As I was thinking of questions for Bill Bailey the morning he called, I heard a proper ‘nee-nah’ pass the front of my house. And for once I thought not of Eric Morecambe’s classic ‘They’ll never sell ice cream travelling at that speed’ line, but Bill musing on the difference between traditional UK and European emergency vehicle sirens.
That was just one of the highlights of his turn of the century Bewilderness show. Come to think of it, it was from one of the very last tapes I ever bought, played a fair bit in the car over the next couple of years. Tony Wilson may well have had New Order’s Substance released so he could play it on his in-car CD player in 1987, but 15 years later I was still a cassette man.
More to the point, Bill, last interviewed for these pages in October 2015 (with a link here), was more than happy to reminisce about the days when we could still tell whether it was an ambulance, fire engine or police car coming our way.
“As you say, they’re increasingly rare, the old ‘nee-nah’ sirens. I remember reading – in some of my rather obsessive research for these things – an article about acoustic improvements to sirens, and some theory that the ’nee-nah’ was somehow not effective and didn’t penetrate enough, so the ‘woo-woo’ whistle was introduced.
“But I have to say, the sound they recreate is louder, but initially it’s harder to pin-point where it’s coming from. It cuts through a lot of ambient noise, but there’s something about the acoustic nature of it which somehow seems to be defused. When you hear a ‘nee-nah’ and it goes ‘Nnnyer’ as it passes, you get that doppler effect, which you don’t get with the whistle.”
There’s brief pause there, then, “Anyway, that’s something for your readers to discuss.”
I’m not ready to get off the subject yet though, and at this point throw in a variation on the theme, a Spaniard in the works perhaps, telling Bill I’ve had many an argument with my better half over the years as to that ’nee-nah sound’. She always insisted it was actually a ‘bee-bah’. Only later did we come to the conclusion that maybe this was because she was brought up on an army base and may have been more used to hearing Green Goddesses.
“Ah, in which case, it would have been … it’s a slightly courser acoustic sound. Oh well, there you go. These are the conversations I tend to have, actually, so you’ve come to the right place!”
While I’m still on the subject, I tell him my first band was called They’ll Never Sell Ice Cream Travelling at That Speed, in honour of the Morecambe and Wise line. Surprisingly, I add, we rarely left my mate’s garage though. And the spirit of The Clash was kind of lost on us, as we sounded a bit too close to Joy Division for our jaunty name.
“I like it, yeah. A tricky one to print off though. You’d have to have some kind of acronymic title.”
It did cross our minds, hence switching to Captains Don’t Play Chess, referencing a line from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (as remade by Queen, but not quite so funny). Anyway, I digress. I’ve only got Bill for 15 minutes, so decide to crack on.
Last time I saw him live was in November, 2015, in Limboland, so to speak – a cracking night at Preston Guild Hall. Although, looking at my review (with a link here), I’m reminded it was just after the Bataclan terror attack in Paris.
“It was. An extraordinary time. The news came in as I came off stage the first night. And by the second night we’d been digesting the news and impact of it. The chap who died – the merch. guy – some of the crew knew him. It’s quite a small industry really. Everyone knows everyone. So that brought the whole thing home, making it very personal.
“I remember going on and there was this real tension and atmosphere. You have to meet these things head on sometimes, You have to say, ‘Look, this happened, and we know it happened, but we’re all here to have fun and enjoy ourselves and we’re not going to let that stop us.’ It almost feels like you have to break the tension. Otherwise it becomes … well, it hangs there.”
I tell him how, similarly, in late May 2017, I saw Ron Sexsmith play the Royal Northern College of Music the weekend after the Manchester Arena bombing (review here), with that same sense of shock apparent, not least from the Canadian headliner, who seemed grateful we’d even ventured out to see him in the circumstances. Yet for us it was more about, ‘Don’t let them win’.
“I think that’s true, and there’s an act of defiance in it. There’s a choice not to go too though, very much so. I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the last year, certainly since the London attacks at Westminster Bridge and Southwark, who’ve consciously not gone into the West End for shows, particularly people with kids. I very much acknowledge that and recognise it, and do feel it myself. I’ve lived in London a long time and lived through IRA attacks all through to nutters driving cars at people. There’s always that element in a public place.
“I’m there with my son and we’re looking around, almost half-joking but half-serious, thinking what we’d do if something happened, thinking where the exits are. Unfortunately, that’s become almost like the new normal.”
True, but soon enough that night in Preston in late 2015, we’d rallied against terrorism, then cheered on Bill as he battered IDS and the Government then praised the NHS, before turning a typically-surreal corner, chillingly reminding us in song form of The Day the Chickens Marched on Kiev, and also the joy of the 4-4-2 formation haiku.
“Well exactly, and there’s always a bit of poetry. And there will be some heavy songs … a lot of that.”
“Oh … I’ve been re-listening to some old Talking Heads actually, so it’s Burning Down the House pounding in my head at the moment.”
Top choice. One of my part-time jobs to pay the mortgage, I tell him, involves school exam invigilation, and one fella there reminds me of a Chigley or Camberwick Green character – when he walks around the exam hall, I hear a drum-roll march in my head.
“Oh, good. Well, there you go, I’m pleased about that. I’m glad that’s sort of inserted some ear-worm or theme.”
Another thing that came up on Bill’s last visit was a discussion about the Danish concept of ‘hygge’, something of an alien concept to many in Lancashire at the time, but now something of a thriving ‘brand’, with countless home accessories and self-help books related to it available for sale. I’m hoping he’s getting a percentage of profits.
“I know. I can’t believe it. I’d talk about it in shows and no one would know what I was on about, looking at me as if to say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Now there’s The Little Book of Hygge, hygge this, hygge that, a whole bloody industry. I feel I unleashed this on an unwilling nation. I think it was already ripe for a bit of ribbing, but I’m sure there’ll be more of that.”
It’s now 14 years since we last had a browse around Black Books, the bookshop that featured in the comedy series Bill appeared in alongside Irish comic Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig. Last time we spoke, he told me Dylan was busy in Scotland, but hadn’t rule out the possibility of getting something together again. Any advance on that?
“No, but I’ll probably see him when I’m up in Scotland, and I’m in contact with Tamsin all the time. She actually sent me some photographs of one of the last episodes, which she just found in her house. In one, like a prop for a scene where I’m dressed as a shepherdess, I’ve got a goat. She said, ‘You better have these. Otherwise, if they fall into the wrong hands …”
Incidentally, any idea what Manny Bianco might be up to these days?
“I did think about this, and he’s probably in IT or something like that, running some kind of hipster hangout in Peru. Yeah, I feel he may have ended up in South America.”
I told Bill last time about seeing Dylan Moran and Matt Lucas (in his Marjorie Dawes get-up) at a near-empty Amulet Theatre in Shepton Mallet in the mid-’90s. Me and about 20 others, the compere that night suggesting we moved the gig to a local pub, so the comics could play pool and deliver their acts while we sat around the table. It was around that time that era that Bill went solo too, after his Rubber Bishops days and an ealry venture with Sean Lock. Where was his first gig as a lone act?
“In Edinburgh, but I did some previews of my first solo show, Cosmic Jam, at Battersea Arts Centre, and (he’s laughing at the memory) the last preview I did before I went to Edinburgh was a total disaster. There were about three or four people there, and two of them were friends, and in the middle of the show something broke, and then … it didn’t augur very well. I was just clinging on to that saying, ‘A bad rehearsal gives a good performance’. The first few shows were a bit chaotic, but I think I got into a rhythm after a few.”
Absolutely, and the rest is history, performing at the Edinburgh Festival almost every year since, the following year’s Bill Bailey Live earning him a nomination for the prestigious Perrier Award, just one of many accolades afforded him over the next couple of decades. And the success story continues, with an extra 41 dates announced and 50,000 more seats recently released for new tour, Larks in Transit, which kicks off in Coventry next week, touring the length and breadth of the UK and finishing in High Wycombe in mid-June.
Described as ‘a compendium of travellers’ tales and the general shenanigans of 20 years as a travelling comedian,’ the latest show involves a typical mix of musical virtuosity, surreal tangents and trademark intelligence, plus ‘politics, philosophy and the pursuit of happiness’. So, ‘Larks in Transit’? Is that how you’re getting around this time? In an old Ford van?
“I came up with this idea for a show, then realised there’s loads of different interpretations of what it’s about, which I always like. The main one is just having fun in life and the journey we’re on, just making the most of every day – ‘larks’ in the Dickensian sense.”
I was going to say, I wouldn’t have put you down for transporting songbirds in the back of a hire van.
“Exactly, although there’s that element as well, the literal translation. But the ’in transit’ bit refers to the years and years going up and down the M1, and the ’larks’ is a kind of nodding acquaintance to my bird book. But it’s a show I’ve wanted to do for many years. It’s very much a personal show, with more personal recollections.”
Back to those recent stats, and his last tour saw him perform to more than 230,000 fans, across 170 sell-out dates in the UK alone, including six weeks in the West End, after touring in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Where did it all go wrong, Bill?
“I don’t know. One of these days I’ll get a proper job.”
What do you think that might be, out of interest?
“Do you know what, I did actually have a job … very briefly. My first job was working in a pub, but then I moved to London, and living in Hammersmith for the first few years, to supplement my gigs, I worked for the local education authority, teaching kids recording techniques and how to make their own demos.
“I really enjoyed that and was just getting into it, then suddenly got very busy and couldn’t do the job anymore. But it was one of those things of which I thought, ‘Yeah, I love doing this.’
“That educational element to things remains one of my themes. It’s become something I need in anything I do, whether it’s a documentary on wildlife, or whatever. Even in stand-up. If there’s something you can take away from it, for me that’s a win.”
He’s compiled a mighty CV too, from his Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Black Books and Spaced days onwards, as listed in my previous Bill Bailey feature/interview. He also found time to write and illustrate Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds in 2016, and recent accolades include an honorary doctorate from Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland for contributions to the environment on a global scale.
Then there’s his on-going charity work and charity walks, the first held in memory of his mother, who he lost to bowel cancer in 2005, walking The Ridgeway Walk in support of Stand Up To Cancer, joined by a number of close friends – trekking 100 miles from Bedfordshire to Wiltshire in just over six days, raising more than £9,000. Any more planned?
“Yes. My first was a couple of years ago, really put together as a fun thing to do, then turning into this fundraiser, and was such a great experience. I couldn’t do it the next year, because I was away, but this year just gone I did another, and we had a huge response, so I think it might become a regular thing. It’s great fun, a good cause, and …”
Will Louie (one of the four-legged stars of Channel 4 travel show Walking With Your Dog) be joining you?
“Oh, absolutely … you try and stop her!”
Finally, I see you’re celebrating 20 years of marriage with Kristin this year. So is the secret of a happy and successful marriage being on the road for most of the time?
“I think you just have to try and … it seems like an old cliché, but you just have to work at it and not take things for granted. That’s the thing. And stay grounded as well. One of the great things about being in this sort of set-up and being in a relationship and having a family life is the fact that it’s inevitable that if you’re a single man living a bachelor lifestyle it might all go to your head and you might start believing your own hype. But I played Sonisphere, to 60,000 people at Knebworth, and the next day ended up taking the bins out. I think that’s what keeps you going really.”
Bill Bailey’s Larks in Transit UK tour: January 29/30 – Coventry Warwick Arts (024 7652 4524), January 31/February 1 – York Barbican (0844 854 2757), February 2/3 Newcastle City Hall (0191 277 8030). February 5/6 – Southend Cliffs Pavilion (01702 351135), February 7/8 Stoke Victoria Halls (0844 871 7649), February 9/10 Sheffield City Hall (0114 278 9789), February 12/13 Wimbledon Theatre (0844 871 7646), February 14/15 – Llandudno Venue Cymru (01492 872 000), February 16 – Carlisle Sands Centre (01228 633 766), February 17 – Glasgow SECC (0844 395 3000), February 19/20/21/22 – Truro Hall for Cornwall (01872 262466), February 23/24 Plymouth Pavilions (0845 146 1460), February 26/27 – Leicester De Montfort Hall (0116 233 3111), February 28/March 1 – 2018 Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (0115 989 5555), March 2/3 – Manchester Apollo (0844 477 7677), March 5/6 – Cheltenham Town Hall (0844 576 2210), March 7/8 – Basingstoke Anvil (01256 844 244), March 9 – Warrington Parr Hall (01925 442 345), March 10/03/2018 Liverpool Philharmonic (0151 709 3789), March 12/13/14 – Reading Hexagon (0118 960 6060), March 15/16/17 – Watford Colosseum (01923 571 102), March 19/20 – Blackburn King George’s Hall (0844 847 1664), March 21 – Preston Guildhall (0844 844 7710), April 18/19 – Northampton Derngate (01604 624 811), April 20 – Brighton Centre (0844 847 1515), April 21 – Margate Winter Gardens (01843 292 795), April 22 – Southampton Mayflower (023 8071 1811), April 24 – Cheltenham Town Hall (0844 576 2210), April 25/26 – Hull City Hall (01482 300 300), April 27/28 – Southport Theatre (0844 871 3021), May 1/2 – Chatham Central Theatre (01634 338 338), May 3/4 – Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall (01892 530 613), May 5 – Hammersmith Apollo (020 8563 3800), May 6 – Southampton Mayflower (023 8071 1811), May 8/9/10 – Swansea Grand (01792 475 715), May 11/12 – Bristol Hippodrome (0844 871 3012), May 14/15 – Hastings White Rock Theatre (01424 422 240), May 16/17 – Stevenage Gordon Craig (01438 362 200), May 18/19 – Oxford New Theatre (0844 871 3020), May 21/22/23 – Guildford G Live (0844 770 1797), May 24/25 – Portsmouth Guildhall (0844 847 2362), May 26 – Bournemouth BIC (0844 576 3000), May 28/29 – Reading Hexagon (0118 960 6060), May 30/31 – Aylesbury Waterside (0844 871 7627), June 1 – Cardiff Arena (029 2022 4488), June 2 – Birmingham Arena (0121 780 4141), June 4/5 – Ipswich Regent (01473 433 100), June 6/7 – Hammersmith Apollo (020 8563 3800), June 8 – Leeds Arena (0844 248 1585), June 9 – Peterborough Arena (01733 363 500), June 12 – Liverpool Philharmonic (0151 709 3789), June 13/14 – Warrington Parr Hall (01925 442 345), June 15/16 – High Wycombe Swan (01494 512 000).