A DISASTROUS family trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights; the true nature of happiness;
A DISASTROUS family trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights; the true nature of happiness; a heart-rending country and western ballad played on a Bible; and a fabulously downbeat version of Happy Birthday.
All of the above, and more, feature in Bill Bailey’s new live show, Limboland, which has just toured Australia and New Zealand to rave reviews.
For now, at least, Bill is back in Blighty. Welcoming me to his London office — which is decorated with just the sort of splendidly idiosyncratic ornaments you would expect from him — he gives me his take on life in Limboland.
“It’s about not living up to our own expectations. We have a vaulted idea of what we imagined we’d achieve and then we realise the reality is somewhat different. The show explores the gap between the two.”
After some time away from the live arena working on other projects, Bill is very happy to be back on stage. He underlines what a buzz he gets from performing stand-up.
“I always get a surge of adrenaline before a show. It really gets the heart pumping in a way that a TV recording doesn’t.
“A TV recording can be stopped and you can go again until it’s funny. Producers say, ‘We’ll cut that bit out.’ You can’t do that with stand-up.”
Bill goes on to recall a seminal live performance. “I always remember that after I was nominated for the Perrier Award in 1996, I was asked to do a show at a major theatre in London. It was the first time I’d done such a big show.
“Just before I went on stage, I remember thinking, ‘There is no going back. You can’t stop it now.’ It’s like stepping off a diving board. But it’s a tremendous thrill that I still get at every gig.”
He adds: “I love the fact that every gig is different because every audience is different. I get great energy off the audience. It’s like catching a wave when you’re surfing. You think, ‘I’m not going to fall off the board, and it’s going to be great!’”
Another indication of Bill’s popularity is the terrific loyalty he generates in his legions of fans. He enjoys a superb rapport with his followers.
“They really respond to the show,” beams Bill, who had six highly successful years as a team captain on BBC2’s much-loved pop quiz, Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
“They say to me, ‘We didn’t feel the show was dumbing down in any way. It respected our intelligence as an audience.’
“That’s very important to me. I never underestimate an audience. If you challenge them, they’ll respond.”
Bill, who has also starred in the hit C4 sitcom Black Books, as well as his own widely-adored TV shows, Is It Bill Bailey? and Bill Bailey Live, adds: “If you’re a half-decent comedian, you should be able to get laughs every time.
“But if at the same time you can slip in a bit of something else — a historical appraisal of how different musical modes reflect different cultures, say — as well as keeping it funny, then audiences react very favourably. The first priority is to make them laugh, but the second priority is to make them think.”
For example, in Limboland Bill invites us to contemplate what it means to be English.
“The idea of Englishness now has a stigma attached to it. I want to say, ‘No, I’m proud of my Englishness.’ We have good qualities that get lost in the mix of nationalism.”
Music also plays a huge role in the brilliance of Bill’s act. It adds an element to the show that very few other stand-ups possess.
For instance, he performs a stunning reggae version of the Downton Abbey theme tune that once heard will never be forgotten.
The comedian, who had great success with his BBC2 show and live tour of Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, says: “I’ve found a way of incorporating music into my show. I love playing different instruments. Acts where everything comes together can be transcendent. They are greater than the sum of their parts. Music can take things to a higher level.”
Bill is always busy. As well as his thriving comedy career, this very keen wildlife enthusiast has a flourishing sideline presenting natural history programmes, such as Wild Thing, I Think I Love You, Bill Bailey’s Birdwatching Bonanza, Baboons with Bill Bailey, and Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero.
To underline his natural history credentials, Bill was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, for his outstanding contribution to the environment on a global scale.
But will all this activity ever get too much for him? Would this sublime stand-up ever think about retiring from comedy?
“I don’t think I’ll ever retire. As l long as I can still stand up and play instruments, I’ll carry on.”
What an uplifting piece of news to end on!
• Bill Bailey plays the Hexagon, Reading, on Wednesday and Thursday (October 14 and 15). He returns to the venue on June 23 and 24. Tickets are priced £27, inclusive of booking fee, available from the Hexagon box office on 0118 960 6060 or http://readingarts.com/thehexagon