Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey

Real name: Mark Bailey
Date of birth: 13-01-1964
Born and raised in the West Country, Bill Bailey showed an early passion for music, forming the school band Behind Closed Doors.  It was also at school that he acquired the nickname Bill, thanks to a geography teacher who was a fan of the song Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?

He seemed destined for a career in music; being the only pupil at his school to study the subject at A-level, before attending the  London College of Music.  In his early years, he performed with an 'enthusiastic if unsuccessful', four-piece band called The Famous Five. But he says he always felt the urge to slip jokes into the set.

Bailey also had a passion for theatre, and he spent much of the Eighties touring with a Welsh experimental theatre company, which he combined with a job as a lounge pianist and a keyboard player in a jazz trio. But one night Bailey saw comic poet John Hegley, who inspired him to combine music and comedy.

In 1986 he formed a double act, the Rubber Bishops, with Toby Longworth, who was replaced in 1988 by Martin Stubbs.  Around this time he was also performing with  London topical comedy team Newsrevue.

Once the double act dissolved, he formed the pub band Beergut 100, and started performing stand-up solo.  In 1994, he performed  at the Edinburgh Fringe with Sean Lock with the show Rock, about an ageing rockstar and his roadie

The following he returned with his debut solo show, and in 1996 earned a Perrier nomination for his show Cosmic Jam. The show was later recorded for TV, but it took until 2005 for it to be released on DVD.

His Perrier success landed him several TV appearances, including a captaincy on the ill-fated Channel 4 sci-fi panel game Space Cadets. But three years after his Perrier success, Bailey was writing and starring in his own BBC Two show Is It Bill Baile?y, featuring  musical parodies, surreal sketches, and stand-up.

He continued to tour and  won the Best Live Stand-Up award at the 1999 British Comedy Awards. In 2001, he toured with Bewilderness and in 2003, he took to the road with Part Troll, following its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2007 he made the move to arenas, with the live show Tinselworm.

In 2000, he took the role as long-suffering Manny Bianco in Dylan Moran's sitcom Black Books, which cemented his burgeoning TV fame.

Now he is probably most famous as a team captain on comedy pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks, taking over from Sean Hughes in 2002. Bailey has also appeared regularly on QI, Spaced, and as a guest on the likes of Room 101 and TV Heaven, Telly Hell.

Bailey has also been a straight actor. During the 2003 Edinburgh Festival he starred in a production of Twelve Angry Men, alongiside other comedians and two years later appeared opposite Alan Davies in an Edinburgh Fringe producton of The Odd Couple. He voiced the sperm whale in 2005's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie  In 2007, Bailey appreared in a West End revival of Harold Pinter sketches, Pinter's People, which he helped bring to the stage.

He is also a wildlife campagner and presented Wild Thing I Love You which began on Channel 4 on October 15, 2006.

He became a father in 2003, and named his son Dax after the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 character.

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© Andy Hollingworth

Bill Bailey: Larks In Transit in the West End

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Wyndhams Theatre, London

Bill Bailey must surely warrant national treasure status by now. For the comedian represents the best of us: eccentric, curious, sardonic, creatively and passively-aggressively rebellious, and patriotic about Britain’s peculiar eccentricities without being in the slightest bit nationalistic. 

Indeed his celebration, or affectionate mocking, of other country’s traits is a small part of Larks In Transit as he shares some of his globe-trotting stories, which tend to start with phrases such as: ‘So I was making this documentary about otters….’ 

He certainly has the air of a old-time patrician schoolmaster as he puffs on his empty pipe and demanding of the audience: ‘You, boy, where do we get the name Thursday from?’

The lessons continue as he muses on England’s defeat by the Vikings at the 991 Battle of Maldon, how Aristophanes originated an insult, or the use of birdsong in modern rap music. No wonder he’s in demand on QI.

He’s at ease in his eclectic, arcane universe, as well as with his own place in the world, forever being cast as the ‘bewildered farmer’ in movies. Bailey may confess to becoming increasingly intemperate  in his middle age, but anger is not really in him, just occasional disappointed exasperation.

That certainly extends to Brexit, which he likens to Britain’s drifting away from the Continent on a ‘semi-inflated lilo of self-determination’, just one of several delightfully esoteric turns of phrase brought into play. Describing the way online news consumption reduces everything to ‘a thin humous we dip into with the stale pitta bread of self-loathing’ is a particular joy.

And on the subject of Europe, Bailey shows that anything Eddie Izzard can do, he can do too (maybe apart from the marathon-running), and delivers a chunk of the show in hilarious cod German. 

There are a few well-used premises across the West End, which has evolved since we saw in on tour in February, from how inappropriate the West Country accent is to any serious job, to the odd conversations that phrasebooks seem to think are everyday. But the examples Bailey uses are perfectly judged in their peculiarities.

Of course comedy’s most versatile musical virtuoso also offers his usual mash-ups and re-imaginings of familiar, from Old Macdonald in the style of Tom Waits, via Theresa May’s utterances underpinning a 1990s-style dancefloor banger, to familiar songs played in a minor key – making the Star Spangled Banner sound suspiciously Soviet – or vice-versa.

Audiences would, I’m sure, be happy to hear him noodling away on his eclectic instruments for hours, with his set-up now including the likes of an iPhone and a handpan, which looks like an upside-down barbecue, as well as old favourites such as the Theremin and Bible-guitar.

And that’s the essence of Bailey’s appeal, a mix of downplayed eccentricities and whimsical observations we can all wallow in, with flashes of great musical showmanship to ratchet the performance up a notch. Two hours of great company, pure and simple.

Bill Bailey is at the Wyndhams Theatre until January 5, then resumes his UK tour in May. Dates and tickets.

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Published: 7 Dec 2018

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