Interview: Bill Bailey talks about his latest show, Qualmpeddler
'It's about reflecting ideas and thoughts that float about in an intangible way'
Musical comedian Bill Bailey is still going strong, making waves from Knebworth to Borneo. Brian Donaldson hears from a man with a fondness for Mao’s propaganda posters
A press release for a Bill Bailey tour is often more entertaining than some comedians’ entire stage careers. There’s no way that this ‘Swiftian satirist,’ the archetypal hippie materialist and owner of a Dandelion Mind did not have a hand in publicity passages for Qualmpeddler, which talk of him ‘channelling feelings of unease’ as he ‘looks at the consequences of lies, the unending search for the Higgs and the hiding skills of dentists. Bill tries to confront his cluster-qualm of living in a time of spectacular ignorance and rare planetary alignment. Come savour this broth of anxiety … Plus there’s one amazing owl.’
OK, so what’s all this ‘broth of anxiety’ stuff about? ‘I suppose it’s a euphemism for what stand-up is,’ he tells me during a 25-minute interview when a low chuckle is rarely absent from his voice. ‘The name Qualmpeddler is not a bad summary of what stand-up is: reflecting ideas and thoughts that float about in an intangible way. Stand-up is about finding a lightning rod for it, a turn of phrase which can puncture an amorphous thought.’
Long before Tim Minchin, David O’Doherty and Flight of the Conchords sauntered onto a busier musical comedy stage, Bill Bailey was keeping the flame alive as one of the very few who could make this most frowned-upon sub-genre exciting and vibrant. Making the mash-up comedy tune his very own, Bailey also found untold hilarious mileage in the works of everyone from Chas ‘n’ Dave to Richard Clayderman. On his new tour, he’s tapping right into the zeitgeist with a dub version of Downton Abbey. ‘I sat down to it at Christmas because I’d never seen it and wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. I sat agog at how little was actually going on, and that was the inspiration to liven it up a bit in a reggae style.’
As well as captivating live comedy audiences since his mid-90s breakthrough, he has done some serious-ish acting (Pinter’s People, 12 Angry Men), appeared in one of Channel 4’s finest sitcoms (Black Books, alongside Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig), worked his way round all the quiz shows (QI, Never Mind the Buzzcocks) and packed the sun cream and shades for travel programmes (he recently went to Borneo for a BBC documentary about his favourite explorer, Alfred Wallace).
Really, what else was left for him to do? Oh yes, in 2011 he played in front of 60,000 metal fans at Knebworth. ‘That gig is one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had. It was very daunting and I was really nervous about it. It wasn’t Latitude, where people have been listening to Sigur Rós or some poetry and everyone’s in a mellow mood: this is people with Slipknot masks on and in a frenzy and a fury.’
Deciding to go for a mix of fun and reverence for the metal form, Bailey and his band won over the baying moshpit mob. Back on calmer footing now, Bailey can look forward to a national tour which will only cement his position as the country’s number one musical comedian. And while he has clearly had fun with that press release, he appears to have also had a ball with his poster, a lampooning of Mao-era propaganda art as a giant Bailey crushes a dissident with his hand while a kowtowing crowd of politicians, presenters and personalities look on with fear and respect.
‘I collect all these old posters,’ he chuckles lowly. ‘What is depicted is monstrous, but they’re done with such delicacy and beauty. There are the beautiful sunsets, the workers smiling in the field and then there’s somebody being crushed under a big fist. The poster is a pastiche of me denouncing all these figures who have irritated me in some way. And there’s an owl in it.’
Qualmpeddler, Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, Fri 10 & Sat 11 May; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Thu 6–Sat 8 Jun.