Just across from me, Bill Bailey is listing instruments. “Guitar,” he says. “Oud, saz, mandola, bible…”
“What was that last one?” I interrupt.
“Oh, the bible,” he says, in the same tone of voice you might talk about a much-loved piano or a particularly nice table.
“Somebody made it for me. It’s like a cigar box guitar, so it’s a four string, but it’s made from an old King James Bible cover – leather cover, which gives it a really lovely, soft tone.”
The performer is in Melbourne ahead of touring his new show, En Route to Normal, across Australia. In it, he brings together two of his passions, music and comedy, to give his take on the world around us. This is also why he’s listing instruments – I’d asked him how many different kinds he plays and the honest answer is he doesn’t know. In the show, however, there are about 20 on stage – in addition to “the bible” there are keyboards, synthesisers, percussion and a theremin.
For a time, he was perhaps best known for his role in the comedy television series Black Books, where he played the good-humoured and much put-upon Manny, an accountant turned bookseller. But Bailey is also an accomplished musician, comedian, author, wildlife conservationist – and honorary member of the Society of Crematorium Organists (though “I don’t think it actually confers any legal powers to take over a cremation” he tells me with a laugh). You are just as likely to see him popping up on your TV on a quiz show as you are to find him doing live performance or picking up an exotic tortoise to care for at his home turned wildlife sanctuary.
“I like to be busy,” he says.
This is definitely an understatement. Each of his three key passions – comedy, wildlife and music – could be a full-time job but he has found a way to make them all weave into one another and work together. Music is part of the fabric of his shows, which are in turn a way of collecting his interests and bringing them to an audience.
“It’s a kind of compendium of thoughts and ideas,” he reflects.
I ask if it took a long time to find that balance, if there was ever a time when he thought he’d have to pursue just one or put the others to one side.
“This is something that is a kind of recurring feature of my life, I guess. When I was at school I could never decide between subjects – I was always, ‘Oh, I like music’, but also I played sports and I like languages, so there was never really anything that was my sole interest – I was interested in everything,” he recalls.
So, instead of choosing, he did it all. He came to music young, starting with the upright piano at home. “From a very early age, I can remember I would just sit there and tap out tunes on it.”
Even before starting lessons, he would remember pieces of music and could pick out notes from just listening – perfect pitch.
He talks about what comes next as though it is perfectly ordinary – teaching himself guitar instinctively (“I just picked it up and sort of taught myself a little bit”) and from there just moving through instruments at a lightning pace. He’s still not done, however.
“The church organ is quite a difficult thing, because you have to master the pedals as well. So that will be my next challenge,” he tells me.
Adding to his prodigious youthful musical accomplishments, Bailey was doing well at school and beginning to dabble in comedy.
His first show wasn’t at a comedy venue, it was at a nightclub in his home town of Bath. Normally on the bill were performers such as Flock of Seagulls, Toyah or King Crimson, but the teenage Bailey and a friend persuaded the owner to put on a comedy night.
“It was largely shambolic,” he says.
Throughout our conversation Bailey tends to sit quite still; for the most part his liveliness and animation is in his voice, in the flick of an eye. He is quick to laugh, and his genuine interest in everything from birdwatching to Britney Spears to audiobooks shines through. But when he talks about the moment everything clicked into place during his first gig, he lights up and his posture changes – you can almost see the scene playing out in front of him.
“There was a bit where suddenly everyone just laughed – like, everyone connected and laughed. It’s electric, when that happens,” he recalls. “It was like suddenly holding on to a live wire and getting the shock, and then letting go and going, ‘What the hell was that?’ You never forget it. And you’re hooked. That’s it.”
Bailey’s career as a musical comedian has been hugely successful. He works almost constantly, and it means he does get recognised – except apparently by me, who had such severe tunnel vision on my way to interview him, I didn’t notice he was walking behind me.
It’s remarkable, then, that he also manages to fit in yet another almost-full-time job – running a wildlife sanctuary from his home. “It just got out of hand,” he says with a chuckle. Bailey and his wife started with a pet dog, then a cat and it snowballed from there.
“The pet shop that we used to go to, to get the dog food and the dog stuff … they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a rabbit that nobody wants and we’re going to have to euthanise it.’ We were like, ‘No! We’ll look after it.’ So, we get the rabbit. Then: ‘We’ve got a guinea pig, there’s no home for it.’ ‘Oh alright, well, we’ll have it,’ ” Bailey recalls. “Cut to now where we’ve got enclosures in the garden and parrots and weird chickens and ducks and all manner of exotic creatures.”
Sometimes they get calls when illegally trafficked animals are seized at customs. “We’ve looked after tortoises, we’ve looked after bats, we’ve looked after primates – monkeys – we’ve looked after rare frogs, lizards… I mean, all sorts of things.”
As a job, it is very time-consuming. Bailey and his wife, Kristin, would start preparing food and cleaning cages at 8am and not be done until 2 in the afternoon. Now, they have a bit of assistance, with London Zoo sending over interns to help.
It’s odd to think there’s a moment in the London Zoo intern program where the supervisor is reading out assignments and goes, ‘Okay, and it’s your turn to head to Bill Bailey’s house.’ Though I guess it’s not that much odder than imagining the man himself heading to the airport to pick up a rescued bird or frog.
Bailey doesn’t see this as time away from his other work, however – it all fits in. “Being busy and involved in lots of other things is good,” he says. “It occupies a mind in different ways.” His interest in wildlife filters into his other work, with a whole section on conservation making up a part of his new show.
When he’s touring, he likes to go out and see the local fauna. In Melbourne, his favourite birdwatching spot is the Western Treatment Plant in Werribee.
“It’s absolutely amazing. I don’t think I can think of anywhere quite like it in any city I’ve ever been to really – apart from ones that have old sewage farms, maybe,” he says. “You tend to have it to yourself, apart from a few other birders.”
We zigzag across a plethora of topics in our hour-long interview. In between learning about how he stitched together his different skills and passions into a unique voice as a performer, we discuss Hilary Mantel (specifically why it is so good to listen to her work on audiobook), the London Eye (it takes half an hour to do a full revolution) and the Queen. At the time, as far as both of us know, she is alive and well. It’s interesting that we don’t really know much about her, I say – not what she likes to watch on TV or what kind of music she listens to.
“That’s why the Queen is so popular, because she’s sort of almost a blank slate that people project onto her what they want from a monarch,” Bailey replies.
He points to how, for many people, she conjures up a sense of nostalgia. “When she dies, I think that that might be it in terms of the mystique of the royal family, of the monarchy,” he reflects. “It’ll be a quite momentous day.” Neither of us realise that the day we are speaking about is this very one. The next morning, I wake to the news that the Queen has died, and Bailey is contacted to speak about her on Australian radio. It’s surreal.
It’s also impossible to sum up exactly what Bill Bailey does. Performer doesn’t quite cover it, and neither does comedian or musician or conservationist. He’s unique, with one interest feeding into another.
Each show is a version of himself, his current obsessions in the foreground and the core skills and interests that make up his personality and character providing the scaffolding. He isn’t a comedian who does songs with funny lyrics either – the music is part of the comedy, in and of itself. In one example, he took great pains to figure out the exact sound it would take to invoke a certain type of 1970s crime TV show.
“It was almost like a delight in me, being a bit musically nerdy, having identified what that chord was, and people go, ‘That’s it, I recognise exactly what it is.’ ” Now his comedy and his music are inextricable, but early on it was difficult to see where his skills and interests would take him. The career aptitude test he took at school also didn’t seem to offer much help – it said he would either be a museum curator or work in the diplomatic service.
“I was like, what? Of course, at the time I just thought that this is just ludicrous. I dismissed it out of hand. I realise now, in later life, that they were onto something.”
Even as he’s explaining it, I can see the pieces falling into place. In his live shows and television series, Bailey chooses a series of topics and delves into them for an audience. There’s Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, which offers up a surreal twist on what the title promises. Or there’s Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero, where he digs into the life of Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary and competitor to Charles Darwin. And there’s his new show, which includes a deep dive into the history and mechanics of ragtime music – including a section where he takes audience song suggestions and reimagines them in the ragtime style. “ ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine seems to work really well,” he says, with an air of surprise.
His museum isn’t literal, but I’d argue it exists and is constantly growing as he continues to expertly curate a wide variety of topics and ideas. And he doesn’t claim to be a diplomat, but “I travel around the world promoting a kind of Englishness, I suppose, that I gently mock and celebrate at the same time”, he reflects.
“So, I think, maybe they might have got it right.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Bailey chronicle".
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