Bill Bailey looks back: ‘My comedy audience is similar to Strictly’s demographic – an eight-year-old next to an 80-year-old’ | Life and style

Bill Bailey in 197 7 and 2023
Bill Bailey in 1977 and 2023. Later photograph: Simon Webb. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Sadaf Ahmad. Archive image: courtesy of Bill Bailey

Born in Bath in 1965, Bill Bailey is a comedian, actor and writer. Combining his multi-instrumentalism with humour, he was nominated for the Perrier award at the 1996 Edinburgh fringe and went on to star in Black Books, as well as being a panellist on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI. He became the BBC’s oldest winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2020, aged 55. The UK leg of his latest tour, Thoughtifier, begins in February. He is married with a son, and lives in London.

Mum was a prodigious photo taker. Every Christmas she’d make us pose with our presents, and this was a special one: my very first guitar – a Spanish one with nylon strings that I got from my parents. I’m 12 and in the lounge of our house, an old Elizabethan building that was so draughty the windows would rattle. Hence why I’m wearing so many cardigans.

Christmas was always a busy, bustling time – we’d put two tables together and mum would put on a big spread for neighbours and relatives. My aunt worked for the Forestry Commission, so she would often get reject trees that they couldn’t sell. We clearly felt obliged to take this one. It’s completely malformed.

As an only child I was a bit doted on. It was a multi-generational dynamic as my grandparents lived with us in a kind of annexe in the garden. Being sociable people, they’d be in the main house with us a lot of the time, which sometimes caused friction as there were so many of us under one roof. But I loved it: while Dad was at work and Mum was cooking, they would grill me about my day at school.

At primary school, I was very studious, and devoured books – mainly fantasy and adventure stories, anything that took you out of yourself. I was academic and shy. When I started doing plays, I suddenly felt more confident. I thought: “This is it! This is what I need to do!” I had found myself.

After that I had a certain impetuosity at school – this feeling that I knew it all, or that I didn’t need to know what was being taught. I got bored quickly and was distracted by other things – playing in bands, cricket, going to parties and meeting other people. That phase never really ended.

Keynsham felt like quite a sleepy little town to grow up in – but there was still a shop that sold punk clothes. When this photo was taken, I had a lot of hair going on – it was around the time I’d refrained from the family tradition of letting grandad cut my hair. Two years later, punk arrived and I started to experiment – I had blond hair, black hair, spiky hair. I went to see the Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Undertones and the Cure in Bath. I still wanted to be a performer, too – when I heard Remain in Light by Talking Heads for the first time it was a real lightbulb moment. I was 15, playing the piano a lot and I suppose I imagined Talking Heads were going to drive by Keynsham in a tour bus and say: “Who is this guy?”

I’d also fallen in love with spoken word. My dad loved the Goons and my cousin had these Monty Python albums that he would play. Along with a like-minded friend called Toby [Longworth] we would lark around and make our own tapes of rambling nonsense. Eventually we set up a comedy club in Bath that had an anarchic and DIY ethic.

Together we formed a comedy duo called the Rubber Bishops, sort of by chance. We had 10 minutes of daft songs and sketches and took it up to the fringe, but we didn’t have a name – or a show, really. The venue was in the crypt of the church at the end of Princes Street, and there were some red cassocks backstage so we borrowed them. We did our 10 minutes to baffled tourists. An auspicious start, stealing from the church, but it worked.

Doing standup solo was never my ambition until I did a gig where Martin [Stubbs, who replaced Toby in the Rubber Bishops in 1989] couldn’t make it. I had to perform on my own, and I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there. Some bloke in the audience shouted: “Tell us a joke!” To fill time I said: “Three blokes go into a pub … ” Everyone went quiet. That was all I had. So then I said: “I mean, I say three. It was probably four or five.” That got a bit of a laugh. “OK, so it was six. Ten.” It went on and on. To a village, a town. It turned into a long shaggy dog story that ended with: “The first bloke said: ‘I’ll get these!’ What an idiot.” It got a big laugh and I realised that was my sort of comedy, rather than the loud and boisterous stuff the Rubber Bishops were doing.

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By the time I was on Buzzcocks, I’d done the odd bit of TV, but it was still a bit nerve-racking. It was helped by the fact that I knew Mark [Lamarr] and Phill [Jupitus] from the comedy circuit, so I would wind them up by being some wurzel deliberately trying to sabotage the show. Strictly, meanwhile, was huge. I was so out of my comfort zone. I had never danced or learned choreography. The producers liked to tell us just before we went on: “By the way, there’s about 13 million people watching.” It was terrifying, but I took a bit of comfort in knowing that my audience for the last 20 years of doing comedy had been similar to Strictly’s demographic. It was quite normal for me to look into the audience and see an eight-year-old next to an 80-year-old.

When I told my friend Sean Lock I was doing Strictly he said: “You realise you are just flinging yourself into the sea of public opinion?” I said: “Yep.” He said: “Look, you could emerge triumphantly astride two dolphins like Neptune – or be dashed on the rocks of public ignominy.” It turned out to be the dolphins. Sean couldn’t believe it! He was furious.

This last couple of years without him [Lock died in 2021 aged 58] has been really hard. We were very close and used to bounce ideas off each other all the time. As soon as he wasn’t there, I suddenly realised how much I relied on him: he was brilliant at giving it to you straight. Without him around, I struggled. I carried on working – I was doing tours and TV shows and whatnot – but felt as if I wasn’t quite there. Now I realise I was feeling the magnitude of grief and loss. In the last year, I’ve started to process it a bit, and I’ve thrown myself back into work. But it’s extraordinary how much he is still around. I feel his presence, his voice. Often admonishing me about something.

As for Christmas, I still stick to some traditions. One year, I went into a shop and saw an inverted tree, the top bushy and the bottom skinny. Nobody had wanted it, so it was very cheap. But I quickly realised it was far more practical for putting presents underneath it. We took great delight in taking our photo with it, posing so it looked as if we were sat on an upside-down tree. It was malformed, but very fun, and that’s all that matters.


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