Moffat will kill me if I talk about Doctor Who, says Ipswich-bound Bill Bailey
Comedian Bill Bailey talks to entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE about stealing cassocks, why it’s hard to trust people in authority and why he’s worried Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat is tapping his phone
“I will be just about to tell you what happens and then a tranquilliser dart will thud and the phone will go dead” laughs Bill as I push him for details about his role in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special.
He’s been sworn to secrecy about the episode, which includes Outnumbered’s Claire Skinner, fellow comedian and actor Alexander Armstrong and the Fast Show’s Arabella Weir.
“They’ll [the Beeb] be all over me like a rash if I divulge any of the secrets, but yes just to say I have a cameo in it and great fun it is too. It’s fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition for me, being a Doctor Who fan.”
We’re supposed to be talking about his new tour, Dandelion Mind, which comes to the Ipswich Regent next Wednesday.
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Before getting there we cover everything from Dylan Moran sitcom Black Books and why he wasn’t maybe the best lounge pianist to why he left Never Mind The Buzzcocks and headlining the Sonisphere Rock Festival alongside Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax.
Before we get to that, though, I ask how do you accidentally steal cassocks from an Edinburgh church?
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It happened while he was part of the musical comedy duo the Rubber Bishops. Performing with his friend Toby Longworth in a student version of Under Milk Wood, the two had been a double act since school. Undecided on what to call their act, a higher power if you will intervened.
A week-long show that was supposed to be on in the crypt below cancelled so they took the slot.
“We did a show, songs, sketches and all that. We did really haven’t any idea of what we were supposed to do so found these red cassocks hanging up there so we thought ‘oh we’ll borrow them, wear them, call ourselves Rubber Bishops, great’.
“Anyway,” he laughs, “the idea was that we’d put them back afterwards; which we did religiously, no pun intended. Then of course it got to the end of the run and the cassocks got put into all the other Under Milk Wood costumes and shipped off back to London; which we obviously felt very bad about. I think they ended up getting returned eventually.”
If God was angry it seems he’s forgiven Bill, who’s regularly ranked one of Britain’s best comedians.
Raised in the West Country, he was once in a group called The Famous Five – an unsuccessful band with only four members.
Although a talented musician, he always felt an urge to slip jokes into the music which didn’t work out, so harbouring theatrical ambitions he spent the early 80s touring with a Welsh Experimental theatre troupe and appearing on stage with the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
He supplemented these with stints as a lounge pianist and a keyboard player in a jazz trio.
Did he slip jokes in then?
“Probably mainly to myself; I was mumbling them. Like ‘what the hell am I doing here’,” he laughs.
It was a John Hegley gig that finally inspired him to fuse the music, jokes and theatricality and become a stand-up comedian.
“When I was at school and after I left I thought perhaps I play music professionally; but I’ve always loved the spoken word even when I was playing music in a band.
“I did a stand up gig, I think I was about 18 or 19, and just loved the reaction you get from word. This is an ideal job for me; I can combine the two.”
Now as equally known for his dramatic acting on stage and screen and TV presenting, he’s still well remembered for his time on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Why did he leave?
“The thing is [after] 100 shows and eight series or something it kind of naturally came to an end. I had a tour in Australia, then one with the orchestra and then I had a West End run lined up.
“Buzzcocks was always recorded in October and carried on all the way to the beginning of February. Two weeks before we were about to start recording the BBC changed their minds about when they wanted it to happen and shifted the whole schedule forward; I couldn’t fit it in.
“They were ‘can you cancel this orchestra, Australian or West End run’. I was like ‘no I can’t’,” he laughs. “You wanna phone up 55 members of the orchestra and tell them you go do it.
“I thought you know what, all of these projects mean more to me so they got priority.”
Dandelion Mind was nurtured during a tour of the Scottish Highlands and Britain; followed by an international tour taking in Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada.
The Shetland audiences couldn’t be more different than headlining Sonisphere.
“That was quite a daunting prospect; I was actually in two minds whether to do it at all,” he says on appearing at the rock festival.
“I thought ‘it’s a metal festival full of metal heads, how are they going to react to a comedian being on a main stage’.
“I got a band together and we performed some metal versions of my songs, wrote some new stuff and it was great. It was terrific fun and I mean it was the biggest gig I’ve done by a mile. I mean there was about 65,000 people there in the rain,” he laughs.
A big fan of Spaced and Black Books, I have to ask whether the rumour the latter [in which Bill played ex-accountant Manny Bianco] is returning in stage form was true.
“There was some ancient bit of fancy, some sort of idea kicked around years ago but I can’t see it to be honest. I think Dylan’s quite happy doing his own thing.”
He recently starred in, co-wrote and directed his own short film, Carpark Babylon, for Sky1’s Little Crackers series.
“It was my first time directing a film on film actually and was based on an experience where I was trapped in a carpark. I’m amazed by the reaction, it’s been accepted by all these short film companies around the place and suddenly you get invited to film festivals to talk about films.
“One of the reasons I made DVDs [of his stand-up shows] over the years is to have a record of them because they take about three years of my life to write, prepare and perform. Once that’s gone you go ‘okay that’s done move on to the next’.
“Filming things means you have a tangible proof of your existence,” he laughs, “otherwise it’s just a bunch of word of mouth – ‘did you seem him’ - so that’s something I’d love to pursue.”
Bill is looking forward to making a documentary about naturalist and explorer Alfred Wallace; whom he admits has become something of an obsession for him over the last few years after travelling to a lot of the places he travelled to.
“He was a contemporary of [Charles] Darwin who rightfully should gain equal billing in the discovery of the theory of evolution; it’s a project which I’ve been interested in and researching for the last three years.”
So, to cut a long story short - I know, too late - on to the new tour.
It features the comedian’s trademark musical interludes, observations and stories of the road.
“It started out with a very loose theme of doubt; doubt about our betters and the establishment borne out by various different things like the politicians’ expenses scandal, then the financial crisis, now the phone hacking and the involvement of police and all these institutions we’re supposed to look up to and are now revealed to be utterly either incompetent, riddled with sort of petty chiselling corruption and as venal and flawed as anyone.
“I think it’s affected people quite profoundly. I want to explore what we think about this and what it’s like to be British; what is it now, do we trust anyone anymore?”
Dark stuff, even viewed through the prism of comedy as he calls it.
Audiences can also expect some Iranian hip-hop, mean folk-bouzouki playing, a new look for Thomas the Doubter, the finer points of nuclear physics and the myth of intelligent design. Just your normal Bill Bailey gig then.
There will also be barely contained rants about celebrity, the trivialising of culture, TV and Michael Winner.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of ranting,” he laughs “and a lot of music as well. A mixture of ranting and strumming.”
On the subject of music, Bill will also demonstrate more instruments old and new.
“I always like to try to introduce a few new ones and I’ve tried to acquaint myself with some very beautiful old English instruments, all the old stringed ones which rarely get played these days but are a part of our culture.
“There would be these guys who would go from town to town and sing songs, tell stories and mock people in authority; that’s essentially what modern stand-ups do so we’re almost continuing a very old and ancient tradition.”
Bill Bailey Dandelion Mind has sold out.