Bill Bailey: ‘I’ve never done a room with so many brilliant hecklers’
After his six-night stint in Dublin in 2008 Bill Bailey has a soft spot for Ireland. Which is why the comedian’s starting his new tour here. But he doesn’t expect Chris de Burgh to come
Bill Bailey: “Getting on television was purely an incidental career”
Bill Bailey once quipped that he has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame – if the meteor in question was slowly dragged across a ploughed field by an arthritic donkey for 22 years.
The English comedian took a scenic route to becoming a household name. In the early 1980s Bailey was slugging it out on the circuit with the equally unknown Mark Lamarr. It wasn’t until 1996 that he garnered any real attention, when he was just pipped to the Edinburgh Comedy Award by Dylan Moran. It was reputed to be the closest vote in the history of the most illustrious prize in comedy.
Serendipitously, Bailey costarred alongside everyone’s favourite dishevelled Navan man in Black Books, on Channel 4, from 2000 to 2004. High-profile stints on QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks followed, but Bailey remained primarily a stand-up comedian rather than use the circuit as a springboard into television. “Getting on television was purely an incidental career,” he says.
Bailey’s latest tour, of his show Limboland, starts in Galway at the end of the month. “I’ll be talking about my younger self and the decisions I’ve made that had implications for how my life panned out,” he says. “Everyone does a bit of extrapolating about how things could have turned out differently.”
Despite his years in the comic wilderness, life has turned out well for Bailey.
“My career has totally exceeded my expectations,” he says. “I’d no idea starting out that you could make a living out of comedy. I thought I’d have to be a teacher or a musician and just enjoy it as a hobby. Comedy has brought me all around the world, and I’m extremely grateful for it. It is has become a huge industry now which so many people want to be part of.”
Bailey likes Ireland, and it’s no accident that he’s kicking off Limboland with eight Irish dates. His six-night stand at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 2008 ranks with Eddie Izzard’s early shows as some of the finest ever by a comedian visiting Irish soil.
“There is a unique warmth to an Irish audience,” he says. “I know this sounds like some old guff people say all the time to be nice to you, but it is 100 per cent true. The Olympia is one of the best places I’ve ever played in. I’ve never done a room with so many friendly nutters and brilliant hecklers.
“One of the great joys of playing in Ireland is that I hear people in the audience egging me on – ‘G’wan Bill! G’wan!’ Some metropolitan crowds can be extremely reticent. They just sit there pondering what kind of instrument you’re playing, and what on earth you are doing. ‘Is that a lute! Who does he think he is? Sting?’ ”
When Bailey last performed here, in 2010, he read out a funny email exchange with Peter Crawley, the Irish Times theatre critic, about a certain Irish singer who took exception to a review Crawley wrote.
“It is still one of my all-time-favourite pieces of correspondence,” Bailey says, chuckling. “I just read it all out, simply because it was all so wonderful and funny. I had Peter’s original review, and then I read out [Chris] de Burgh’s rambling and preposterous riposte.”
Bailey has his own bit of previous with the Lady in Red crooner. “I wrote a song in a de Burgh style called Beautiful Ladies in Danger, which is based on the premise that in some postapocalyptic world every single male gets killed apart from de Burgh. Chris has to repopulate the entire planet by having as many offspring as possible with all the women left in this peculiar post-de Burgh world.
“He didn’t take it very well. Somebody told me he slagged me off on the radio by saying, ‘Bill Bailey is very ugly.’ I just thought a bit of a pot-and-kettle scenario was brewing. At the time I was on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which was a national TV show about music. Not a particularly wise move.”
Bailey’s put-down made Crawley’s original review seem like a love letter. “I don’t even think that review was particularly harsh,” Bailey says. “De Burgh always seemed to ignore criticism, but Peter’s review seemed to tip him over the edge. After years of people slagging him off he finally blew his top, and it all came pouring out into this one letter.”
Never Mind the Buzzcocks had many fans, but Bailey isn’t too concerned about its demise, even though he replaced Sean Hughes as a team captain from 2002. “I did 11 series and about 100 shows. It was a very anarchic and irreverent show. It poked fun at all the worst elements of the music industry. It had a real point and relevance, but now there are so many panel shows it feels the entire television schedule is just one big, long panel show. It was enormous fun, but ultimately it was time to move on.”
Bailey writes new material at a ferocious rate and keeps himself busy with extracurricular projects as a presenter, musician and actor. He also finds the time to adopt and care for an army of animals at his house in Hammersmith, in west London, which he shares with his wife, Kristin, and their son, Dax.
“We’ve a fair old menagerie at the moment: dogs, cats, fish, birds, parrots, starlings, pigeons, a snake. It really is a bit of a zoo. One of the dogs is about to have puppies, which is probably the last thing we need right now. I keep thinking one day I’ll come home and there will be straw on the floor and some kind of Jurassic World squawking and running wild. I’m waiting for that day to come.”
The animal kingdom has always informed the work of Bailey, who is patron of International Animal Rescue. It even finds its way into an observation about this year’s UK general election. “One of my favourite postelection facts is that there are now more pandas in Scotland than there are Labour, Conservative and Liberal MPs put together,” Bailey says, guffawing. “So at least some good has come out of it after all.”
Dandelion mind: Bill Bailey on . . .
Nostalgia “How long has that been around?”
“That ethos was never going to work, was it? It was just cobbled together from different beliefs. The anti-intellectualism of the Khmer Rouge, the religious persecution of the Nazis, the enforced beard-wearing from the world of folk music, and the subjugation and humiliation of women from the world of golf.”
“Not so great in England at the moment; in an online poll we came last. We actually came bottom of European countries for quality of life, because of things like the weather, obviously, late retirement, poor holiday, poor public services, poor health service; it’s basically just a kind of grey, godless wilderness, full of cold pies and broken dreams.”
The lyrics of The Killers
“I’ve got ham but I’m not a hamster.”
“I feel sorry for James Blunt. He has to wake up every morning and think, Oh my God, I’m James Blunt, what have I done?”
The British royal family
“ ‘God save our gracious queen’: Why would we invoke a nonspecific deity to bail out these unelected spongers?”
Bill Bailey is at the Black Box, Galway, on September 29th and 30th; Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on October 1st, 2nd and 3rd; Ulster Hall, Belfast, on October 4th and 5th; and Cork Opera House on October 6th. billbailey.co.uk