Worms from the Wise

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 for GQ – for the ‘Words for the Wise’ back page section – but I was also going to get half a page in FilmInk and 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?

BILL BAILEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dom Romeo: We were interrupted while you were in the middle of explaining the differences between beer in England – you’d gotten to the point where ‘real ale’ was something that you have with a ploughman’s lunch – which consists of cheese, pickles and bigotry.

BILL BAILEY: And a sense of rural despair!

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 Chris de Burgh 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 Talking Heads, 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?


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 Simon Pegg 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: So you’re not at all like Manny from Black Books?


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.

Mr Smith goes to Bougainville


It was after one of Emma Driver’s gigs, failing to scarper fast enough – or at all, really – that I got to hear this tall guy in a loud shirt announce himself as Fred Smith. I had no choice but to lean over to Emma and her partner and say, “I wonder how Patti’s going!” because though now sadly deceased, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith was, in addition to being the former guitarist of the MC5, also the husband of Patti Smith.

Fred Smith began with possibly too much cute patter, but it was clearly an attempt to capture the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. For the most part, it worked: Fred had good comic timing and a way with words, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise to discover, much later, that he had in fact been a national finalist in the 1997 Raw Comedy competition. However, it wasn’t merely the between-song banter that won us over. His songs were also clever and witty.

Fred opened with ‘Imogen Parker’, a song in the traditional r ’n’ b mode (where ‘r ’n’ b’ stands for ‘rhythm and blues’, as it used to, rather than ‘romantic and black’, as it seems to today). It utilised a slight variation of the basic ‘hambone’ beat as made popular by Bo Diddley (hence its other name, ‘the Bo Diddley beat’) and as featured in the Buddy Holly song ‘Not Fade Away’ (recorded by the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith and Holly himself) – that ‘jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jingjing’ strum pattern:

I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
You’re gonna give your love to me
I’m gonna love you night and day
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
Love is love and not fade away

‘Imogen Parker’ was a political song that dealt with the state of the Australian political landscape at the time of its writing. Its best verse is about Pauline Hansen:

Well I had a friend called Pauline Hansen –
Big, warm hart like Charlie Manson.
Y’know most redheads I’d take a chance on,
But she just made me wanna keep my pants on.

Fred Smith C 2004

A verse on the former Leader of the Australian Labor Party, the Right Honourable Kym Beazley, saw ‘Beazley’ rhyming with the election that ‘he was gonna win easily’.

In addition to the rollicking songs full of humour and politics, it turned out that Smith was capable of the most touching heartfelt ballads. He prefaced one of them with a story about the Claymore antipersonnel mine, which he described as “a box the size of a shoebox with an arrow and the words ‘point towards the enemy’ on top”. According to Fred, “it is considered prudent to do so since the weapon consists of a quantity of TNT and 500 ballbearings which project forward in a wide radius upon detonation by a hand-held remote control”. Fred had served as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons, and had likened the experience of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in Bougainville to that of the American and Australian armies in Vietnam. A favourite trick of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), when coming upon a PNGDF camp, was to turn the Claymores that the PNGDF had set up as protection around to face the other way, and then make enough noise to cause them to be detonated. Ever seeking to see both sides of the dispute, the song Smith subsequently sang was written from the point of view of the wife of a PNGDF soldier.

Another stand-out song was ‘Mr Circle’. Sung entirely in pidgin, it told of the ‘spiralling cycles of hatred’ that tit-for-tat actions lead to. Smith used to sing the song to school children in Bougainville.

By this stage I decided that I had to interview Fred Smith. I could already ‘hear’ how it would be structured: begin with a couple of choice verses of ‘Imogen Parker’, include a bit of his experiences in Bougainville and the Solomons, play a version of ‘Mr Circle’ and have Fred explain the lyrics in English, as he did between each vocal line when he sang it live. He had advertisted the availability of a couple of his CDs while on stage, so I figured I’d buy the ones that had the songs I wanted on them.

Accosting Fred after his set, I proceeded to ask him how Patti was (well, come on, how could I resist) before telling him that I wanted to interview him. He offered to give me copies of his CDs, but I insisted that, as long as he gave me a receipt with which I could claim the expenses, I had to pay – independent artists need to make enough money to remain independent, and artists. One album, Bagarap Empires, consisted of songs inspired and written during his time as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons. Another, Into My Room, was a collaboration between Smith, Liz Frencham of JigZag and Kevin Nicol of Noiseworks. Fred gave me such a good discount that when he offered me an additional CD, I had to buy it as well. It was a copy of his first album, Soapbox, from 1998. When I saw it, the penny dropped: I already had a copy.

An old and dear friend of mine who works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been posted in Port Moresby for a time, and on one of his trips home, had handed me a copy of Soapbox, explaining that Fred Smith was not only someone he had encountered while working in Papua New Guinea, but an independent musician and a good bloke. I, of course, made the ‘did you ask him how Patti was going?’ reference and pretty much ignored the disc after giving it a cursory listen. Despite being hip and knowledgeable, I have a basic distrust of cultural phenomena I haven’t discovered on my own terms. It has been a source of frustration for my friend, who also tried to switch me on to Patti Smith before I was ready to embrace her music. I had his copy of Radio Ethiopia for about a year without paying much attention to it. I came to my senses eventually.

Like all converts, I am now an annoying zealot whose task, along with proselytising, is to piss off all of the quietly faithful who have known the truth from the beginning. Fred Smith is an awesome, under-appreciated talent. One critic has gone so far as to dub him ‘Australia’s answer to Billy Bragg’. He has four CDs to his credit, the most recent, a mini-album entitled Party Pieces, sadly deleted. It contains the song ‘Imogen Parker’, and for that reason alone should be re-pressed. Visit Fred Smith’s website – to check out his tourdates as well as to e-mail him and demand that he sell you, in addition to his three still-available albums, a burnt copy of Party Pieces. Unless he does come to his senses and makes Party Pieces available once again. The new pressing should, in addition to the original, include an updated version of ‘Imogen Parker’ featuring new verses dealing with the likes of Abbott & Costello as well as Latham.

This interview was broadcast Saturday 20 March. Read it or download and listen to this MP3 version.

Music: ‘Imogen Parker’ – Fred Smith

I had a friend called Natasha Despoja
I met her in the parliamentary foyer.
She’s as hard as a Sydney lawyer
That’s Natasha Despoja for ya!
She was the leader of the Democrats
But the Democrats just fight like cats…

I had a friend called Kymberly Beazley.
I remember when he was gonna win easily.
And then there came along the NV Tampa.
And now Kim's not such a happy camper.
Simon Crean, I don't know,
Mate I felt a little sad to see Kym go…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Does the political folk song still have a role in contemporary society, and, if so, what is it?

FRED SMITH: That’s a good question, whether you can change people’s minds with a political song. I don’t know if you can, but I know that young people are susceptible to political songs, and so I think it’s worth doing. You have to say what you feel, don’t you. I don’t think that the mainstream press is doing enough by way of offering alternative ideas and I think there’s a lot to be criticised and a lot to worry about. So I do sing the odd political song.

Demetrius Romeo: After the release of your first album, Soapbox, in 1998, you went to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands as a ‘peace monitor’. What exactly is it that you do for a living?

FRED SMITH: I’ve got a bit of part-time work with the public service in Canberra. As some people might be aware, over the last five years there’s been a peace monitoring group in Bougainville, mainly Australian army but also a handful of public servants, and I went over as one of them. But I took my guitar.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that line of work affect the music that you were making?

FRED SMITH: Well, a big part of my job was to get out into the villages and communicate with people about what was going on in the peace process and how things were changing and how things were moving, and to basically put some encouraging messages forward. It just so happened that I can play guitar and enjoy writing songs; it’s something I do pathologically. So I wrote a whole lot of songs in pidgin that really served that purpose and we ended up having a sort of traveling road show where we’d all pile into a four-wheel drive and get out and set up in a village square or a church or a school yard or an airstrip. I’d play a few songs and talk about peace process issues and developments, and some of the soldiers would do backing vocals.

Music: ‘Bagarap Empires’ – Fred Smith

East Indonesia, Iryan Jaya,
Papua New Guinea, Solomons too:
Beautiful islands, beautiful people
Uncertain future to look forward to.

While the rest of us –

Are we surprised that
Things turn to shit?
That our notions of nationhood
Don't seem to fit?
Will the bagarup empires all rust
In the tropical sun?

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: There’s an album that came out of your time in Bougainville and the Solomons called Bagarap Empires. What does the title mean?

FRED SMITH: A lot of the stories are from Bougainville and the Solomons and the word ‘bagarap’ in pidgin means ‘when things get buggered up’, which is very much what is and was happening at the time in that part of the world. The whole archipelago is very fragile, as you’re aware. Everything went badly in Bougainville for a few years – after the mine closed down, the civil war there, there was a real disintegration. The Solomons were going in very catastrophic directions up until about six or seven months ago. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about: things getting ‘buggered up’.


Demetrius Romeo: There’s a lovely song on the album called ‘Mr Circle’ that is sung entirely in pidgin. Can you tell me a bit about the song and what the words mean and how it came about?

FRED SMITH: ‘Mr Circle’: yeah, well, as I said, I was getting out into the villages and to schools and singing songs to kids about what was happening in the peace process and I wanted to get a message across about the cycle of violence – how one thing can lead to another. So I’d get up in front of the kids and I’d look the kid in the front in the eye and say,

Okay piccaninny. Sapos yu gat wanpela man bilong viles bilong yu.

Okay, suppose there’s a guy in your village.

Na dispela man i gat bel hat wantaim wanpela man bilong narapela viles.

This bloke, he’s got the shits with a bloke in another village.

Olsem em i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles.

So he goes and hits the man in the other village.

Bai yu lukim long wanem samting i kamap nau: planti man bilong arapela viles i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles bilong yu.

See what comes up now: blokes from the other village come and hit the man from your village.

Olsem yu inap lukim wei we dispela samting i go roun.

So it all goes around.
Then I’d sing this song, ‘Mr Circle’.

Music: ‘Mr Circle’ – Fred Smith, speaking translations after each line

Sun go down, sun go down
Sun go down, sun go down
Mr Circle sing sing taim long sun i go down
Mr Circle sings as the sun goes down.
Olgeta, Wanpela, mi na yu
Everybody, one person: me and you
Papa Deo kolim wantaim bigpela kundu
Papa Deo calls with his big bass drum.

‘Papa Deo’: yeah, pidgin is made up of mainly English, but a bit of German and also Latin. So ‘Papa Deo’ is ‘God’.

Woa wokim bagarap, Woa wokim bagarap
War buggers things up, war buggers things up.
Lukim olsem dispela woa i wokim bagarap
See how the war buggers things up.
Olgeta crai crai, Olgeta crai crai
Everybody cries. Everybody cries.
Olgeta crai crai taim long woa i wokim bagarap
Everyone cries when war buggers things up.

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: What has been inspiring your music since you’ve returned from Bougainville and the Solomons?

FRED SMITH: Well, I suppose a lot of the writing that I was doing there was relating the stories and things and impressions that I had while I was there. Since then I’ve been writing more personal material and in fact I’ve written a whole lot of songs that work well for a girl’s voice, and I’ve been working with a woman called Liz Frencham, and we did an album called Into My Room, which is more personal, less political, less historical material.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Wherever does it end? Wherever did it start?
The mountains and the valleys of the country of my heart –
First the pain and flat terrain and then the undulation;
It's time to send a message to the captain of the station.
Saying ‘Into my room, the sun must shine…’

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: You’re also working with the percussionist from Noiseworks on that album. How did that relationship between the three of you come about?

FRED SMITH: Basically, I’d written all these songs for a woman to sing and I went looking for the right girl and started working with a girl in Canberra who subsequently fell pregnant ‘Subsequently’, not ‘consequently’. ‘Subsequently’ fell pregnant, and got married. And so I went looking further afield and found Liz Frencham who plays double bass really beautifully and sings with an honesty that affects people, so that’s how that started: I basically buttonholed her.

The drummer, Kevin, was actually managing me at the time, funnily enough, and I was doing this album and I needed a percussionist. He mentioned that he had played in a small Sydney pub band for a while and we said, ‘all right, let’s give it a go’, and we rehearsed, and we did. But as you’re aware from the Noiseworks days, he cracks the drums pretty hard, so we had to give him a bit of warm milk before we went into the studio and rub his head a bit.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

I will do what I do, you do what you have to.
If we found common ground or accidental laughter,
Such give-and-take may help to break the ice of isolation
It's what we do with loneliness that helps the situation.
Into my room the sun may shine…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Is there a large difference writing about more personal things as opposed to writing about political things?

FRED SMITH: Well, I never set out to write political songs. I tend to write pretty instinctively about whatever’s on my radar screen. There’s an author called Margaret Attwood who said, ‘concentrate on the writing and let the social relevance take care of itself’, and that’s very much my approach: I set out to tell stories and if people come to conclusions about my politics from that, well then so be it. Writing about political things has a bit of a responsibility to get it right and for it to be balanced, because political writing, whether it be in music, prose or in the press, only endures if it is balanced. With writing political stuff, I feel a real responsibility to make it balanced, otherwise it smells.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Into my room the sun may shine.
Into my room… the sun may shine.

Fred Smith C 2004