Bill Bailey: 'If I'm a national treasure, does that mean I'm like the Elgin Marbles and will get repatriated at some point?'
- Brian Donaldson
- 29 May 2019
The king of musical comedy mash-ups and the most beloved hippie materialist in our land is back with more gently surrealist musings
For a man who has made his living largely based on years spent indoors mastering musical instruments, Bill Bailey does love a good wander outside. For a recent birthday, he went for a long walk ('going mad these days is having dessert' he insists), which all fits in rather neatly with one of the key themes of his current touring show, Larks in Transit. How do any of us find happiness in a world that seems to be crumbling all around us?
'For me, a lot of it is about the outdoors. Comedy is an indoors thing, so I take every opportunity to go outside. A lot of that involves finding places that are remote, or places where you can look at birds, or do mountain biking or paddle boarding or walking. Someone told me that this is what you call mindfulness; I'm not aware of that. It wasn't a conscious decision to do it, but apparently that's what I've been doing all these years.'
In a typical Bailey-esque diversion, he immediately brings up the subject of 'hygge', a Scandi-like version of mindfulness. 'There's no direct English translation, so I tried to nail down my Danish friend on it but he got all misty-eyed and started talking about candles and cosiness. It seems to be the same sort of feeling we used to get during a power cut. All the lights were off and we lit candles and were all cosy and stayed quiet. I like the principle of it, it's very wholesome. But actually, I don't think it's going to catch on.'
The idea of Bill Bailey has certainly caught on ever since his arrival on the comedy scene in the mid-90s. The long hair, wide-eyed look and ability to mash-up the most unlikely of musical combinations has gained an increasingly large following. In the Bailey universe, Tom Waits is doing the Old Macdonald nursery rhyme, 'Candle in the Wind' gets the death metal treatment, and 'Zip-a-dee-doo-dah' is transformed in the trip-hop Portishead style. Still, he has yet to quite work out how to make a Sigur Rós on-hold tune be funny.
'These mash-ups tend to just accidentally emerge from playing a song,' Bailey reveals. 'I might play something wrong or slow it down or play in a different key, and you think "something is happening here". Other times there's an intention, so I thought "what is the most unlikely thing that Kraftwerk would play"? So I arrived at the conclusion that it would be 'The Hokey Cokey'. But usually it comes out of a jam or a serendipitous error. I've got loads of them squirreled away because either they're too obscure or I've tried them out and people have looked at me blankly.'
With many live tours under his belt (Part Troll, Limboland and Bewilderness for three), Bailey's TV credits are almost as long as the queues who gain entry to his shows: he's done Black Books with Dylan Moran and In the Long Run with Idris Elba while he has also presented various travel shows and appeared on panel programmes such as QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He even has a plant named after him ('it kills flies'). And along the way, barely a bad word has been said about him (though no doubt some would have baulked at his official endorsement of the Labour party at the 2010 general election). All of which leads effortlessly to Bill Bailey being dubbed Britain's latest national treasure. He's not so sure.
'One of the things I do really appreciate is that my audiences tend to be a wide range of ages and backgrounds, and I ascribe that to putting in the hours. If people feel comfortable that they can go along and bring their kids or parents, your appeal broadens out, and my aim is always to try and get as many people to see the show as possible. If I'm a national treasure, does that mean I'm like the Elgin Marbles and will get repatriated at some point?'
Bill Bailey: Larks in Transit, Caird Hall, Dundee, Wed 29 May; SSE Hydro, Glasgow, Thu 30 May; Edinburgh Playhouse, Fri 31 May.