Bill Bailey: Dandelion Mind
Comedy-goers, you’re in for a treat. Even at this stage, Bill Bailey’s next tour is about as perfect a stand-up experience as you could hope to get. And this at merely a ‘work in progress’ gig, before a month-long run of preview shows in the West End’s Wyndham Theatre, announced this morning, and the tour itself.
This is a show that has everything: politics, whimsy, music, passion, fun, rap, poetry, speed bazuki, a history of art lecture about the various interpretations of The Incredulity of St Thomas… all performed with the skill, wit, intelligence and originality of a true maestro of comedy.
There’s surprise at every turn, with such an embarrassment of exquisite jokes, imagery and ideas you can’t help but be enchanted. While the show title suggests a flighty brain (‘one pffft and it’s gone’), there’s no doubt that behind that acid-casualty exterior lies a super-sharp operator.
If, as the aphorism goes, a comic says funny things, while a true comedian says things funny, them we’d better make a new category for Bailey. Not only can he get a laugh just from mumbling ‘Thank you for coming’ at an unusually brisk pace, getting the ball rolling straight away, but there’s a richness and depth to all his material, which means that each one of his plentiful laughs is uniquely earned.
Following his previous, diluted, escapades with a full orchestra, here’s back to what he does best – even if it’s not exactly pared-down basics. The stage with littered with musical detritus, from the Iranian oud to the Tenori-on, an electronic gizmo that translates patterns into sound. You would expect him to put this one-man band to use for some of his trademark mash-ups; and he doesn’t disappoint, especially with his joyous French pop version of Cars. Bailey doesn’t need to change the words of a song to get a cheap laugh, he can change its speed a get much stronger ones.
However, the music – plus the classy videos that accompany some of it – is an adjunct to his sharp wit, not a replacement for it. Despite battling a rasping throat, Bailey is on top intellectual form tonight, his rationalist point of view perhaps more tightly focussed by the Pope’s visit, which gets plenty of tongue-in-cheek mentions. Bailey has a plan to get close enough to lunge at the Pontiff, by disguising himself as a badger, the perfect illustration of his mix of surrealism and sharp opinion.
In fact, Bailey’s whimsy is singularly grounded. He doesn’t string random ideas together for the sake of it, but has such expert command of the language that he can succinctly demolish anything he sees as ridiculous with the perfect heightened of its extremes that may seem bizarre, but makes a point.
Brevity is thus at the heart of his wit, with the Saw films boiled down to one or two brilliantly bizarre horror scenarios, or florid gastrobollocks perfectly parodied with flamboyantly imagined menu description . While spoofs of such things as cosmetics ads or James Blunt songs – easy comic targets by any measure – are so devastatingly accurate they transcend the ordinary.
Bailey’s in playful mood tonight, too, the intimate confines of the Leicester Square Theatre perhaps allowing him to be especially relaxed. Typically oddball hecklers, prompt his usual disclaimer: ‘I should warn you, I do attract a lot of nutters.’ But they give him rein to spin off into a mix of improvised silliness and snippets of back-catalogue to make for an irresistibly fluid performance.
Keen Bailey-watchers will spot a few of the prime routines from his last Tinselworm tour making their way into this set. This may be a part of the ‘in progress’ nature of this gig, but they sit seamlessly alongside the vast majority of new stuff, and are a delight to hear again in a show that’s perfect. Just perfect.
Bill Bailey ('Dandelion Mind')
December 2 2010
Many a stand-up has attempted to walk the precarious surrealist tightrope, but very few do it with the same aplomb as Bill Bailey. You might know him from Never Mind The Buzzcocks, as Bilbo Bagshot in Spaced, Maxxie's dad in Skins and, of course, accountant-turned-shop assistant Manny in Black Books, but it's on stage where Bailey really comes alive with his mix of spot-on musical pastiches and wry commentary on the world. We sat down with Bill and an adorable cat named Casper to talk about his new DVD Dandelion Mind and to find out just what he thinks about Simon Cowell...
How does Dandelion Mind compare to your TV work?
"The show would probably appear to be more rehearsed and slightly slicker... I usually appear on TV in some slightly dishevelled, bewildered state! It's a more refined, concentrated version. It's a mixture of straightforward stand-up - jokes and observational stuff - mixed in with longer routines. It's like a pot pourri if you like - a melange of different comedic elements - it's like a visual, musical spectacle."
Is this show very different from your past sets?
"For me it represents a return to the roots of stand-up. I wanted to be able to do it in a small venue and then expand into bigger venues, rather than just create a massive show for a big arena. It's about opinions, my view of the world, the coalition, the government, the Catholic Church, the concept of doubt - doubt and uncertain times that we've got. It's a mixture of a lot of what I feel about the world, plus a lot of music."
Do you consciously try to balance the music and spoken word parts?
"No, I don't think so. You go with what you find funny or something you find a bit of inspiration for. For every show I probably write three times as much stuff as I need and then you pare it down. In that process you tend to then balance it out a little bit. It goes in cycles... In this particular one there's loads of jokes. I don't know whether that's a conscious thing or a reaction to the longer conceptual shows that I've done before. I think because it's a rootsy type show that it's very joke-heavy... it's a more traditional show."
Do you worry about topical material dating?
"There's stuff about the coalition or football, but even then the coalition's going to be with us for five years, and however much I'd hope things are going to be different, England football doesn't seem to change very much! I talk about stuff that I feel strongly about and I think that even if it doesn't have that longevity, the passion and the anger that it caused at the time almost stays fresh... Very often it'll be valid for years to come. You never quite know how subjects are going to drift from the news or stay in the news, but you just have to go instinctively with what feels right."
You make some comments about Simon Cowell - is that something you really feel strongly about?
"I do, I genuinely do. I think there's something very hollow at the heart of all the talent shows. I think there's something that's corrosive. Generally, it eats away at people's idea of what fame is, what celebrity is, what the rewards for fame should be - the correlation between talent and money and fame. It's overheated and overcooked to such an extent that young people - impressionable people - are going to have their views of all these things warped by it."
Are his shows different from the old-fashioned talent shows?
"Talent shows have been around since the beginning of television, it's nothing new, but what's different about X Factor and Britain's Got Talent is that the stakes are much higher now. It used to be just an amateur talent competition and if you won it you might get a summer season at Blackpool and that's the end of it. Now it's ten million hits on YouTube, it's number one albums - so for those people who don't make it it's a crushing blow that should have just been a shrug and, 'Maybe next year'."
Is that really Cowell's fault?
"I find it's very cynical and very manipulative because he owns the record company, he owns the format of the TV show - it's like the house wins any way you look at it. Some of these kids can sing, and yet they're being put through this mill like that's the gold standard of how to progress in your musical career and it shouldn't be that. The X Factor shouldn't be the way that you get famous - you should be able to play in venues around the country, find your own style and carve out your own identity - then you get more of a sense of self-worth."
As a talented musician yourself do you ever think of going on the road with straight songs?
"Yeah, definitely. Next year one of my other projects is to assemble a small group of musicians and actually write some music that we can incorporate in the show, like ...Guide To The Orchestra I did last year. It would be a guide to various different styles of music - jazz, funk, blues - to have a bit more fun. There's certainly a limit to what I can do on the stage on my own, I can only play one guitar, one keyboard."
"One oud [laughs]. One oud, one vision! What ...The Orchestra showed is that there's a lot more potential for exploration of music if you have a group of musicians together. I'd love to have a jazz trio. That's another of the things I've always wanted to play in, so that might be a project for next year."
How did you come to leave Never Mind The Buzzcocks?
"To be honest, I was basically sidelined from the show. Buzzcocks normally records in October and the BBC moved the recordings forward two months and so it clashed with a lot of stuff I'd already booked. I'd had a tour of Australia, an orchestra tour and a West End run. They said, 'Could you just cancel them?' I thought, how utterly contemptuous do the BBC treat their artists? Thinking I'm sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. You've got to get on with things. How rude are you to just assume I'm going to knock these things on the head? I said, 'I can't do it - I can't cancel these shows'. They said, 'How many can you do?', and I could do 7 or 8 out of 12 or something and they said, 'Well that's not enough', and I said, 'Well there you go'."
Stephen Fry cryptically suggested that someone on the QI panel gets some help...
"Oh really? I've no idea what he's talking about. It's one of those very cryptic Fry-isms [laughs]. Like one of those things where he has a hissy fit and says he's going to leave Twitter. It's probably one of those."
What was it like to audition for The Hobbit? Are you hopeful of getting some role in the film?
"I read for the part of Glóin, Gimli's dad, but I don't know... I think now that they've resolved the actors' dispute suddenly all those actors that they were not able to look at now they can. Logistically it makes more sense to use actors in New Zealand rather than try to parachute in a load of people - it'd cost a fortune! I don't know, I'm still waiting to see."
How did it feel to be named the seventh best stand-up in a Channel 4 poll?
"They're all a bit meaningless, polls, really. You've no idea who's been asked and what are the criteria and you can see sometimes that it's people who have just happened to be on TV at that moment. It is quite flattering to be included in a poll I suppose, but I don't set too much stall by that."
Bill Bailey: 'It's genius, evil genius' Bill Bailey has been described as the world's seventh greatest comedian. But he's a lot better than that. Who else could make inverse femtobarns (look it up) funny?
18 December 2010
Oh dear, I seem to have pulled off Bill Bailey's knob. "You've been in the gym too much," says a man working outside the comedian's production offices in west London. Nonsense: I have the muscle tone of an undernourished kitten.
As I hand over doorknob and screw to the man and ring the bell, another man in a flap-eared cap appears at my elbow, tsking and tutting and rolling his eyes like a disappointed hobbit. It's Bailey himself, arriving for our interview. The world's seventh greatest comedian (according to Channel 4's recent programme The 100 Greatest Stand-Ups) removes his hat, giggles and – this is the important bit – disdains to make the all-too-obvious joke.
It would have been easy for Bailey, 46, to impugn my masculinity. Or his. Or both. But he is above legitimising the toxic comedy of humiliation that benights British culture. Either that or, because last night's after-show shindig continued to 3am, his comedy pistons aren't firing on all cylinders at 11am.
"My comedy increasingly goes into the most abstruse areas," says Bailey once we get inside and settle down to tea. And how. In his current show, Dandelion Mind at London's Wyndham's Theatre, he develops not only a visual critique of the representation of Thomas the Apostle in western art, but also a counter-factual history (to music) of what would have happened if the Nazis had established their reich in Australia.
He even has a routine about the philosophically difficult issue of dark matter. "I ask my audiences how much dark matter there is in the universe. Nothing I've ever done has provoked such a divided reaction. Everybody has an opinion: '70% of the universe is dark matter.' 'No, it's 80%.' 'You're confusing dark energy with dark matter.' 'How do you know dark matter exists if you can't see it?' I get a lot of nutters in my audiences," says Bailey happily.
"I found a blog by the director of Cern [the Geneva-based European laboratory for particle physics]," says Bailey. Stop right there. Nothing funny can come from this. "And he used this phrase 'inverse femtobarn data'. What could a femtobarn be, I asked myself? Not where an owl lives. Not a Dutch lesbian disco night. What could it be? It took me ages to figure out what it was."
"One night I had a nuclear physicist in the audience, and I did this account of what a femtobarn was, and at the end he gave me the thumbs up." Excellent, but where does funny come in? "Well, that's the challenge, and I think I can pull it off." Certainly, the reviews for Dandelion Mind have been uniformly positive, praising his intellectual verve, fluidity of performance and consummate musician-ship (he's an accomplished pianist and guitarist, has perfect pitch and grade six clarinet, damn him). "That stuff interests me, and there's also a desire in British people to be stretched a bit."
But surely you'd be forgiven for thinking – certainly if you watch Saturday night telly – that British people don't. "If you look through the broadsheets," counters Bailey, "there are articles about difficult, intellectual things. It's not all exhaustive analyses of Dannii Minogue's social calendar."
The X Factor reference is apposite. Bailey is resisting national stupefaction by Simon Cowell and all his works. He tweeted recently about another X Factor judge, Cheryl Cole, writing: "How did this violent thug become the nation's sweetheart?" He linked the tweet to a 2003 report of the Girls Aloud singer's conviction for assault. "I timed it to coincide with the X Factor final. All the coverage was treating her as though she was the nation's sweetheart. I thought: 'Hang on. It wasn't long ago she was attacking a toilet attendant.'
"I was slightly depressed by how people say of that attack, 'Oh, it was a long time ago. She was young. You have to move on.' No you don't. I remember being 19 and drunk, but I don't remember punching a toilet attendant and calling them racist names."
It's worth pointing out that, at her trial, the prosecution claimed Tweedy (as she was then) called her victim a "fucking black bitch". Tweedy denied this and the jury found, while there was enough evidence to convict her of assault, there was not enough to show it was racially motivated.
"On Buzzcocks [the BBC2 show on which Bailey served as team captain from 2003-08] at the time, we imagined her PR department were advising her to marry a black man after this to improve her image. And then it only goes and happens." Tweedy became Cheryl Cole after marrying the black England and Chelsea footballer, Ashley Cole, from whom she is now divorced.
Bailey may seem to be fighting the good fight against an increasingly barbarian culture (in another tweet, he urges followers to see Aki Kaurismäki's film Ariel. "I'm trying to say there is more out there – you don't have to listen to this music and watch these films"). But hang on. Wasn't he, on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, party to one of the cruellest shows on TV, one that helped set brutish standards for British comedy and culture? "Oh, I don't think so. I mean, it was quite toxic, and it makes me a bit queasy. And, by 2008, I was glad to stop taking the piss out of characters from Hollyoaks I'd never heard of.
"When Mark Lamarr [Simon Amstell's predecessor as host] picked his targets, they were people he attacked for their smugness and lack of talent. That was the benchmark. He was drawing from some unending supply of bile, but there was a sweetness always to what he did, in that his furious impotent rage at things that he couldn't stand, but couldn't do anything about, was funny."
Bailey's current show is more overtly political than hitherto. "Partly because the coalition is a gift. Vince Cable was going to abstain from his own proposition on tuition fees! The Lib Dems are such terrible ditherers. They thought they were only about making rash promises, safe in the knowledge that they would never have the unpleasantness of politics. They're convulsing emotionally. I say this as someone who grew up in the south-west of England, which was a Lib Dem stronghold." (Bailey was raised in Keynsham by a GP father and hospital ward-sister mother, before heading off to join a Welsh theatre troupe in which he played a disenfranchised owl.)
The point about the Lib Dems is more poignant because Bailey himself has entered the unpleasantness of politics and is, as a result, convulsing emotionally. He took part in a Labour party political broadcast before the election. "It was a big step for me. As a comedian and satirist you have to be neutral, because everyone's fair game. Once you show bias, you lose that. But I thought it was important to descend into the battle." Why? "The election was getting ugly and heavy-handed. Murdoch had decided to weigh in for the Tories. Every day the Times seemed to have a picture of Cameron on the front striking a heroic pose, while Gordon Brown was always depicted with one eye closed, looking stupid." Presumably there was less easy kudos attached to coming out for Labour in 2010 than, say, in 1997? "Exactly. In the past, I'd failed to make my allegiances known."
What are they? "I thought supporting Labour and being leftwing is an outlook on life. It's wider than politics. That kind of life was, and is, being eroded. Somehow the Tories have deflected the righteous anger at the bankers who we bailed out. The Tories manage to take that outrage and direct it at benefit claimants. It's genius. Evil genius."
He has been a keen supporter of students protesting against the rise in tuition fees, tweeting his backing to student sit-ins. "It's the spirit of the 60s. Fair play to them. That's the time to do it – when you're a student and filled with unshakeable conviction. I'm desperately envious of that. One of the lines in my show is that I'm envious of certainty."
Casper, Bailey's cat, passes between us. "He's a Devon Rex," he says proudly. "He's got a recessive gene, because he's a descendant of one of those cats who used to live in the tin mines of Devon and Cornwall. That's why he looks like a throwback to ancient Egyptian moggies." He strokes her, perhaps in species-empathy. (Bill Bailey, after all, was the name of a cat in TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.)
It's at this point that I wonder about dark matter in the universe. Bailey's persona is so charming and upbeat as to make one doubt its existence. Where is his dark side? Are there skeletons in his closet, or just mullet hairnets? The only dirt I can get on him is that he's living a lie: he was born Mark; the Bill only came when a teacher sang the trad-jazz standard Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey? in class. He also named his son Dax, after the sentient, wormlike life-form in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, of which Bailey is an irritatingly blameless fan.
We're ostensibly meeting to discuss a short film he's written and directed for Sky, in which he plays a 21st-century Scrooge bent on buying himself a new piece of technokit at Christmas, scornful of seasonal charity. But Bailey is such a sweet presence that we never quite bring ourselves to enjoy his monstrous persona's comeuppance in the shopping-centre car park. That said, there is clearly steel in Bailey's character. Three years ago he fired his agent and set up his own production company. "Now I can pick and choose what I do. I'm not contractually obliged to do cobblers, which is how the comedy world – which is so tightly managed in this country – works. After a shaky 18 months, I became freer than I ever was before. My wife [Kirstin] works for me, and she takes the calls and does the role of management, then we have other staff too. It's a cottage industry. It was a punk thing really – about doing it all yourself – and I feel much happier that way."
These, then, are good times for Bailey. Once, though, he gave up comedy for telesales. He would have been there still were it not for his boss insisting he wear a tie. "Who needs a tie for a job that involves Working. On. The. Phone?" He resigned on sartorial principle and went back to trying to make his poorly attended standup shows work.
That was 15 years ago. Today Bailey is not just a standup but a bearded multi-platform brand. This brand embraces sitcom (including the superb Black Books), nature shows (the delightful Wild Thing – I Love You), music (Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra), straight acting, directing ambitions, a looming US tour, Edinburgh gigs, lucrative DVDs and a sell-out London residency.
Happy days – but for Bill Bailey's most ardent fans, there is some terrible news. He will probably not work in Peter Jackson's forthcoming film of The Hobbit, even though there was a petition backing his claim. "I did do an audition in New Zealand, thanks in part to the petition, but now the acting union there has successfully lobbied that New Zealand actors must take the roles. So it seems highly unlikely I'll get the part." It's time to go. I pull the front door shut and nothing falls off. It is, perhaps, a portent of economic recovery or something. Bill Bailey's knob is firm.
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