With the nation divided, there’s never been a better time for comedians, says Bill Bailey. He talks Brexit, the Labour ‘shambles’ and his new sitcom with James Mottram.
Bill Bailey is sitting in a flat in Peckham, south-east London, playing a video game on a flat-screen television. A large red jewel – “the eye of wisdom”, as he calls it – has been stuck on his forehead, giving him the look of a long-haired, goatee-bearded guru. Given that he once called one of his comedy tours Part Troll (fans even campaigned for him to get a role in Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit), this has to be an upgrade.
In fact, the reason for this new decorative element to the Bailey look is simple: the stand-up comic and erstwhile panellist on shows such as Have I Got News For You?, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI is today filming a promo for No Man’s Sky, a trippy-looking interplanetary PlayStation 4 game that allows players to access 18 quintillion planets. “I can’t even get my head round that number,” he says.
When we meet, Bailey is also just finishing his latest tour, Limboland, with dates still to play in the UK and across Europe, before he heads to Australia and New Zealand to begin his next, Larks in Transit (“as in Dickensian ‘What larks, Pip!’”). Marking 20 years since his first Antipodean tour, he says it is a “kind of a retrospective; a lot of travel and a lot of tales” – and, it transpires, a lot of Brexit.
“More and more… this [show] is going to be dominated by politics,” says Bailey, who is trialling material in his UK shows that will ultimately morph into gags Down Under. “I imagine it will form the introduction to the new show, looking at how rapidly things change.”
With the vote to leave the European Union causing chaos in the UK, is it perversely a good time for comedy? “Oh, very much so. Comedy thrives on friction and conflict. And now we’re in a country that is virtually divided, if you look at the percentage of Leave and Remain. I definitely feel there is an edge if you mention it. There will be people in the audience who have completely opposite views, and that’s almost unprecedented.”
Bailey admits he became “slightly obsessed” by the Leave/Remain statistics, researching each town he played to discover the percentage of the split and “confronting” the audience with the results. Has he detected a lot of anger? “Yeah, a huge amount. People are incredibly frustrated. You look at the Leave campaign. They had no idea this was going to happen. Total disarray.”
A staunch Labour supporter, he says it is “very depressing” to see the divisions in his own party. “A shambles,” he sighs. “You can’t satirise something where you have two candidates who are both the unity candidates. ‘I’m going to unify!’ ‘No, I’m going to unify!’ Politically, we’re in a state of freefall.”
Is he a fan of the embattled Jeremy Corbyn? “I was initially. I liked a lot of what he says – he was a man of principles. I thought it was turning a new page in Labour and a way of uniting people. But the reality is, in a modern political party, you have to be nimble, astute, able to react to things. I don’t think he’s that sort of politician.”
Our attention turns back to the screen in front of us. Gaming is virgin territory for the 51-year-old Bailey. Video entertainment may be an expanding market for voiceovers – fellow comic Stephen Merchant was wonderfully used in Portal 2, for example – but Bailey has yet to indulge. However, thanks to his 13-year-old son Dax, he is well aware of the potential of modern games. “They are just so extraordinary now,” he says, revealing that his son played both Minecraft and the Lego series that rebuild popular movie franchises brick by brick. “They are brilliant!”
He then tells me about his experiences playing the open-world epic Grand Theft Auto. “People go smashing things and shooting; I just sit in the car, in traffic, wait until the lights change, and pull out slowly. ‘Ooh, better let them out…’”
It’s not hard to imagine this softly spoken Somerset native observing the Highway Code in a game famed for its larceny and violence. But his genteel nature hasn’t dented the sharpness of his comedy. In between tour gigs and playing No Man’s Sky, Bailey is also writing a sitcom for the BBC. “It’s going to be me running a wildlife park,” reveals this patron of International Animal Rescue and campaigner for the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
His interest in conservation stemmed from his childhood, growing up in “classic English countryside” near Bath, where his parents – a GP and a hospital nurse – fostered in him a love of nature. “My mum and dad were very much into birds and conservation, so we would have family outings to bird sanctuaries. I spent a lot of my childhood in that kind of environment.”
His other fascination was music; the only person to take an A-level in the subject in his school (it was his music teacher who nicknamed him “Bill”; his real name is Mark), he studied at the London College of Music before performing on stage, developing an act that mixed songs with comedy. Initially forming a double act called The Rubber Bishops with the actor Toby Longworth, it took a decade – and thoughts of quitting – before he went solo.
It was at a gig that he met his wife, Kristin, who was working in an Edinburgh bar. They married in 1998, and Dax was born five years later. From watching his father in the wings to coming on and singing a song in his most recent act, Dax is a boy after his father’s heart. “Now he writes jokes for me and tells me whether things are funny,” says Bailey, puffing with pride. “It’s really cool.” And with that, a comedy dynasty is born.