Bill Bailey: 'People are obsessed by how I look'

Bill Bailey's talent embraces everything from bloke-in-a-bar gags to Chaucer and Pinter. Where will his quicksilver wit alight next?

You have to be careful what you say about Bill Bailey. The journalist, for example, who wrote that "his head resembles a large egg and his hair flows down his back like a shower curtain", has found fame of a sort, as his words are tossed out, with a half-shrug, half-sneer, to nightly audiences of thousands. "People are obsessed by how I look," said Bailey in his last touring show, before presenting, with apparent bewilderment, the evidence. Like so much to do with the man now famously described as a "medieval roadie", however, it's a double bluff. The show, after all, is called Part Troll.

Today, the "part troll" looks less wild, hairy creature from Glastonbury, or perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and more respectable metropolitan type, clutching a sleek phone and sporting a smart jacket and a flowery shirt. The beard is neatly trimmed and the hair looks as though it's hanging in there as long hair, hovering, in fact, somewhere between establishment and rebel. And perhaps you can't quite be a rebel if you've just taken part, as Bailey did a couple of nights ago, in a 60th birthday show for the heir to the throne. Perhaps you can't be a rebel if you're taking your room-in-a-pub shows to stadium audiences of around 10,000, and if your website offers fans the chance to buy an extensive range of "merchandise", from mugs and shopping bags to ringtones.

Or perhaps this is just what you do when you have an awful lot of fans, and Bailey does have an awful lot of fans. At his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks ago, I gasped to see such a vast, young crowd assembled for a guide to classical music. They weren't there for the classical music, of course, they were there (I soon realised) for Bailey. Bailey, television personality, comedy superstar, the man with enough edge to make massive popularity feel like a cult following, the man who appeals to students, management consultants, New Agers, and, judging by the televised guffaws from the royal box, princes.

A classically trained musician, Bailey moved seamlessly from keyboard to guitar to mic, from Beethoven to The Bee Gees, from Nietzsche to The Nutcracker. Drawing on some of the musical material from earlier shows, including wonderful parodies of Chris De Burgh ("beautiful ladies in emergency situations/ beautiful songs in subterranean locations/ beautiful songs with Celtic aspirations") and a "racial harmony" tribute to Bryan Adams, the evening was indeed a remarkable guide to an orchestra – funny, yes, but also educational.

And in Tinselworm, last year's sell-out arena tour, now in a "last chance" run at the Gielgud Theatre, he morphs from rock god (of a parodic kind, of course) to hotel foyer pianist (a past job) to pub philosopher, before disappearing, or appearing to disappear, in a puff of smoke. A puff of smoke and rapturous applause.

We meet, appropriately enough, in a pub, but then the man whose three-men-in-a-pub jokes sometimes expand to casts of thousands steers us away to a little café, for pain au chocolat and café au lait. Pub-joke comedian prefers poncy French patisserie shock horror – except that Bailey, it's clear, has always liked a bit of Baudrillard with his beer, a little Stephen Hawking, or maybe Sartre, with his Star Trek. In his show Cosmic Jam, he talks about "the postmodern bloke coming back from the pub" and this is precisely the persona he strikes. Wouldn't he, I wonder, like to give slightly more rein to the intellectual and slightly less to the bloke next door?

Bailey frowns. "It's a balancing act, it really is," he sighs. "Naturally, I'd like to try and push it on a bit and try and engage in more interesting subjects, subjects that you wouldn't necessarily think of as subjects for comedy, and find the comedy in them. But then realistically, in a show," he says, with a sudden little chuckle, "you have to get the laughs."

The face in close-up is even more fascinating than projected, as it often is in his shows, on a giant screen. The range in the shows is from bewildered bloke in the pub to cheeky devil, bulgy-eyed nutter and gentle loon. In the flesh, the range is much broader and more subtle. The eyes sparkle with intelligence. Fingers stroke a cheek in what you might think of as a parody of a man thinking, if it wasn't actually a man thinking.

He cried, he admits, when he heard the news about Barack Obama. "I got a bit emotional," he says. "Probably," he adds, in a defensive comic reflex, "because I'd been up all night and had too many Hobnobs." The joy, however, is clearly sincere, and not just for its implications for global politics. "There's been a tremendous wave of relief and celebration, and I noticed it the other night in this gig [the Prince Charles birthday gala] with Robin Williams. We talked about the same thing. It's like a spur to write. You're allowed to be intellectual again. I think comedy has probably been coarsened a bit by Bush, because he's such an easy target. You can't do that with Obama, because he's too intelligent and articulate."

The career that has him hobnobbing not just with Hobnobs, but with Robin Williams and the Prince of Wales, started at the age of seven, at a tea-party for a funeral. Little Mark Bailey (Bill was a nickname from a teacher, which stuck) was playing the piano and suddenly muttered, in a thick Les Dawson accent, "That's it, I'm knackered." "I remember my dad spitting his tea out, and somebody swore, and it was just chaos." At 18, he did his first gig in a pub, and not long after, in a "multi-sexual-orientation anarchist vegan squat", saw John Hegley alternating poems with "short, sweet songs on the ukulele" and it was "a kind of light bulb going off". "It just struck me," says Bailey, "that this was the niche I'd been looking for, where you have the freedom to say exactly what you want. There's no rules, no entry form, you just have to get up and do it."

He started a degree in English at Westfield College (part of the University of London), but found it "half-baked" after the inspirational approach of his English teacher at school, and eschewed Sir Gawain etc for French A-level texts, which he performed as part of a French-speaking student theatre company. He left Westfield after a year, tried telesales but resigned when he was told he had to wear a tie, and found himself hitting the long, winding, and often exhausting road of the sometimes three-gigs-a-night comedy circuit. As the current poster for Tinselworm says, "Twenty-two years I've been doing this comedy lark, so it's been like a meteoric rise to fame... if the meteor was being dragged by an arthritic donkey across a ploughed field, in northern Poland."

Television has helped, of course – roles in cult sitcoms Spaced and Black Books, and quiz shows (which he says he's now given up) like Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI. Still, it's quite a leap from a room in a pub to Wembley Arena. How does it feel? "Well," he confesses, "on the [Tinselworm] tour, the big one was the Newcastle Metro arena, which is 9,600, and I actually got a bit freaked out at the beginning. The first 10 minutes I have no memory of, it was like some kind of out of body experience, and then I got a grip and it was fine. I don't think some of the subjects translate in a big stadium like that, they just can't. It took a while to get my head round it. I don't know if I'd do it again."

But, for a man who dreamt, like most men, of being a rock star, it clearly had its moments. "I recorded the DVD at Wembley," he says, "and at the end I sing this love song, which I've been doing for a while, but I did a kind of rock version of it. I started playing it, and there's this cheer and everyone knows it and they all sing along, and at one point, I looked up and the lights were shining behind me and had projected my shadow, and it was about 50 feet tall, and I thought, 'Oh my God.'"

Now, he says, he's "really pleased" to be doing the show in a theatre which, with a capacity of just under 900, he describes as "intimate". "You can hear what people are saying and if you're engaging with the audience everyone has to hear what's being said... I could focus on the detail, and that's what I love, the twists and turns that you can get into. I think I've probably built up this need to do the show like this, in a small space, where there are things I want to get off my chest, and that's part of stand-up, that's what it should be. Maybe it's a fanciful notion, but I always think it's the modern-day equivalent of a tradition that traces its way back through centuries of storytelling, to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales."

Ah, Chaucer, source of Bailey's Pubbe Gagge ("three fellowes wenten into a pubbe" etc), father of English literature, entertainer, observer of (and, one imagines, participant in) revelry, bard, philosopher, dispenser of wisdom, and of rollicking romps, Renaissance (or pre-Renaissance) man. You can see why Bailey might love him. He loves poetry, in fact, something he doesn't often mention in his shows ("Auden, Spender, Isherwood and all that"), and Jane Austen and Thomas Pynchon, which he does mention. More recently, he has read, and admired, the work of DBC Pierre, Peter Carey and Gordon Burn. "I just love language," he sighs, "anyone who really stretches and pulls it and twists it." Might he write some fiction, at some point? There's a pause, and when he speaks, it's quietly: "I'd love to."

Last year, he compiled and performed in a series of Harold Pinter's sketches, which he called Pinter's People. Pinter himself was "very supportive", but some of the critics weren't. "If it hadn't been such a personal project," he confesses, "I wouldn't have been that bothered, but it was something I'd been thinking about for years. Things that are very dear to your heart, and that you feel very protective over... then it's disheartening when the initial reaction is horror. But Pinter was phoning up and chivvying me along. The writing's so good. It's quite an inspiration. If you're going to perform," Bailey adds, "you're going to attract criticism. You can't please everyone all the time. You don't know how things are going to come out. But that's part of the fun of it, the adventure of doing any kind of art."

Adventure, indeed. I hope this restless, multitalented and, in spite of his hippie-ish persona, hugely ambitious man does write a novel. I hope he writes a memoir. Not, as he says, "a series of celebrity anecdotes", but a proper memoir, one that gives an insight into a questing, quicksilver brain.

'Tinselworm' is at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844 482 5130), to 22 December; the DVDs 'Tinselworm' and 'Bill Bailey: The Classic Collection' are out now

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