August 18, 2012
Bill Bailey bristles at the term celebrity, but the gifted comedian's manifold talents and interests command attention, Gillian Lord writes
A Google image search for Bill Bailey turns up a portrait of him sitting at the dining table trying to read a book. There's a happy dog, tail up, demanding his attention and a sulphur crested cockatoo on the back of a chair, also demanding his attention. He seems used to it. French doors lead into an ordered jungle. Everyone looks happy.
And so they should. Animals, both the helping and the having of them, form a central part of this popular stand-up comic's life, along with a successful acting career, a great musical gift and, of course, his family.
Born Mark Bailey, this 48-year-old polymath made ever-lasting fame in the TV comedy series Black Books, and now charms us with occasional visits to our Wide Brown Land and his more frequent guest appearances on Stephen Fry's QI. He is one of those people who seem to exude a groovy kinda lurve, a non-threatening, welcoming sort of cool. In these days of packaging and branding, Bailey's brand is wrapped up in a surreal, endless wit and whacky observations on almost everything. Even when he's being cruel he sounds kind.
The last time Bailey made it our way, Kevin Rudd was prime minister - then he woke up to find that Julia Gillard had wrestled power her way. Whether he has any further effect on our political landscape - intended or otherwise - will be revealed during his latest tour, Qualmpeddler. Bailey performs in Canberra on the first night of spring.
Qualm. You know, unease. Anxiety. That's where the man who once played a man who swallowed the Little Book of Calm finds the juice for this show.
''An anxiety monger, that's what I am,'' he says happily, sounding quite calm and right next door, although he's probably at home in Hammersmith Grove. ''There's my own qualms about modern life, and the idea of leaders instilling worry into the population so as to keep an anxious population worried and under control. They are Qualmpeddlars, they terrify us into submission.''
He's taken the idea for the show's poster from Chairman Mao era propaganda posters, the early, hand-painted ones with beautiful pastoral scenes evocative of Xanadu or Nirvana - and against this backdrop someone is publically denounced and all misery breaks loose, Bailey observes wryly.
He gets angry at corruption, injustice, greed and self-interest on a grand scale, and he's at least in a position to be heard. Mind you, he gets annoyed when someone calls him a celebrity. When he grew up, celebrities were astronauts, explorers and inventors - people who became famous by doing something clever or brave or both. In 2010 he had put his name to a campaign to encourage parents to engage with teenagers about alcohol. A TV presenter asked him why people should listen to him, a celebrity. A red rag to the docile Bull Bailey - ''I was incandescent with anger,'' he said at the time. ''I'm just a member of the public who happens to feel strongly about a subject, and my so-called celebrity has allowed me to bring this to a greater audience.''
But that's not to say he hasn't embraced the modern media that makes Somebodies out of Nobodies, even if it isn't for those reasons. Take Twitter. He likes it (and this writer confesses to following him, because he's funny and nice and discreet).
Twitter is like Tombola, he says. ''You never know what you're going get. It could be something profound from the Dalai Lama or somebody telling you what biscuit they like. You get some very digested news stories too, and the everyday lives of people. That's why people love and enjoy it. I'm not really one for Facebook, there's too much stuff going on, pokes and likes and shares and walls …''
Twitter is his speed.
''If you get to know it and can use it properly it's good,'' he says, ''it's a way of fans interacting with you, it's manageable and handy for both parties, you can let people know about gigs, they can send you messages, it's pretty harmless. It's come under scrutiny because of people getting abuse and all, but if people start [annoying you] you can always block them.''
He loved that somebody pretended to be the Queen on Twitter, and that it became so successful it was released as a book for Christmas. A quick peek on twitter.com/Queen-UK explains why. Imagine the Queen tweeting ''And the Lord said 'Let there be gin' and there was gin. And the Lord said 'Let there be vodka' and there was a Vespa Martini'' or, during the Olympics Closing Ceremony, ''The Spice Girls. The sodding Spice Girls. Jesus Christ.''
Doctor Who fans would have noticed Bailey in the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Doctor, The Window and the Wardrobe, in which he played a Droxil, a harvest ranger from the Planet Androzani More. That, he said, put him in the bunker of dreams. It was very fun, he assures, how much fun can you have as a futuristic forestry worker with a massive gun, being beamed down into a wood, running around in the snow at 4am. And celebrity added a bizarre twist.
''We had to be corralled into a shelter, with barriers around us, because the Dr Who fans are quite, um, loyal, and they find out where they are filming and traipse through the woods. The Dr Who staff don't want anyone taking photos of you and posting them online, so you get kinda locked away when you're not filming. It's pretty funny.''
Raised in England's West Country, Bailey is the son of a doctor father and a ward sister mother. His maternal grandparents lived in an annexe on the side of their house, the two rooms at the front were for his father's surgery. A kind of family commune. Bailey married Kristin in 1998 and their son, Dax, was born in 2003. Their family home is a commune of sorts too - except more of a home to many species.
Among these a black palm cockatoo from a rescue centre, and a blow-in cockatiel that their builder saw sitting on the bonnet of a car when he went out for a pint of milk. He assumed it was the Baileys and took it home to them. It wasn't, but since nobody else claimed it … Then there's the Madagascan hissing cockroaches - ''they're cute, more like woodlice, they have a segmented back'' - and a pair of golden-handed tamarin monkeys. ''They live in the house, but we've nearly completed a monkey dome in the garden. It's a near geodesic dome,'' he adds. And there's more.
He lends his support to a lot of animal rescue organisations and is very knowledgable about animals and the threats to their wild habitat. He puts his money, and his energy, where his mouth is.
After making his name at the Edinburgh Festival as a stand-up comic many years ago, he wasn't planning to be at this year's, instead he was in eastern Indonesia, in the eastern Mallaccas, making a documentary on Alfred Wallace, ''a long-hold project I've been working on for years and years and years.''
Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist, is best known for independently proposing a theory of evolution due to natural selection that prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own theory. Which of course made his name for ever more.
''Wallace did [his studies] in Indonesia, and since it's the anniversary [of his death] in 2013, the BBC wanted something on it, two hour-long programs.''
It's clear he is a long-time fan and student of Wallace. ''Others, like Dawkins, David Attenborough, many others don't think he's been given his due. Wallace was a very unassuming man, he was happy to be associated with Darwin and he had no rancour - many would say he should be superior [to Darwin].''
He ponders the case of Wallace's stolen thunder, ''it's the case in a lot of scientific discovery, it's often murky and shabby'', and goes on to explain the circumstances of Darwin presenting Wallace's theory jointly with his own.
Bailey was the only pupil at his school to study A-level music, which he passed with a straight A (he is pitch-perfect too) but it's clear his interests don't stop there. His curiosity for the world around him is quite boundless. He's no slouch on QI either.
That too is fun. ''It's quite fun, it's quite unique, you sorta think, well I'm paid for this, but it doesn't feel like work at all. Stephen Fry tells us interesting things and we nod. But you never quite know where it's going to go, that's the fun of it, you never know where the conversation might lead.''
Watching Bill Bailey live is a bit like that too. Only it's spacier, and with music.
Qualmpeddler, Royal Theatre, September 1. Bookings Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com.au