Bill Bailey: For whom the Bill toils

His refusal to wear a tie saved Bill Bailey from a career in telesales. Now, he's a star on television and his inimitable stand-up is conquering the West End. James Rampton meets a true original

Bill Bailey was very far from an overnight success. The comedian sighs. "I had years of playing places like the Three-Legged Dog Club in Hull, and I did get down about it. I thought, 'How many more times am I going to have to stop at Watford Gap services at 3am?' I remember driving along the motorway with a friend one night and saying, 'Let's not stop at this service station - the next one's better.' When you suddenly realise you know the relative merits of different motorway services, it's time to re-evaluate your life."

Bill Bailey was very far from an overnight success. The comedian sighs. "I had years of playing places like the Three-Legged Dog Club in Hull, and I did get down about it. I thought, 'How many more times am I going to have to stop at Watford Gap services at 3am?' I remember driving along the motorway with a friend one night and saying, 'Let's not stop at this service station - the next one's better.' When you suddenly realise you know the relative merits of different motorway services, it's time to re-evaluate your life."

But Bailey still hadn't hit rock-bottom. That moment came in the early 1990s when he and his fellow comedian Sean Lock took a two-hander play called Rock to the Edinburgh Festival. "I was playing this West Country rocker addled by years of drug abuse and failed marriages and groups splitting up, and Sean played his roadie. Every night Sean would go on first as the roadie, talk to the audience and then bring me on in a grand entrance.

"Obviously, we thought the show was great, but we weren't getting any audiences at all. One night, Sean went on first, and I just heard him say through the curtain, 'Oh, my God. Er, OK, Bill, you can come on now.' I went out on stage and there was just one person in the audience - Dominic Holland, another comedian. "He said, 'Don't worry, lads, just enjoy yourselves.'

"'Do you know what, Dominic?' I replied. 'I don't think we will. We'll just take you down the pub and tell you the jokes there instead.' It's very difficult not to get downhearted when things like that happen."

At one point, Bailey was so fed up, he did the unthinkable for a professional comedian. "I got a proper job," he says, shaking his head. "I was selling ad space for an international business management development magazine. I can't remember its name now, but what's worse is I couldn't even remember its name then, when I was trying to sell its advertising."

Bailey's natural hippie-ish tendencies proved an insurmountable obstacle. "I was sacked after two weeks. I refused to wear a tie. I kept telling my boss - I forget his name, let's call him The Man - 'It's telesales. They can't see me. It doesn't matter what I'm wearing.' I was thinking, 'The Man ain't gonna tell me what to do. I'm sticking it to The Man - oh, I've been sacked .' That's the danger of sticking it to The Man. Still, if he'd said, 'You know what? T-shirt and jeans are OK,' I'm sure I'd still be there."

But telesales' loss has been comedy's gain. Ensconced in a corner at his favourite West London café, Bailey is wearing a khaki shirt, an earring, a Catweazle beard and the flowing locks that have led him to describe himself as "1982 Michael Bolton Stars in Their Eyes regional finalist". In person, he exhibits the same easy-going wit that has made him a slow-burning comedy cult.

He may have crept in through the backdoor, but Bailey now inhabits starry terrain. You don't sell out 80,000 tickets and play to 99.7 per cent full houses on a 52-date national tour if you're a nobody. In huge demand from TV producers after sterling work in sitcoms ( Black Books, Spaced) and panel games ( Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI), Bailey is perhaps an even greater live draw. He is following up the tour with a six-week run of his show, Part Troll, at the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

Things started to take off for Bailey in the mid-1990s when he went to Edinburgh to perform his unique brand of musical stand-up. "I had this immense baptism of fire at the Fringe Club," recollects Bailey. "The crowd would hurl glass bottles at you. I remember hitting a bottle away with the neck of my guitar and making a mental note: 'Hey, a guitar is handy in these situations.' I finally realised that the crowd quite liked me when they switched to throwing plastic cups. I was delighted because there was no way I was going back to The Man."

Bailey, who was born in Bath 40 years ago and brought up in Keynsham, Bristol, soon started to generate a loyal following. He won the Time Out Comedy Award in 1995, was nominated for the Perrier the following year (he narrowly lost to Dylan Moran, his eventual co-star in Black Books), and picked up the Best Stand-Up gong at the British Comedy Awards in 1999.

On stage, Bailey majors in highly individual comic musings - in Part Troll, he ranges from Nietzsche and Hinduism to boy bands ("there's more evil in the charts than an al-Qai'da suggestions' box") and that laminated catalogue you get in Argos stores ("You know why it's laminated, don't you? To catch the tears of joy"). He intersperses this with inspired musical parodies, which include everything from Portishead's version of "Zip-a-dee doo dah" to a hillbilly rendition of "Stairway to Heaven".

His speciality is the incongruous juxtaposition. In one magnificent routine, the comic imagines that George W Bush's notorious Axis of Evil is served by a call centre and that when you ring up, you are put on hold interminably. As he plays annoyingly bland muzak in the background, Bailey imitates one of those soothing computer-generated voices: "Have you thought about the Axis of Evil pension scheme?"

Merging music with comedy is a dangerous game - the act can be drowned out by the horrible sound of a performer falling between two stools - but Bailey pulls it off with aplomb. "People are down on comedy musicians," he says, "because in a lot of comedy songs the music is overlooked. It seems irrelevant rather than intrinsic. That's why in my act, the music is as much the gag as the lyrics. If you get it right, music can elevate a gig to another level. The song can't be too long, otherwise it turns into a Yes album. You can't go prog rock on people. It has to be like a punk record, a one-and-a-half minute burst."

Some of our more humorous pop stars have got the joke. Billy Bragg is so fond of "Unisex Chip Shop", Bailey's acutely accurate mickey-take of his earnest, agit-prop tone, that he invited him to perform it with him as a duet at Glastonbury this summer. Bailey says, "I was so over-awed, I forgot my own lyrics. You have to know the style of the musician really well in order to nail it. So all my tributes have a spark of affection in them."

The other element that features increasingly in Bailey's act is politics. "With the world as it is today, it seems natural for a comedian to gravitate towards that sort of material," he reflects.He has dabbled in the past, but his ironic worldview stopped him taking it too seriously. "In 1986, I was in a play with Frances de la Tour called The Printers, to raise money for the sacked Wapping print workers. For two years afterwards, I went to WRP meetings, but I never felt it was entirely for me. I was the one saying, 'Hold on, there's not actually going to be a revolution.' They absolutely believed there would be - 'very soon, but hopefully not next Thursday because we're having a drinks do'. It was all very British.

"But it left me with a life-long interest in the Left. I'd say I'm a socialist communitarian, although I'm not hugely interested in party politics. I'm more in favour of action. Look at the huge resurgence of mass protests against the war in Iraq and G8. Old-fashioned politics has been emasculated. People now do things on a local level, where they can see an instant return.

"I love that Rich Hall line - when a new party comes to power, it's like hanging an 'under new management' sign over a porn theatre. It doesn't make much difference to what's actually going on."

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Bailey proves that there can be more to stand-up than knob and fart gags. As for the future, he is dreaming of following in the footsteps of another comic, Ben Elton, and creating a rock opera. "I'd love to compose a hard-rock musical," he beams. "I'd pick an artist like the thrash-metal group Slayer and crowbar their songs - 'Show No Mercy', 'Antichrist' and 'Chemical Warfare' - into a laughably suburban plot. 'Mummy, I had a dream last night.' 'What about, dear?' 'Chemical warfare!' I think there's room for something like that, don't you?"

'Bill Bailey: Part Troll', Apollo Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5070) to 4 December. The DVD and video are available from Monday

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