Fix up a strong tea with no sugar and you’ll share something in common with how British comedian, Bill Bailey, likes his cup of tea. But the commonalities are likely to stop there, as Bailey would much rather consume his tea from a flask – and that’s exactly where his uniqueness begins each day.
“ It’s quite nice to have tea out of a flask and it’s good to just have a flask of tea around the house – you don’t even have to go out,” he says. “Walking around in the countryside with a flask of tea looking for birds is actually quite therapeutic.”
Bailey’s love of birds and tea from a flask collided in his newest project, writing and illustrating the book, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds. The book is the follow up from his quiz television show in 2010, Bill Bailey’s Birdwatching Bonanza, which followed a similar vein in indulging his inner-bird-watcher.
“I think I realised later on, when I was doing more comedy [that I loved bird-watching]. I realised I loved doing that and I take a pair of binoculars with me everywhere,” Bill says. “Australia is a brilliant place to go bird watching, because all the birds there to me are so exotic. There’s all these birds you never see anywhere else. They’re probably so commonplace to you and you’re thinking, ‘Why are you interested in a magpie?’ but to me that’s the sound of Australia; the fluting call of a magpie.”
His bird watching need not stem much farther than his own backyard, as Bailey owns a ball python, several Bali dingoes and an Argentinian horned frog among his menagerie of birds and exotic pets. Frequent trips to Indonesia (where he married his wife, Kristin, in 1988) aided his love for the colourful and intriguing.
You might think Bailey is following a pathway similar to fellow infamous British celebrity, David Attenborough, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. Bailey has indeed penned the odd doco, but they’re time-consuming projects that he does purely for the love of it.
“They’re really projects that you do out of love,” he says. “If that’s your job to do [documentaries] all the time then it really does become a job, you think, ‘Oh where are we today?’ in Peru looking at fruit bats, ‘Ohh, err okay’. I don’t want it to get to that stage, I’ve just got this ambition to do them.”
What Bailey also shares with Attenborough is that they both represent Britain on a global scale. With British humour holding a massive influence on Australian comedy, Bailey stands as one of the most distinct names alongside the likes of Jimmy Carr, John Cleese and Ricky Gervais. Also with appearances on quiz shows Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Qi and in the television series Black Books (in which Bailey plays Manny Bianco), his somewhat rambling, unpredictable humour has been made increasingly identifiable.
“Perhaps this is via my school careers advice computer check coming through, when I filled in all the things I liked and sent it off, one of the things the jobs you might end up doing is working in the diplomatic service, but that didn’t work out,” he says.
“I feel in a way that comedy outside of Britain, you are representing Britain in a way. I think comedy is probably one of Britain’s best exports and it’s certainly something we’re known for and a very well established tradition going back hundreds of years… I think we have a healthy disregard and scepticism for authority which is similar to Australians.”
With this new tour of Bailey’s (Larks in Transport) he brings with him the many tales of being a travelling comedian. With musical virtuosity, surreal tangents and trademark intelligence, he tackles politics, philosophy, the pursuit of happiness, death metal and more.
As well as discussing found experiences and common tribulations, Bailey brings his love for music on stage, with a guitar and keyboard notoriously finding its way in his stand-up shows.
“I always played piano when I was at home. I’d get lessons with this slightly batty woman up the road and she used to whack your hands with a ruler if you hadn’t practised – so she was a great character,” he says of the practice which inevitably found its way on stage with him as a comedian, “it seemed like the natural thing to do.”
“The first time I did that was at the Edinburgh festival and it was the first time I had a residency for three weeks. So certainly the idea of a keyboard being in one place didn’t seem like too much of an ask and that seemed like the start of it. Music had always been such a big part of my life. I taught myself guitar and various instruments, the fact that it’s incorporated into the show is a great thing to do.”
Published in Forte Magazine and online.