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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn