Bill Bailey: ‘When you lose people, you realise life’s too short to avoid difficult conversations’
Walking into Bill Bailey’s studio feels a bit like walking into Bill Bailey’s mind. It occupies the ground floor of a townhouse in Hammersmith, the kind of residential building where you would expect to find a young family, rather than the nerve centre of one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers.
He is having his picture taken in his garden, which is half zen-style light grey gravel and half astroturf. Visible through a circular partition – a Japanese moon gate, as Bailey explains – is a shed with a recording studio in it. More intriguingly, on one side of the garden is another narrow shed, its contents shielded from view by silver foil and bubble wrap.
“An aviary,” Bailey says, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “We’ve got fig parrots, frogs, a couple of iguanas. Because of the winter we’ve got this bubble wrap, which is fantastic insulation. Talk about Insulate Britain, think of all the bubble wrap that’s kicking around – you could insulate a town. It’s impractical for your house because you can’t see out, but it looks quite cool and it works a treat.” Inside the aviary it is warm and humid. I spy a small emerald-coloured bird hanging out in the eaves. At eye level, a tree-frog stares out, its slime-green throat implacably inflating and deflating.
“Because my wife and I look after animals, people call up and say ‘we’ve got this bird, can you look after it?’,” Bailey explains. “They’re all from collections or zoos that can’t look after them, or birds that have been trafficked. We find a home for them. We looked after a few and among them there was a breeding couple, so we’ve become unintentional parrot breeders. It just sort of happened. Over the years we’ve had parrots, giant pigeons, a tortoise, an armadillo, partridges, hummingbirds, doves. Quite a few have ended up breeding. We seem to be a fecund place, but the reason is that they’ve come from zoos. Animals get stressed when there’s people banging on the glass. We give them a bit of privacy.”
If the animals do not relish an audience, he certainly does. At 57, the comic has achieved an impressive position as perhaps Britain’s biggest alternative act – an Edinburgh Fringe curiosity who has somehow become a national treasure, seemingly without upsetting anyone along the way. The goatee may be a little greyer, the mane at the back a little thinner, but Bailey’s zany-but-thoughtful aesthetic is the same as it has always been. He is part Harley Street consultant, part heavy metal roadie. (Or Part Troll, as the title of one of his tours had it.) Although Bailey might be idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity, he also epitomises an English archetype: the open-minded but sceptical bloke, silly but serious, big-hearted but suspicious of received wisdom. There is someone like Bailey – or someone who thinks they are like Bailey – in the corner of every English pub.
The museum of his interests continues inside David Rose. There are half a dozen guitars, a framed photograph of him dancing with Oti Mabuse on Strictly Come Dancing and a large poster from one of his sell-out stand-up tours. There is a Wes Anderson coffee table book, a bust of his own head and many well-kept pot plants. A jar of spanners, for some reason. Most incongruously, there is a full-size popcorn maker on the back of a red bicycle. “People flog all kinds of things on the internet,” he says. “It’s a functioning popcorn bicycle. If this all goes wrong I’ll just go down to Lyric Square and make a fortune.”
There is also a pad of white paper, on which Bailey has written “Marbled White” dozens of times, like a schoolboy practising his signature, next to a framed pencil drawing of the marbled white butterfly. It’s a Christmas present for Anoushka, the widow of Bailey’s good friend and fellow comedian Sean Lock, who died from lung cancer in August 2021.
“There’s a place called Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire,” he says. “It’s a place Sean and I loved, and we used to go up there with our families. Then last year he was quite ill, but he wanted to go up, so we went to the top. On the way down we saw a butterfly and he asked me what it was. I used to collect butterflies, so it’s one of those things I know about. I told him it was a marbled white. This is a present for his wife.”
In August, Bailey completed a seven-day, 100-mile walk in Devon, from Bude to Combe Martin, to mark the anniversary of Lock’s death. In between breaks from their schedules, they would go on long rambles around the countryside together, setting the world to rights. So far, the August walk has raised more than £160,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the four charities the Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal is supporting this year. Lock had been private about his struggle with the disease. It was Bailey who confirmed his death to the public.
“Sean was stoic about his cancer,” Bailey says. “Sean was always very practical. He was a great reader. His way of dealing with [cancer] was to read the Stoic philosophers. I remember on our walks he would say that what he had gathered was that you can’t change much about life. What happens happens. The only thing we can control is how we react to it. He drummed that into me like a mantra as we walked around the fields of Hertfordshire.”
It’s a philosophy well suited to working as a comedian, as well as cancer. “Comedy’s a tough business,” Bailey says “It’s a reckless endeavour, really. Trying to make people laugh, year-in-year-out. You have to be quite sanguine about it and think: ‘That was a good gig, but who knows what’s around the corner?’ You can’t take your eye off it. It’s a constant process. I might have had a standing ovation at the Royal Opera House but the next day I’m fretting about the next gig. It’s a perilous profession.”
Walking helped them to open up to each other. “When you’re talking to someone on a walk you’re facing the same way,” Bailey says. “Strolling along, chatting about difficult subjects, is easier than having a sit-down chat about it.” He adds that men are especially bad at talking about serious subjects. “I remember a friend asked to speak about getting divorced. We spoke about art, football, music, everything, then right at the end I asked how things were with his wife and he said ‘not good actually’ and got a taxi.”
As a result, he has trained himself to be better at those conversations. “It’s liberating. There are always those top 10 lists of things to do before you die and people always say swim with a dolphin or ‘bungee into a shark’s mouth’ – ludicrous thrill-seeking cobblers. They never say ‘know my own self’ or ‘talk to your friends about difficult things’.
“My wife [Kristin] would say: ‘Why can’t you talk about [difficult subjects] with your friends?’ We should be able to do that. It’s hard to make changes in the way you behave, but those are the things that help. I’d make a point of making those difficult phone calls because life’s too short. Especially when you lose people, you realise you never know when you’re going to be able to have that conversation.”
Lock’s death was not Bailey’s only experience of cancer. In 2005, his mother, Madryn, died of bowel cancer, another event that prompted a 100-mile walk, in 2017. He says that having gone through it with his mother made him better prepared to be there for his friend.
“If you have gone through that with a loved one, a time comes where you realise you’re going to have to be around a lot,” Bailey says. “[Cancer] is pretty tough on everyone, but you know you just have to be there. Woody Allen said that 90 per cent of life was showing up and I think that’s true. Hands on deck are very important. Somebody needs to go to the shops.”
“Some people can’t cope with it,” he adds. “I’ve seen that. Family members, friends. They find it too much to bear. And it is. Of course it is.”
If it has been a mixed few years personally, professionally Bailey’s stock has never been higher. Born Mark Bailey, he grew up in Bath and went to King Edward’s, an independent school, where he was good at everything – sport, music, exams – but dropped out of university in London after a year to pursue comedy. The nickname Bill came from a music teacher admiring his ability to play “Won’t you come home Bill Bailey”. He came up on the stand-up circuit in the 1990s, where he met Lock. In 1996 he was runner up to the Irish comedian Dylan Moran for the Perrier Award at Edinburgh. In 1998 the BBC gave him a show, It’s Bill Bailey, and he became a regular guest on panel shows. He was a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks during its heyday. In 2000, the Father Ted creator Graham Linehan cast him in Black Books, a riotous Channel 4 sitcom about a dysfunctional bookshop. Linehan has since made himself non grata for his views on trans rights. “It’s baffling,” Bailey says, of his former boss’s trajectory. “I haven’t spoken to him for years, but it’s a shame because he’s a great comic writer.”
Black Books won two Baftas and introduced Bailey’s talents to a wider audience. At the same time, his stand-up shows were growing in popularity. His act has always drawn on his musical talent – he has perfect pitch and plays the guitar, piano and countless more unusual instruments – as well as surreality, riffing on anything from nuclear fusion to tree snails. Some of his best bits, all available on Youtube, see him warping familiar tunes: the hokey-cokey done in the style of Kraftwerk, or an epic dance version of the BBC News theme.
In 2020, Strictly Come Dancing called. Partnered with Oti Mabuse, Bailey might not have looked like a traditional dancer, but made up for it with enthusiasm and, as the competition wore on, increasingly impressive routines. The BBC One Saturday night audience discovered what Bailey fans have always known; that beneath his somewhat shambolic exterior, there is a virtuoso with a perfect sense of rhythm and timing.
“I now get called in like I’m some sort of expert, as the ex-winner,” Bailey says, incredulously. “I do watch it in a different light. I’m always thinking ‘that foot position isn’t right,’ or ‘the judges are not gonna like that open hand’.” He sometimes incorporates dancing into his show these days, while his months on the show were a boon to his fitness. “After 50, you can’t be sedentary or it’ll creep up on you.”
But live shows remain Bailey’s first love. There were benefits to Covid, like spending more time with his father, but he was pleased to get back on stage. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “It felt like there was a louder reaction and greater engagement post-lockdown, that people were delighted to be out and about. You can write jokes or think of funny thoughts but unless it connects with an audience it doesn’t work. And I think people are tiring of staying in and [getting] instant gratification. They want something more satisfying. It’s something ancient about us, that humans love to be in other humans’ company.”
While Bailey tweets happily to his 3.4 million followers, he remains suspicious of social media’s effect on his art. “Comedy is very subjective,” he says. “But social media inveigles its way into the live situation. It has no business being there. Half the time people weren’t even at the gigs, they just hear what has been said and decide they’re outraged as well. Whenever I hear someone saying a comedian should never perform again, I think ‘it’s a gig, it’s not the Reith Lectures’. If [social media] ended tomorrow, would anyone miss it? If Elon Musk had some flash of wisdom, he could just switch Twitter off. I’d love that. It would be the ultimate philanthropic gesture.”
We speak a few days after Jeremy Clarkson has had to apologise for a column about Meghan Markle in The Sun. “That was classic Twitter,” Bailey says. “You might [make a comment like Clarkson’s] in the pub as a clumsy, oafish sort of laugh. But you put it in print and not only does it take on another life but it gives gravitas to something that should never have had it. You think ‘Come on, you’ve got to be more savvy than that, surely you can see how that’s going to pan out’. It was misguided and ill-conceived and he got the kicking he deserved.”
Despite the risks of things being taken out of context, he says he is impressed by the level of understanding he sees in his 19-year-old son, Dax. “The idea of speaking on the phone is abhorrent to him,” he jokes. “When I call him you can hear the pain in his voice. But he avoids social media. He thinks of it as something that I do. [People of Dax’s age] have been in that world, where the ‘isms’ are so front and centre, that in many ways they’re more informed. They’re moral questions that are being debated, about identity and gender and what’s right. I think the older generation has this perception they’re all making TikTok videos and sending dick pics – there probably is a bit of that – but there’s also a more informed thing going on, which is great”.
Bailey himself has stayed remarkably clear of censure, impressive in a career of more than 30 years, perhaps because his default mode is silliness. Which isn’t to say he’s not political. As a life-long Labour voter, he says he is more optimistic about Keir Starmer than he was about his predecessor.
“I think Keir was up against a lot of baggage from the Corbyn era and he had to deal with that to make Labour electable. I think he’s done that. If there was an election he would win and he’d make an effective leader.
“Politics is so difficult, particularly now, and really you want someone who is competent and disinterested, a dedicated public servant who’s acting for the good of the people of Britain,” he adds. “I don’t recognise the Tories now. At least you used to know who stood for what. They were a bit more frugal and you could trust them. That seems to have gone out of the window. Even Thatcher liked Europe. They’re a very strange lot.” As the son of a doctor and a nurse, he is amazed by the nurse strikes. “It’s extraordinary the nurses have been put in this position,” he says. “The fact they’re there is proof of how intransigent the government is. My mum was an NHS nurse. It’s a tough job. They should be paid a fair wage.”
Beyond party politics, he is doing his best not to be depressed by the “mess we’re in.” He lists its components. “Well, there’s the climate emergency, war, fuel crisis, cost of living crisis, permacrisis…” He trails off. He has noticed the jar full of spanners.
“Is that a… jar of spanners?” he says, tickled into trying out a new expression. “‘He’s as mad as a jar of spanners’, that’s fantastic,” he chuckles, before returning to his train of thought.
“There’s not going to be a consensus on fossil fuels, Putin’s not going to capitulate. This stuff isn’t all going to happen,” he says. “As a comic, our job is to make people laugh, so they don’t have to think about any of that for a couple of hours.” You suspect his old friend Sean would have agreed.
Macmillan is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Age UK, RBLI and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927