Sunday 23 October 2016

Bill Bailey: 'Sunburn in Ireland? It happens, I've even seen it with my own eyes'

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey

It's a blistering hot morning in Dublin, and Bill Bailey is recalling the last time he experienced something resembling a heatwave in the capital.

"I remember once I did a run of shows at the Olympia, and one of my crew went out," says Bill. "They went to the beach, and they came back and they had been sunburnt. I went, 'What, sunburnt? In Ireland? What?'"

The British comedian lets out a chuckle. "But it does happen! I've seen it with me own eyes!"

It's a funny thing, chatting with Bill Bailey. One minute, you're talking about the weather; the next, it's all about the gap between expectation and reality; life's various 'what ifs', and the uncertainty of the future.

Then it's on to the possibility of Europe cracking apart and technology destroying us all. Yep, that's Bill - that's Limboland, actually (the name of Bailey's new show). We shouldn't be surprised.

This isn't just a man whom Channel 4 once declared the seventh greatest stand-up comic of all time.

He is, of course, so much more than one of the funniest comedy panellists on our screens or the oddball Manny in Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan's Black Books.


No, Bill Bailey is also a classically-trained musician, a multi-instrumentalist and an academic genius with perfect pitch. This guy is so smart he once rebelled against his own future.

"I'm eternally indebted to my mum and dad, because they didn't really put any pressure on me at all," explains Bill.

"I was never aware of either of them saying, 'You've gotta get into medical school and follow your dad', there was none of that.

"They just allowed me to do what I wanted. I think that it was quite hard for them a lot of the time, because I mean, I did completely go off the rails."

Indeed, Bill was once a straight-A student.

"I just sort of went, 'No, I'm not doing this bloody exam, it's a doddle'. I joined a band and went to London. I just went to parties, and all this sort of academic stuff - without sounding arrogant - I found it easy and I was bored by it and I wanted to do something else.

"[My parents] never sort of made me feel like I had to conform and clamp down," he continues, "and I'm immensely grateful to them for that now. I probably wasn't at the time!

"When they came to see my shows at the Royal Albert Hall, they realised that all that time I was thinking up daft jokes and doing gigs and not earning any money that, actually, this was leading somewhere. They thought, 'Oh, okay, yeah, he's done alright'."


Incidentally, Bailey's son, Dax, recently shared some career plans with the family.

"He's just about to leave junior school now," explains Bill, "and there was a yearbook of all the leavers from the school, and written in the thing where it says 'ambitions', he goes 'to be a comedian, like my dad'."

Ask Bill about turning 50 last year and it's clear that the guy isn't too keen about his new 'category'.

"It kind of crept up on me a little bit," he says, "in a way that perhaps, ten years ago, 40 didn't. It made me pause a little bit more.

"It's quite a milestone, and you only realise it when it occurs, you think, 'Oh s**t, I'm suddenly in another category now'. I don't feel any different than I felt when I was 25, but suddenly I'm in a different age bracket. That really p****d me off!"

It was late in the day when Bill Bailey began to make a name for himself in comedy.

In fact, it was the mid-90s by the time he debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, having decided to go solo for the first time after years of playing in double acts.

Despite initial aspirations to be a serious songsmith, Bailey managed to carve out a successful career by merging a talent for all things musical with a surreal, whimsical flair for comedy. He is a bona fide rock-star comedian. The others are just copycats.

"I just think 'good on you', though," says Bailey of the comedy newcomers picking up guitars. "I'm encouraged when I see people using music in their acts. When I was starting out, it was almost like the poor relation, you know, 'Oh, music act is it? Right, well that's cheating!'"

Earlier this year, the BBC decided to axe Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the pop-themed comedy game show on which Bailey served as a team captain for years.

Was he surprised to see it go? "I'll be honest with you, I really didn't wanna do it at first," he said.

"I had to be persuaded to do it by the management I was with at the time. So, I sort of thought, 'Well, I'll give it a go and see if I enjoy it', and I ended up really loving it and I did a number of series and had a great time on it. I think maybe Buzzcocks had just run its course."

Right now, Bailey is fine-tuning Limboland for European audiences (the show made its debut in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year). He's also happy to be back in the theatres (he prefers them over the arenas).

Surprisingly, he reads his own press - even the bad reviews. "Oh yeah, definitely. You can't be selective - you have to read everything or nothing. Very early on, I was so thrilled to see anything about me in print, I just couldn't believe it.

"So I started reading them. Both bad and good reviews can be harmful. I mean, if you get a bad review, it can knock your confidence, and you think, 'Aw s**t, what's the point? Some harsh words will, like, stick in you like a wound, you know, like a bit of broken-off dagger!" he laughs.

"Then good reviews might just let you think, 'Well, I'm brilliant - it says here I'm a genius, so I don't have to work.' That can have a negative effect as well, so I just think you have to read everything, take it all with a pinch of salt and try and do good work."

As for Twitter?

"Oh, don't go there," says Bill, laughing.

"Don't ever Google yourself. That should be the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not Google thyself."

Bill Bailey performs at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on October 1-3; Black Box, Galway 30 September; Cork Opera House 06 October


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