says. âIn fact, I accidentally left them at Heathrow. Actually, I had fifty t-shirts but I sold them in Nottingham before I came.â
This, obviously, is going to be fun. But Iâm going to have to think fast. Weâre likely to be interrupted in no time at all.
âDo you mind if we adjourn to a more conducive venue, do this over a beer maybe?â I offer. Iâd 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. âItâs lost in the mists of time,â he says, taking a pensive sip. âI 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, âI canât handle this; too seriousâ.â
Bailey, whose stage routine has included Richard Claydermanesque renditions of âThree Blind Miceâ, 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.
âBehind Closed Doors is where we should have been,â he says, âand thatâs the way we remained to this day.â Bailey admits to having been in a few other pop bands, all of them consisting of âpretty low-grade popâ. From there, Bailey and a buddy took to comparing gigs for other local groups, eventually developing into an act known as The Rubber Bishops.
âWe just started expanding the comparings themselves, beyond the usual âand next isâ¦ whoeverâ. 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 wasnât 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, itâs become refinedâ
Bailey claims the process of developing into a full-time comic was gradual: âYou just did it because you loved doing it. And youâd think, âpeople are going to pay then? Wa-hey, theyâre going to pay me for doing this. Thatâs great.â Normally Iâd be doing three or four different things: I would do a gig every two weeks, then Iâd do another job, then I might have an acting job, then Iâd do something else. Suddenly I realised that the whole week was filled doing comedy. And that was it: Iâm a comedian now.â For Bailey, the realisation that his gags had âsome sort of currency somewhere else, not just in front of a few mates,â gave him the encouragement to continue. âWhen you realise that it makes you laugh, and your mates laugh, and other people laugh as well, then youâre on your way.â
Prior to full time comedy, Baileyâs acting jobs consisted mostly of touring in musicals with small-scale companies. âI did a lot of comedy acting before I got into stand-up, and Iâd like to do more of that,â Bill says. He has written a musical called Insect Nation, about insects taking over the world. âItâs got a green theme to it,â Bailey says. âThe destruction of the planet is imminent so the insects take over and rule the earth. But then theyâre just as corrupt as the humans.â Bailey will no doubt play the hero, âeither 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 culturesâ. That, according to Bailey, basically sums up Insect Nation. âItâs a farce,â 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. âI 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.â Although Bailey has been an international-calibre comic for quite a few years now, he claims that coming up with locally-inspired gags is âquite a new thingâ for him.
âWhen I started out Iâd write the act down at home, like a school essay, and then memorise it: âthis is my act, right, there it is, thank you, good night.â But as I got a bit more confidence and more control over the performance Iâd absorb a bit more and roll a bit more with what was happening.â
Influenced by Baileyâs earlier career, his comedy is full of musical jokes and observations. âI pick out lots of bits of music that we hear in daily life, stuff that you hear but are not aware of.â He gives the example of âholdâ 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. âIf you really want to be âout thereâ, Bill offers, âit should be John Cageâs two minutes of silence. Peopleâd go, âthereâs nobody here!â and youâd come back on and go, âdid you enjoy that? Thatâs John Cage. Iâm sure youâre aware of that.ââ
More importantly, Bailey needs to put the boot into the people he really hates, like Chris De Burgh. âI reserve a special sort of loathing for people like Chris De Burgh. Any sort of pompous musical style that takes itself too seriously.â
âWell then,â I offer, âhow about Peter Gabriel?â He ought to be fair game, being based in Bath and having pretentious prog rock origins as a founder member of Genesis.
âYeah,â Bill takes the baton. âHe left Genesis and obviously thought, âthatâs it, Genesis is nothing without meâ. And suddenly the drummerâs singing now. Suddenly the drummer is a massive star. If Peter Gabriel hadnât left Genesis, Phil Collins would still be the drummer. Heâd know his place. None of this âmy wifeâs left meâ. âOh really, who cares, Phil? Nobodyâs interested about your tawdry private life. Or your acting career for that matter. Youâre a drummer, thatâs itâ. No offence to drummers.â
I ask Bill to take me through the aesthetics of English beer, which he begins to explain from basics: âlagerâ is a light colour, imbibed cold. âBitterâ is a darker beer, usually served from a pump. âBut ale,â he says, âreal ale, has got a cache amongst connoisseurs.â Ales, according to Bailey, are strong and usually served straight from the barrel. âThey 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. Itâs usually a sort of opaque, aromatic, strong liquid.â 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, âby percentage or by gravity?â Which cracks me up, because Iâve had a few by now, so I want to know how you measure strength of a beer by gravity. âIs it a measure of how fast you hit the ground?â I ask. Like, if you have a six pack and hit the ground, it canât be as strong as if you have one and hit the ground.
But before I can find out, a voice says, âso here you are!â Itâs Billâs minder. She says, âyouâre keeping Tony Squires waiting,â but I refrain from saying âstiff shit, I was kept waitingâ âcause I like Tony - or at least, I might want to interview him some day. As Bill disappears he calls over his shoulder, âale is something that you have with a ploughmanâs lunch, which consists of pickles, cheese and bigotry. With the twigs still in.â
But Iâm not listening because Iâm trying to work out how on earth they found us here. And then I realise: Bernie!