Interview: Bill Bailey

Interview: Bill Bailey

English stand-up comedian Bill Bailey – best-known on TV for his roles in Black Books, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and QI – performed in front of a sold-out crowd last night at Divadlo Hybernia during a ribald act that frequently had the audience in stitches.

Hours before the show, we were lucky enough to sit down with the actor, musician, and comic for a coffee at the Grand Café Orient and pose a few questions. 

If you missed the show, you can check out some of his material from the Qualmpeddler tour in the videos below. 

Is this your first time in Prague? Have you had a chance to see the city?

Yes, it’s my first time in Prague. I spent the whole day sightseeing and looking around, there were a lot of people – it was quite busy today. I tried to avoid the crowds but sometimes it’s inevitable, because I wanted to see the sights.

I love the fact that so much of it is still preserved. London is a bit of a jumble of architecture. It is very pleasing to see a square where all the buildings are old buildings, and it’s preserved in its entirety so you’re not looking at some hideous 1970s office block. I love the atmosphere of it, the cobbled streets. I like hanging out and soaking up the atmosphere of the place.

It was very interesting to hear about the country’s history and its formation, that for so long it wasn’t these two countries, then it was created, and very soon after that the Nazis came in, and there was a brief moment of independence and then the communism. That, to me, is fascinating, because I’m trying to get a picture of the political history of Europe. Because so much of what I talk about is about the political changes in Britain and across Europe, so understanding the roots of that is very interesting to me.

So were you familiar with these facts about Prague, Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia?

I knew sketchy details, but to hear it filled with detail was fascinating. I think somehow, it explains how people always seek a sense of their own identity in liberty and freedom, and that is true across the world, you can’t stop that, you can delay it. When I think of North Korea, eventually, all those people will realize what has been going on.

Have you had any interesting encounters here?

I had an interesting experience in a taxi. I hailed a taxi and the driver seemed irritated that there was someone in his taxi. He was eating his dinner and I interrupted it so he put his dinner away and we drove off. He had a TV in his taxi and he was watching an ice hockey game and that was quite unnerving.

Have you had any Czech beer?

Yes, I have. I can’t remember the name of the first one, it was in a very nice bar I went to – U Parlamentu – and I had some excellent beer and food there. I had some Staropramen as well, a dark ale and the lighter ones.

Do you always try to get the taste of the place?

Always. It is absolutely essential. The food, the taste is essential.

Does that tell you anything about the people?

I don’t know. I think, you know, in many ways you see similarities because the food is hearty and filling. It’s very much like British food, in some ways.  It’s great when you get beer and a plate of grub – you can’t go wrong.

Are you familiar with Czech films, music, humour?

I’m familiar with Miloš Forman, but I guess he’s an émigré. Also the fact that there have been great artists who for one reason or another passed through Prague, like Mozart or Kafka. So certainly in cultural history Prague crops up quite a bit.

You’ve travelled a lot and spent some time in Indonesia, were you living there for a longer time?

I was not actually living there, although it felt like that since I had spent many months there researching a documentary. I have travelled there quite a lot over the years, and we have a little house on a little island that we sometimes go to, but it’s a place which I think I got to know because I performed a lot in Australia and I came through Indonesia on the way there or on the way back.

I also got to know about this English explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace, I became fascinated with his story. But also, I get to do things that I like doing, like being in the outdoors, going to the jungles, watching birds and wildlife, trekking. In stand-up you spend a lot of time indoors, in hotels, tour buses and theatres, so any minute I get to spend outside I try to take it.

Do you have any other non-comedy projects planned?

I am working on two documentaries – guides, one about Britain and one about Indonesia. I have also been asked to do a documentary about a German biologist Georg Steller, who discovered Alaska, the first European to land there. I’m also working on a sketch show, a stand-up show, and a music quiz, and I’m trying to write a musical, as well. So quite a lot at the moment.

Are you considering any serious music projects?

I did this guide to orchestra, which was kind of a semi-serious, irreverent look at how it works, and it was a huge project and it took a year of my life. I’ve got an idea for another project but I am still formulating it. I read a book called Songlines by Bruce Chatwin about Aboriginal traditions. The Aborigines remember a landscape by singing a song, and a song has a shape of the outline of the horizon. So I thought I’d do an urban version of that: I will photograph cities around the world, find their silhouette and put it to music, but it is a lot harder than it sounds. How detailed do you do it and how do you translate that into music? So I am actually working on a piece of software that will do that, but that is one of my long-term projects.

I read that your son sometimes heckles you at your performances. Is he a part of the act?

He loves it. I think because he grew up seeing me on stage he’s just so comfortable with the idea of performance. He’s been on stage with me on every major stage – he’s come on stage at Wembley, at the O2, he just takes a bow, does a dance, plays the horns – he’s just very comfortable in that scenario.

And he shouted out something at a gig – it’s actually on one of my DVDs – I used to play a lute-like instrument, called an oud, it does look like half an onion if you hold it up – and he shouts out, ‘What do you think this is?’, ‘Half an onion!’ So yes – he does heckle.

And he does find you funny?

Yes – he does. And he’s got quite a good sense of humour as well, you know, he thinks up jokes to tell me.

So it runs in the family?

Yeah, I guess (laughs).

What is the best question you’ve ever been asked in an interview?

I think it was something to do with the idea of – actually – comedy.  If you’re making fun of politicians, for example, which is kind of standard fare – satire has always been about mocking the government or the establishment. And I remember someone asked me once, ‘sometimes comedians have a lot of influence – comedians get quoted in the newspapers and in the press, have a big social media following, and they can be quite influential, you know.’ And certainly in certain countries in Europe, like in Italy, former stand-up comedians are now political party leaders. So it’s not unreasonable to sort of assume that actually we do have influence, people listen to what we say, we get quoted.

And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And the next question was, actually, ‘do you think this has a corrosive effect?’ By being very good at pointing the finger, at mocking, that’s what we’re good at, that’s our role, and politicians aren’t necessarily the best people at dealing with that. We deal with words and satire and funny humour, they’re having to try to run a country and we’re just poking the finger, and maybe collectively it has a corrosive effect on people’s confidence. And it made me think, God, yeah, actually… and then I just think, ‘so what’ (laughs).

There’s a long tradition of court jesters that were actually important in bringing the royals down to Earth.

Yeah, that’s right. And it did make me think, ‘well, yes…’ – but it doesn’t mean that we’re ever going to hold back. You know, you can’t. That’s the role of comedy, to hold up the mirror to pomposity, corruption, absurdity, stupidity, ignorance, violence, all of those things – and to belittle them by humour. I think humour can be quite powerful like that.

So do you have any taboo topics?

Well, I do… I think comedians can joke about anything, but I tend to avoid certain subjects because I think that comedy is risky when you deal with society’s fears, like sexual violence, the real darkest fears. You have to be very sure of yourself in terms of comedy, and I think very often that isn’t the case. I think that very often it’s unreliable, you know. You’re not on solid ground. And maybe that’s the nature of comedy – you have to push the envelope a little bit.

And sometimes I feel that people push the envelope just for the sake of it – there’s no end point, they’re not trying to achieve anything other than to provoke a reaction. And I think that’s when comedy is just gratuitous – it’s like, ‘oh, I’ve shocked you’, but I haven’t actually moved on, I haven’t dealt with the subject. It’s like not dealing with it. We’ll make a joke out of it because you’ll feel uncomfortable; it’s almost like you’ve mugged someone – I’ve made you laugh out of some uncomfortable subject.

And I think that maybe that’s a role of comedy sometimes, but sometimes it seems a bit cruel or gratuitous. It’s not for me – I avoid those subjects, I have a go at powerful people. I think that there’s a danger that you mock weakness and vulnerability, and I refuse to do that. I will always take the piss out of rich and powerful people.

Would you rather be attacked by a horse-sized duck, or ten duck-sized horses?

Oh… um… Ten duck-sized horses, every time. ‘Cause I’ve got ducks in my garden, and just normal-sized ducks are scary. There’s two of them, and they’re vicious. We’ve got five dogs, and the ducks aren’t scared of the dogs at all – in fact, the dogs are scared of the ducks. So, no. I would say, the horses, every time.

Last question: what’s your favourite film?

Oh, ah, my favourite film, I would say, is an Australian film called Bad Boy Bubby, and it’s about a man-child who’s kept locked up for 35 years, and then he gets out, and it’s the story of him experiencing the world. And it’s an amazing, totally unique film – funny, shocking, tragic, everything you want a film to be.

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