Legendary comedian Bill Bailey brings his new tour ‘Larks in Transit’ to Surrey this May. With his trademark musical virtuosity, surreal tangents and laser-sharp intelligence, he tackles politics, philosophy, the pursuit of happiness, death metal, ringtones and recalls hilarious tales from his 20 years as a touring comic…
05.03.2018 / words: Rich Lee / image: Andy Hollingworth
Hi Bill. So what kind of ‘larks’ are we talking about on this tour – the adolescent, rock ‘n’ roll sort or the kind that involve bird hives?
Haha, yes, I think a bit of all of them really. This is ‘larks’ as in the Dickensian context of ‘What larks, Pip!’ from Great Expectations. The tone of it is really stories of travel, doing comedy and making films all around the world. And it’s something that I hadn’t really visited much before in my comedy. In fact, it was only really the last tour where I’d told a story about a family holiday, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment in some ways, because I thought that there were probably a lot of these tales that I could tell that could connect with an audience. I’m naturally quite a private person, a little bit shy and retiring, but I thought there was something there. And there’s a very ancient human compunction to tell stories, we all do it, so I just thought I’d love to do a show like this and punctuate it with music and some topicality.
What have you learnt about travel after 20 years on the road?
I think you become a ‘better’ traveller, certainly. When you’ve experienced countries around the world where things don’t exactly run with great efficiency, you do appreciate it when things go well, because you realise that it doesn’t take much for things to grind to a halt (laughs.) And you become a bit more patient, you accept that some things are beyond your control and not to get too wound up by it. Maybe that’s not a bad way to be generally.
Do you have a favourite souvenir from your adventures?
Well I do collect instruments. In China, I got a ‘Sanxian’? I can never pronounce it right. It looks like a strange, stripped-down banjo (laughs.) It’s homemade and has three strings and I saw a bloke playing it in a little band. I went up to him and through a translator said I really liked it, what was it? I don’t think he understood me because he said, “Come to my house tomorrow night and I’ll sell you one.” And so I went and bought it off him and it’s just fantastic. It just has this other-worldly sound but it’s a bit fragile to take on tour, unfortunately.
What have been your experiences of comedy scenes abroad?
There’s a burgeoning comedy industry in Asia that’s very new and raw compared to ours. It’s very difficult to find ways of expression there because in some countries independent and critical voices of the government are discouraged. You have to have a bit of courage to stick your neck out. It does make you appreciate our freedom of speech, the robust nature of the press and how we’re able to get up on stage and say whatever we want. We’re kind of a bastion of free speech.
Music has always been integral to your act, but have your tastes always been so broad and does new music still excite you?
I think so. As a teenager, mine was the punk era, so I listened to the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and all that – but at the same time I wanted to listen to something completely different, out of my sphere such as music from New York like New Wave; the Talking Heads and the like, which seemed more sophisticated. And one of the great advantages of technology these days is that you can browse around and listen to all manner of bands and new sounds, which I love to do.
Given the pitch-black comedy swirling around Brexit and Trump in this post-truth era we’re living through, do you have to resist wading into the scrum or are you happy to be on the fringes of political comedy?
It’s hard. I mean, take Donald Trump: He’s almost beyond satire. One of the tools of satire is that you exaggerate someone’s traits to ludicrous degrees. Well he’s already done that, and he continues to do that. It’s a difficult one to approach, because he’s someone who’s been written about constantly and picked over in the papers, TV and social media. So the challenge is finding your own angle, and my approach is using music.
With Brexit, yes, it’s something that dominates the news cycle but it’s also something that I can talk about personally. Because it goes beyond just the referendum and the leaving Europe, it’s about ‘Britishness’. And that’s a theme that I’ve talked about many times in shows before - our strangeness, our unpredictability, our placidness in some ways and our uniqueness in many ways – things that are bound together and are why I love Britain and the people here. I’m very patriotic, so it’s a theme I’ve used before, so I can pick it up very quickly and apply it to this current situation.
You’ve performed at Wembley, made films and travelled the world. What great ambitions do you still hope to realise?
I think you have to just keep going. Inspiration will come along, but there’s no point in trying to second guess what you’re going to do. There’s certainly things I’d love to do, certain milestones: I’d like to write a work; an ambitious musical, play or film. But time is pressing, and you can’t just hang around waiting for inspiration. You can’t just expect things to keep happening, you have to constantly keep the momentum going.
Towards the end of a tour I start getting nervous and restless. “Come on, what’s going to happen now?” So that’s what kind of defines my life. I don’t get hung up on things that have happened or what other people are doing. And somehow the momentum lends its own meaning.
Bill Bailey: Larks in Transit comes to G Live Guildford on Monday 21st May – Wednesday 23rd May (Sold Out). Visit glive.co.uk for tickets and billbailey.co.uk for all things Bill.