On The Bill – Bill Bailey Interviewed
Actor, comedian, musician, satirist, naturalist and all-round sci-fi mentalist Bill Bailey is bringing brand new show Qualmpeddler to Sheffield City Hall for two nights in May. Andy Hill tries to his best to keep up…
"Well, the first thing you need to know… a qualm is bigger than a quibble…"
Thanks Bill. Glad that's settled. A qualm being… a nuisance? An annoyance, right?
"Exactly. That's what I'm peddling this time. Peddling qualms. We live in a time of great qualm you see. Lots of things to qualm off about; global warming, where we're going to get our food or power from, the state of modern culture, having to talk to other parents when you're hanging about the school…"
The full gamut of qualms then.
"Yeah, my mum was the same. A lady of great qualm. Everything from how her scones were going to come out, all the way up to nuclear war."
Thus goes a typical exchange with Bill Bailey. Scholarly, yet matey. Funny in a Brainiac sort of way. British to the core.
"Well for all the complaining – you could say qualmpeddling is the national sport, I s'pose – I love the British. There's something about this country, for all its faults. When you go round the world and see different places and people, which I do a lot, you notice how people here are quite brilliant in their own way. We do like a moan, but we're an extraordinary bunch when you think about it."
It's just as well he likes the place, given he sees enough of it. This is, by my count, his tenth major tour ("well, if you write a show there's no point sitting indoors and keeping it to yourself is there?"), plying his cerebral but always hilarious blend of stand up and music. I'm curious; on tour do you travel like a musician (bitches and coke in the tour bus) or a comedian (chain smoking Rothmans in a clapped out Mondeo)?
"Pfft… I like the train, to be honest. That's the way to travel. I remember a few years ago I saw Craig Charles somewhere, and he had a tour bus, with "COMEDY GANGSTER" or something ridiculous painted on the side. They offered me one a couple of years ago, I was like 'It's only me, it's not exactly Slipknot on tour now, is it?' I just couldn't get on and off a big tourbus with a straight face. Give me the train any day. You can get up and walk about, they've got internet, basically all your modern contrivances. If you fancy it you can grab a bag of crisps, even an apple. Get one of those rubberised cup holders to stop your tea sliding all over the place and bam, you're in business."
Bill Bailey is clearly a man with modest needs, but then he's always had doubts about the modern world. In Qualmpeddler he'll be channelling these feelings of unease and apprehension with the help of religious dubstep, his folk bouzouki, 'Horntallica' (YouTube it – amazeballs), a re-appraisal of some of the world’s greatest works of art and 'a dub version of Downton Abbey'. He looks at the consequences of lies, the unending search for the Higgs and the hiding skills of dentists. "It all boils down to what you could call a 'cluster-qualm'… basically of living in a time of spectacular ignorance and rare planetary alignment." Well there you have it.
He's frequently compared (or, should I say, vice versa) to Tim Minchin, his svelte Australian doppleg ä nger who famously spent a number of years trying to make it as a 'serious' muso before deciding to take up comedy. Similar story for Bill?
"No, for me it was always comedy, literally from the very beginning. The first ever stand-up gig I did I brought a guitar on stage with me and did a little ditty at the end. I'm obviously a huge fan of music, in fact when I was at school I always imagined I might become 'a musician."' So modest… "But here's the thing… words have more power. Fluid, but at the same time precise. You can really get to the nub of the matter with words. Music's powerful too, but in a different way. When you find the perfect word, or a well-chosen phrase, and it just… connects, and there's a tremendous thrill, a real sense of achievement in that."
Consider, from his live act… "A feminist jumps out of a manhole – ooh… she didn't like that." Sharp as you like.
Ahem. So, as a massive sci-fi nerd (incessantly referred to as "Klingon" during his masterful eleven seasons as Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captain), how do you feel about the fact that Disney are signed up to make the next run of Star Wars movies?
"I know it's probably heresy to say it, but they couldn't very well make a worse job of it than what's been going on lately, could they? Whatever you think about Disney, they have a way with stories. They'll hire the best writers and turn it back into a cool narrative, I think. That was the great thing about the original ones, the story." A pause while this sinks in. "Well, you've got to be optimistic, haven't you?"
So any exciting new projects of your own in the pipeline after Qualmpeddler? Ever thought about a book?
"It seems to me bookshops these days are awash with second rate memoirs knocked out for money. Like I said about Star Wars, it's all about the story, so maybe if a good story popped into my head I'd write a book. As it happens, I'm actually writing a TV show at the moment, a comedy drama about television that draws on all my experience working in TV down the years." Like '30 Rock', NBC's peerlessly brilliant Tina Fey vehicle? "Kind of… I want it to be funny, but also actually about something. It's so easy to make something that's cheap and ephemeral… I love 30 Rock, and most American shows, they have a sort of rigour and quality control that we often lack over here. It's worth the effort."
And, of course, he's spot on.
As a huge animal lover (patron of the thrillingly named 'International Animal Rescue', with a house full of Bali street dogs and a bundle of TV conservation specials under his belt) I have to ask… If you could have the head of any animal (so same body, same personality, same voice) but on your shoulders which animal would you choose?
"Oooooh… some kind of bird. A cassowary I expect."
I immediately look it up – excellent choice.
"Loads of colours. Massive old wattle hanging off my chin. Bony casque sticking out the top. A winner."
A winner indeed.
Words by Andy Hill.
Catch Bill at Sheffield City Hall on May 6/7. Tickets are £25, visit the Sheffield City Hall website.
We've teamed up with the eco-travel lot at #notdriving who've got two tickets to see Bill Bailey to give away! Pledge your not driven miles at their website to be in with a chance of winning. It's as simple as that.