With musical virtuosity, surreal tangents and trademark intelligence, Bill Bailey tackles politics, philosophy and the pursuit of happiness in his new tour, Larks in Transit.

By Evie Kissack

After gracing the world with his quick wit, loveable tomfoolery and sharp intellect for twenty-something years, Bill Bailey has undeniably reached the status of a comedic legend. The veteran comedian has enjoyed a highly successful career and accumulated an impressive professional portfolio, filled to the brim with a whole host of accreditations within the Arts. An experienced director, TV host and film and sitcom actor, as well as an avid charity supporter, it’s difficult to not be in awe of Bill’s indisputable assortment of talents (and intriguing hobbies). With several previous sell-out tours to his name, it’s fair to say Bill has also mastered live stage performances.

Now bringing his brand new tour, Larks in Transit, across the UK, Bill speaks to Cornfield about his appreciation of the many experiences performing comedy has allowed him to enjoy, and what to expect from a show sharing the life of a seasoned comic. 

So – 41 new dates for the Larks in Transit tour, you don’t do things lightly! You’ve performed three shows already and have another live gig tonight in York I believe? How have they gone so far?

Very well thanks! We are heading up to Newcastle tomorrow; it’s been great fun. 

After three decades in comedy, do you still enjoy performing back-to-back shows?

Yeah I do. I think I appreciate it now more than ever before really, because stand up is a real expression of free speech and you can say and do whatever you want. I really value that now more than anything. Particularly after travelling around the world and seeing the constraints people are under artistically; the tradition we have in Britain of comedy and satire…to be part of that…it’s a real privilege. It’s great.

Larks in Transit is described as a “compendium of travellers tales and shenanigans” from 20 years as a travelling comedian. Will the show give audiences a closer look into your life and work?

As it describes, it will be quite personal accounts really of where I’ve been. I’ve been around the world for the last 20-odd years performing comedy. But also, it shows where comedy has allowed me to go – the jobs and opportunities I’ve had, and perhaps wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been doing comedy. I’ve presented wildlife documentaries and have met extraordinary people and gone to the farthest flung parts of the earth…all of these things have been as a result of doing stand up around the world. It’s been my life’s work really, and a very life changing experience in many ways. It’s been a very rich experience and I’ve been very lucky in that regard. I’m fortunate to have had these experiences.  And so, I’ve never really talked about the personal aspect of it and the impact it’s had on me because I’m quite a private person. I don’t tend to talk about myself. Instead I focus on other things, you know, topical stuff or satirical stuff, or just make up daft operas about insects taking over the world!

[Laughs] Why suddenly have you felt you need to give the audience a more intimate narrative?

I think what really encouraged me to be more personal, was a moment during my last tour, Limboland. In this tour, there was just one story I told about going on holiday with my family and seeing the Northern Lights and it all went a bit wrong. [Laughs] It kind of connected with the audience in a way that made me think, “Oh there is more to be said here.” There was almost an untapped bit of my life, which I haven’t really ever previously explored. So it’s a more private recollection, with more music than the last show, actually. There are a lot of instruments that I start playing and lots of audience involvement, and core elements of the shows I’ve done in the past, but more personal.

It seems like it will be a far cry from some of your previous live shows and projects.

I think so. What I’ve realised over the years is that different people come to you from different aspects of your career; some people come to me through TV, some through films or stand up or panel shows…there’s a very diverse nature to the audience. In terms of backgrounds and age - it’s fantastic. I am completely bowled over by the sheer variety of people that attend my shows. There’ll be whole families, you know, somebody brought their 79-year old grandmother - she’s at the end of the row - and then there’s a couple of metalheads down at the other end with tattoos and piercings and all sorts. That element I love - I think that's what inspires me to keep going. There’s always an audience. I see lots of young people coming to the shows and I think, “Well this is a new group of people discovering what I do.”

Definitely. I myself am a huge fan of Black Books and Never Mind the Buzzcocks - you’ve worked on TV, on films, and of course perform live. Do you have a preferred medium?

Well, I think they’re all different; they all present a different set of challenges. Stand-up is probably the most all-consuming. It incorporates everything that I do, whether that’s writing, playing music, conceiving shows, performing shows, touring, and kind of producing them as well. That’s the medium that takes up most of my time. It’s the most labour-intensive, but I suppose it’s also the most rewarding in many ways. Equally, other things are rewarding in different ways, you know, doing TV shows seems to have a ‘differed pleasure’ whereas stand up is very immediate. You think of an idea, you go up on stage and perform it in front of an audience, then you get a reaction - it’s very much all in the moment. TV is different. You work with a team and a cast; a director, a producer, and you create these tiny little sections, little fragments of performances that are then put together and seen by an audience for many months hence. Then, when it’s all put together, then you get the satisfaction from it or you see how it’s panned out. So it’s a different experience. I’ve just done a TV series with Idris Elba--

--‘In The Long Run’, is that right?

Yes! That’s right - it has a great cast and directors, and working with Idris was fantastic. He’s a terrific actor and just a lovely, lovely bloke. Stand-up is quite a solitary profession. I mean, there’s people around and everything, but it’s still just down to you. Sometimes it’s quite a relief to be part of a team and work with people, to collaborate on something, you know? It means I can just focus purely on the performance rather than other aspects of it. I think one thing benefits another. I definitely see a really good symbiotic relationship between all mediums. What I’ve learnt from comedy you can apply to acting, and the discipline of acting - the pure focus on the performance - you can take back to stand-up. I think it’s quite healthy, in a way, to do other things. You should get involved in other things because stand-up can become all-consuming. It takes over your whole life. 

You’ve definitely mastered blending those creative spheres! I mean, you're even a published author (‘Bill Bailey’s Guide to British Birds’) and a talented musician…the list goes on. Music features heavily in your stand-up - when did you first devise the idea to combine music and comedy?

Well I was definitely influenced by music as a kid. Me and my parents, and my grandparents even, would sit around the TV and watch people like Les Dawson and Victor Borge. They left a very deep impression on me. We had a piano in the house, and I used to noodle around on that, and when I started thinking about doing comedy it seemed like a natural thing to incorporate music. I think if you can encapsulate something in musical form, it has an impact that the spoken word can’t achieve - it ‘gets you on another level’ sort-of-thing. Me and my mates from school would always make up daft songs and things like that. When I first started performing comedy I would always bring a guitar with me, partly because it’s quite portable [laughs] and it’s easy to carry from gig to gig, but also because I think it adds another element to the show and a different dynamic. When I started doing longer comedy shows, to me, adding music seemed like the natural thing to do to break up the dynamic of one person and one voice and one microphone. Music gives the show a bit of light and shade. 

Is it correct there’s a song in the new show that’s created entirely from ringtones?

It’s actually from my phone, yes. I take inspiration from everything around me, particularly in terms of music - we hear all kinds of music and we’re sometimes unaware of it; I always try to reflect that in the show. So there’s elements of rock, bits of metal, folk, blues, jazz, electronic music, birdsong - there’s a birdsong-dance mash-up…there’s a bit of everything. I talk about the fact that we are completely wedded to technology in a way that’s almost against our better judgement. We just are. We have to be connected to our phones and our laptops. ‘The phone’ has now become an integral part of our lives to the point that it has become a way to wake us up in the morning. And, this alarm tone has somehow entangled its way into my brain! So it’s a commentary on that, the ubiquity of technology is almost haunting our dreams. [Laughs] I take one of the Apple iPhone alarm tones and turn that into this great prog fantasy…

[Laughs] I mean phones are completely ingrained into our everyday lives - I don’t go anywhere without mine. It’s interesting, but it’s also quite sad that we rely so heavily on these devices, in a way.

Yeah, it is. We resist it and we don’t like it but we almost have to have them because everyone else has them. So, we are stuck with it in a way. The show in part is a reflection on that, really. 

How do you find the balance between juggling what must be a very creatively demanding and tiring tour and life at home?

It’s always a challenge and quite difficult, you know. I try to structure the tours so that there’s always a gap in the schedule so I can get home. I try not to have an enormously long run of shows, I try to keep the gap, particularly in these bigger tours. I go to see the family, and do normal stuff - I think you need that. You can go a bit stir crazy in hotels, you start talking to the mini bar or the trouser press and realise you’re starting to lose your mind. [Laughs] It is tough but I’m used to it and this is my life; it has been for the last 20 years. So the family and me are used to it and work around it. 

You mentioned that you draw inspiration from everywhere. What has particularly inspired the material for this show?

Well as I mentioned before this show will be completely personal, and perhaps this is just a natural progression of what happens as you carry on as a comic…you know, this particular phase in my career is very much about reflection. After 20 years of touring as a comic, I’ve experienced a lot of things, and perhaps had I not been doing comedy I wouldn’t have had the chance to explore extraordinary parts of the world and be involved with various projects. I think it’s now the time to reflect a little, and incorporate more personal recollections which I haven’t previously done. It’s sort of new territory for me, which is good fun. 

Could you describe the new tour for our readers in just one word? To give you an additional challenge! [Laughs]

How about CORNUCOPIA? There you go - horn of plenty. 

Thanks so much for chatting to me, and good luck with the 41 extra dates!

[Laughs] Yes! Thank you. 

Be sure to catch Larks in Transit at Arena Birmingham, 2 June 2018. 

Grab tickets from billbailey.co.uk.


Follow bill on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates of his tour.



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