Bill Bailey might be a household name in comedy, and a familiar face on TV, but it is clear that he really thrives on doing stand-up gigs. He loves writing the script, he enjoys the thrill of a new audience, and he is constantly adding anecdotes, musical interludes and stories to take people in new whimsical directions.
When I speak to him just before he starts his West End residency with his show Larks in Transit, Bill had just come back from touring in New Zealand. He’s had a punishing schedule but is still upbeat and energetic. As a stand-up comedian, musician and presenter, Bailey might be busy, but he is genuine and down-to-earth. He takes time to consider my questions and gives thoughtful answers.
Bill, 53, grew up near Bath, but he talks about his early days on the Camden comedy circuit with relish. “When I first came to London, I would go to Camden all the time,” he says. “I used to go to the market, I’d go to Dingwalls for live music and comedy. I’d go to pubs like the Good Mixer and Dublin Castle.”
He was a steadfast campaigner against Camden Council’s decision to fine performers who were busking without a licence. He played the guitar in the space outside Camden tube to drum up support against the measures. Bill still stands by his words, and thinks Camden is the poorer for introducing the new rules.
“Camden’s spirit of anarchism and punk is embodied by busking. The freedom to go out and perform should be part of any big city. It’s part of a healthy society.”
While Bill loves performance, he is frank about the pressures from writing new material. He lives with his wife and 15-year-old son in Hammersmith, but he is often alone when touring abroad.
“When I’m preparing for a new show, there is a weight of expectation. Sometimes it feels as if I’m actually carrying a physical weight. It’s quite debilitating sometimes, to the point where it’s hard to write, to get started.
“I’ve done gigs where I’ve walked out and seen a big crowd, and sometimes the import of it suddenly hits you,” Bill adds.
“I’ve had weird out-of-body experiences where I’m watching myself on stage and thinking, ‘oh, I’m not sure about that.’ Gigs are never a known thing. You can’t predict what state you’re going to be in. You can’t predict what’s going to be funny. That’s what’s so appealing about doing them as well. It’s why I love it – it’s not a perfect science, it’s always changing, surprising.”
While Bill once supported Labour, appearing in the party’s general election broadcast in 2010, he believes that we are lacking effective leadership across the political divide.
“I’m beginning to question what Labour is, with the current administration. I don’t think any political party completely represents what I think. It’s gone beyond the whole left and right thing for me. Individuals can make real change – those with real vision and compassion. We need more individuals who can galvanise people.”
The comedian is now far more interested in activism closer to home. “I’m drawn to things that can be achieved locally, where you can actually affect change,” he says. “I work with local politicians to improve aspects of where I live – preserving the historical bits, going to council meetings and lobbying for improvements.
“I think that’s what a lot of people do, rather than being drawn into Westminster’s toxic back-and-forth politics.”
Bill enjoys reading – “science, history, biography – books about how we are, human nature”.
He’s also a keen bird watcher and his show features a section where he imitates bird calls and tests his audience on their knowledge – “if you know their calls, you can get birds to sing back to you. I’ve done that a few times and it’s amazing.”
Something tells me that spending time in nature must be a much-needed antidote to gigging. “It’s been a full-on year, but that’s the way I like it.”
• Larks In Transit is at Wyndham’s Theatre from December 3-January 5, then touring. The DVD and digital download of his 2015/ 2016 live show Limboland is now available.