Stand up guy: Bill Bailey on music, marriage and the moment he refused to sell out
He wooed his wife with love letters. He plays every instrument under the sun. And he lives in a menagerie. What's not to like about Bill Bailey?
Saturday 05 December 2009
I have been in love with Bill Bailey for some time now. So when it transpires that our interview will take place at a bar so close to his home that once the allotted time is up, he could feasibly launch himself from his seat and land back on his sofa with his wife and son within seconds, with nothing more to show for his efforts than a couple of smashed window panes, it's a blow. None the less, I dry my eyes, raise a smile, and head to the west-London gastropub for 5.40pm, as arranged.
Bailey arrives moments later. He is friendly and polite, and briefly scours the bar menu before ordering a large glass of merlot and a plate of lamb kofta. His food arrives and he nibbles and laughs and jokes between mouthfuls, and all is going very nicely indeed until, several gulps later, the conversation leaps from a mutual appreciation of the clearance rails at TK Maxx to British politics – and with this untraceable digression, the comedian's entire demeanour shifts: his previously animated face crumples forward in his hands, silver rings pressing hard against his forehead.
I begin to wonder whether a long day promoting his latest tour on various radio shows has taken its toll. Or perhaps the tortuous ambient beats which spill out from speakers at every corner of the pub have done him in. For a few moments he lays there; all that is visible of the usually charismatic 44-year-old is the top of his head, with that semi-circle of hair swaying at his shoulders.
Then, without warning, he is back to life, with a tirade against the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Yvette Cooper, and her Tory Shadow, Theresa May, whose name he spits as if ejecting an olive stone from between his teeth. He is explaining why, having been at the Radio 4 studio that morning while the pair had been conducting an on-air debate, he will no longer be voting at the next general election: "They were going: 'Ne ne ne ne neeee!'" he demonstrates with two flailing hands, thumb and forefinger pinched into crab shapes. Mid-flow, he stops, and takes another slurp. Without looking up, he stabs a fork at his plate, chews, swallows, licks his lips and politely dabs a napkin along his perfectly triangular goatee. "So I just can't really be bothered," he finishes, placing his elbows square on the table, raising those huge quizzical eyes with a slightly alarming grin.
It's difficult not to love Bill Bailey. Even if we were holding our meeting somewhere really exciting, crammed with really exciting people, rather than here, in a near-empty gastropub in Hammersmith, he would, no doubt, still be the most interesting feature in the room. Even if he didn't have a physique which inspired the name of his show Part Troll; even if he wasn't sat before me this evening in a pin-stripe suit jacket and a bright white T-shirt with the head of a gorilla in headphones emblazoned on the front; even if he wasn't waving his arms enthusiastically at any given opportunity, it would still be a stretch not to want him to be my friend.
There is, above all, something irresistibly contagious about Bailey's passion for music, which rises to the point of spontaneous combustion during his live shows, as he bounds across the stage colliding with various instruments – at one point hammering out an imitation of a 1970s cop-show theme tune from his piano stool, swiftly followed by the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" from his bassoon. "Bassoon players are actually obsessed by the Bee Gees," Bailey announced at a recent performance as he prepared to take up his next tune on the motion-censored Theremin. "For many years they have been incorporating the Bee Gees into classical works." He is, simply, a musical prodigy; other than cello and violin, he is unable to name a single instrument he cannot play; from the age of four, he'd spend hours at the piano, encouraged by his mother, who'd sit on the back of the sofa and listen to him tinkle away. Academically, he verges on genius too, achieving top marks at his private school in Bath with very little effort.
Bill Bailey was actually born Mark. A music teacher at school gave him the nickname, due to his ability to play the jazz song "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" on the guitar, and it stuck. He was an only child, raised in the town of Keynsham, an unremarkable spot somewhere between Bristol and Bath, by his mum, a nurse, and his dad, a GP, with his maternal grandparents living in an annex of the same house.
In 2005, Bailey's mother died. "That year, and the year after that and I think the year after that, I was in a bit of a daze," he says. "You just think your parents are always going to be there." Even though his mother's cancer was terminal, the shock of her death was still devastating. "Before it happened, I expended so much energy thinking I must be able to sort this out," he recalls. "There was a terrible, slow, drawn-out inevitability to it all." He was locked into doing a show when she passed away. "I look back now," he continues, "and I don't know what the hell I was doing. I was going through the motions, not really engaging in anything."
As a teenager, Bailey says, "I'd gravitated towards people whose family life wasn't as ordered as mine, to those with younger parents, and a more relaxed home environment than my own." His adolescence synchronised with the emergence of punk. "When I was 15, I went to see the Stranglers at Bath Pavilion," he recalls. "I saw Jean-Jacques Burnel take off his bass and whack a skinhead over the head with it because he gave a Nazi salute. I thought: 'This is brilliant!'" Not long after, he joined a band, Behind Closed Doors, and with that, any commitment to school work went out the window. Then came the new-wave era and "appalling memories" of Spandau Ballet and his "short spiky-blond" hair-do. At present, he is planning a final blow-out before total baldness sets in: "A Hoxton mohawk, perhaps."
When he does, Bailey will simply call upon his very nice hairdresser, who visits him at his very large, very grand home, which stands back from an affluent, tree-lined street in Hammersmith. Along with a parrot, a chameleon, an unspecified number of cats, a few fish, two starlings, a guinea-pig, a rabbit and four dogs – three of which he rescued as puppies and had shipped over from their native Indonesia – Bailey also shares his home with his wife, Kristin, and their five-year-old son, Dax. What's it like inside? "It's a one-bedroom flat," he replies, deadpan. "There's straw on the floor and we shuffle around eating pineapple out of tins."
So then, to Bailey's wife, Kristin. The pair met at one of Bill's gigs in 1987. She was running a bar in Edinburgh. He was drawn to her "wild spirit", and pursued his wife-to-be via a daily letter for 12 months before they finally got together in 1988; 10 years later, they married on a whim, in Indonesia. "We were travelling around Asia and sailed into a place called Banda, with a beautiful lagoon, and a smoking volcano on one side and a Dutch colonial fort, an old church and remains of a little town on the other. We decided to get married there and then," he recalls.
Today, Kristin, a former costume designer, handles her husband's business affairs. Until relatively recently, one can't imagine it would have been much of a job. In the late Eighties, Bailey was trudging his not entirely successful stand-up routines up and down the country, performing with the likes of Mark Lamarr to markedly empty comedy clubs. In 1994, he performed the show Rock at the Edinburgh Festival with Sean Lock, with no more success – one night there was only a single face in the audience, that of Dominic Holland, a fellow comedian. At that stage, Bailey says he nearly gave it all up for a career in telesales. And it wasn't for want of trying that this plan failed – after two weeks selling advertising space, he was sacked for refusing to wear a tie.
Before that, Bailey had been something of a drifter. "In my twenties, I floated around for years," he recalls, "doing the odd theatre job but mainly leading a hedonistic lifestyle, getting intoxicated in plenty of different ways in plenty of different places." Ultimately, travel has given him a sense of appreciation for what it is to live in the UK. "Life is cheap in most of the world," he says. "I feel angry about it all the time. In India, a bus goes over a cliff and it's: 'Hey, tough! Never mind!' It makes you value the kind of structured, civilised ways we live our lives in this country."
Today, Bill Bailey is doing rather nicely. Following a breakthrough role, in 2000, in the television sitcom Black Books, alongside Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig, he had a long-running captaincy on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Last year he quit the show. Officially, because of a conflict in schedules, although at a recent gig in Bristol, he made a pointed comment about the feckless indie kids who feature in the programme. Now he is in his element, touring his most spectacular gig to date: Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, which has been "the fulfilment of a life-time ambition". In this, accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, Bailey celebrates the power of various musical instruments, one by one – at one point describing the role of the oboe through the history of the Emmerdale theme tune. It packed out London's Royal Albert Hall and various venues around the country, and moves to the 02 in Greenwich next week.
When he's not working, Bailey enjoys the simple things, like shopping in TK Maxx, and bird-watching: "As I get older, I have a very strong urge to know about stuff," he says. "I want to learn the names of trees and birds; that's the sort of knowledge I want to pass on to my son." He enjoys spending time with his five-year-old – picking him up from school, taking him to swimming lessons and piano classes. Like his father, Dax – who was named after a child Bill and Kristin met in Indonesia, not the German stock exchange or a hair product or a parasitical worm – has a great affinity with the piano. "I'm ashamed to say, it's without practising either," Bailey adds. "He just turns up and there it is, just as it was for me."
On the rare occasion that he is neither touring nor hanging out with Dax, Bailey might well be found at a Bikram yoga class in nearby Chiswick. A slightly incongruous hobby, which came about thanks to his former personal trainer, "a man who is inordinately clumsy for someone so fit. He was permanently in plaster, having come off his bike or fallen down the stairs or banged his head." All the same, he heeded his trainer's advice and now attends exercise classes in which a group of bodies, largely female, take on a series of contorted positions in a room heated to melting point. Funnily enough, he loves it. "At yoga you get some sense of spiritual space so that people don't intrude," he says. "You can go there and close your eyes and no one will talk to you. People are too worried about not fainting to bother with some bloke who was on the telly."
At several points during our conversation, Bailey brings up his experience with relatively new-found fame. He says he enjoys touring European cities where, unlike here, he can move around largely unnoticed. But he insists that he is still a cult figure. He doesn't want to be seen as part of popular culture, something which can be packaged and sold off. It's an aversion which becomes all-too-apparent when Bailey launches a scathing attack on the supermarket chain Asda, who recently approached him to appear in their advertising campaign.
"What annoyed me about that is that they thought they could just buy my popularity!" he spits, clearly rather cross. "They thought: 'He's a popular guy, people like him. We'll buy that off him and use it to make ourselves look nice and popular and lovely.' It was like: 'What's your price? Here's money. Here's a shit load of money. Here's loads more money!'" So how much did they offer him? "Many hundreds of thousands. They offered me £300,000 on the table there and then. 'Here you go, boom.'" He drops his hand hard on the table. "And I was intrigued. I went: 'Oh, tell me more' – like, never in a million years was I going to do it, but basically, they would have doubled it.
"Part of me thinks I should have taken it and no one would have batted an eyelid, you know?" With that, Bailey lets out a big, heavy sigh, as if the weight of the world has just been dropped on his shoulders. It seems he might collapse back on to the table-top at any moment, and is clearly in need of a big old hug, but then the waiter arrives to remove his empty plate. "Thank you so much," Bailey says, straightening his back, giving his head a swift shake. Without looking up, he dabs a napkin along his upper lip, places it neatly on the table. Finally he lifts his head and smiles. "So that was that."
'Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra' will be at London's 02 on Friday. A DVD recording of the performance is available at billbailey.co.uk
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