22 Sep 2002: Taking the birds for a walk is all in a day’s work for Bill Bailey, the Black Books star who is a new team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. But it’s stand-up, not TV, that he can’t keep away from.
He attended a direct-grant school which expected its pupils to be on track for Oxford or Cambridge. ‘It thought it was a posher school than it was. There were loads of career workshops which always focused on finance. Or banking. I remember doing one of those computerised questionnaires which are supposed to work out your ideal career. Mine came back as museum curator or, if that didn’t work out, diplomatic service.’ He raises an eyebrow. ‘Oh, yes, I could imagine travelling round the world portraying England in a favourable light whilst keeping an eye on old exhibits.’
He never thought of comedy as a career. He used to listen to Monty Python records and laugh at Morecambe and Wise, but if the rock star thing did not work out, he had no idea what he might do. He was always involved in comedy shows at school, in the end-of-year revues. He was good at being silly. But he does not like to be asked if he was the class clown: ‘It’s a bit like being asked if there was a class strongman and a bearded lady. Maybe I was the bearded lady?’ Still, he was confident enough to do his first stand-up gig in the early Eighties when he was 18.
From the late Eighties, Bailey became a full-time comedian, driving around the country in a battered Ford Escort with a handful of other funny blokes, including Sean Lock, Mark Lamarr and Bob Mills. In 1996, he was nominated for the Perrier Award at Edinburgh Festival and three years later he was awarded best live stand-up at the British Comedy Awards. His own peculiar brand of outlandish observation comedy, frantic keyboard playing and mad songs was making its mark.
Then, in 2000, he got the part of Manny in the first series of Black Books. Created by Dylan Moran, an Irish comedian who prides himself on his melancholic nature, and Graham Linehan, another Irishman and co-writer of Father Ted, Black Books quickly proved itself to be one of the smartest, funniest and most absurd sitcoms on TV. With the slapstick appeal of Fawlty Towers, Black Books is a perfect vehicle for its three rising stars: Moran as Bernard Black, the gloomy bookshop owner; Bailey as Manny, his persistently humiliated flat-mate and assistant; and Tamsin Greig as Fran, the feisty next-door neighbour.
Linehan says he loves working with Bailey so much that he is hoping to create a show for him. ‘I just think he is very, very funny. Funny to the core. I’d go as far as saying he’s got funny bones. When Bill relaxes his face in a certain way, no one can stop giggling. But his stand-up is different, it’s very sophisticated and clever.’
Moran agrees. ‘Bill is like the boy in school who is pretty much the best at everything. Everyone loves him and consequently they all suffer guilt pangs when they submit to the occasional dark daydream of him breaking his leg; him being entangled in the basketball hoop; him being savaged by his own beard; him having his eyes gouged out by a large… But I digress. He’s Bill Bailey and he rattles with talent.’
Bill Bailey is on a mission to make his comedy universal. The international success of Black Books has helped. He has always been easily recognisable (hair, beard), but since the series has sold the world over he has been approached in some strange places. ‘Like in airports in Norway. I’ve just been there doing the Humour Festival and Black Books is hugely popular there, only it’s called (Norwegian accent) The Crazy Shop. Which I love. It’s so crazy!’
In the past five or six years, he has toured Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Montreal, the Philippines, Singapore and America. He realised that the wider the frame of reference and the broader the subject matter, the easier it would be to take his material anywhere and make people laugh. ‘Talking about the history of language led to philosophy, which in turn led to a study of religion. And, of course, every country has their own opinions on this subject.’
Bailey resents the term ‘stand-up comedian’: ‘It conjures up images of a bloke in a suit with a microphone ranting… a gangster who mugs you for cheap laughs.’ And he avoids the term ‘political comedy’ because it suggests a concrete agenda. He prides himself on his observational comedy yet it was always obvious he read the Guardian and not the Telegraph. So recently he introduced a new element to his act, which he hopes he could take to most countries. Well, to most countries he would be interested in visiting. He taped a rousing militaristic speech given by George Bush to American marines in the aftermath of 11 September, then carefully worked the samples together. He then started to perform it as the ‘George Bush Drum and Bass Babylon’ playing hardcore music on the keyboard and mocking the President with perfect timing as he spouts his rhetoric. ‘I took it to New York earlier on this year and the response was very positive, but then New Yorkers are just embarrassed by Bush. They were right up for a bit of Bush kicking. They know he’s basically a dunce, a spoilt brat.’ He sighs. ‘I don’t know what it’ll be like across the rest of America, but I’m about to find out. I’m touring there soon.’
Although he spends a long time getting his jokes right, Bailey denies being a perfectionist. ‘No, no, no. That has the connotation of being a bit mad, a bit obsessive.’ He starts to speak as a mad man, a man possessed. ‘I must become a hermit and carve all my jokes in stones. I’d be on stage taking all my pebbles out, reading new material off them – sorry. God, I’m talking shit. What I’m trying to say is that I would rather be ambitious in terms of where the comedy originates, in terms of its subject matter. That’s what I want to pursue, rather than polishing a joke till it’s perfect. More posh tea?’
A little later, Bailey is walking the cockatoos down his street on their garish pink and green leads. This is for the benefit of the photographer, but it is something he does quite often. Chris is trying to distract the birds, to stop them from getting bored or showing off by extending their brightly coloured crests.
Between shots, Bailey chats away. About how, now that he is 37, he prefers to listen to Michael Frayn and drink tea at the Hay Festival than take acid at Glastonbury. He explains that being an only child meant he had to develop a tough shell, not only to cope with the banter comedians give each other backstage at the Comedy Store, but to be able to deal with heckles.
‘If men heckle, it’s like stags locking horns. If a woman does it, you’re finished, emasculated, skewered. I did this one gig at Jongleurs and I was having a really rough night, it wasn’t going down that well. A woman very, very close to the stage – so close that no one else could hear – leant up to me and whispered: “Just go home”. Really quietly. That was it, I was reduced to a gibbering mess. I could barely speak. I just wanted to cry.’ He bursts out laughing at his own fragility.
Of course, Bailey could choose to avoid stand-up and make his living from television and film (last year he appeared as a hopeless drug dealer alongside Brenda Blethyn in Saving Grace). But stand-up is in his blood. He cannot leave it alone. He explains how he is hoping to do another show in which he will compare Gary Numan and David Lee Roth’s autobiographies. ‘I collect rock autobiographies. They are just so unintentionally hilarious. Very, very funny.’
Which is not to say that sometimes he is not tempted by television. He says Black Books is the best experience he has ever had on TV, because it does not really feel like ‘doing telly’. And when he was recently asked if he would like to replace Sean Hughes as a captain in the new series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he could not resist. Not only because he is such a big music fan, but also because he rates Mark Lamarr as one of comedy’s best hosts: ‘He’s so good at being fastidious and pedantic. Yes, Buzzcocks is now into its tenth series so it’s an institution, but is that a bad thing? More people than ever are watching it these days. And I think I can have some fun with it.’
So what about a third series of Black Books? ‘Everyone is always asking that question. What’s the obsession with more? Just watch it again! Try to get more out of it.’
He pauses, balancing one cockatoo on his head while the other perches on his arm, eyeing his beard. ‘Well – I can see why everyone wants more. But it’s up to Dylan, really. Depends if he’s got the ideas. I have to admit, I’d love to do another series, but it’s not my show.’
We head back towards the house. Ruby barks at nothing in particular, Jakob and Molly emit howling screeches. Bailey barely notices. Standing on his doorstep, he looks thoughtful for a moment.
‘You know Billy Connolly is an inspiration to me because he is still touring. He still enjoys doing it. If I’m still happy touring in 20 years’ time, I’ll be happy. That would be enough for me. Really it would.’
Never Mind the Buzzcocks returns tomorrow on BBC2