Bill Bailey: ‘Strictly’s been extraordinary! I’ve even surprised myself’

Bill Bailey is not sitting comfortably for today’s interview. “Dancing is like playing a piece of music,” says the 55-year-old comedian and unlikely star of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, “only with dancing your whole body is the instrument. And if you’re doing that all day, you just ache generally.”

He is Zooming in from his conservatory, lush greenery unfurling behind him. Chatting to Bailey is a bit like being slowly hypnotised: he has piercing blue eyes and even his most dazzling array of animal facts (did you know, for instance, that wolves have perfect pitch? Or that the grey squirrel has a scampering speed of 12mph?) are delivered with a calm and steady manner. He has already cast a spell over any Strictly viewers who might have assumed he was this year’s novelty pick; in fact, Bailey has spent the opening weeks moving from the position of underdog to favourite to win the whole thing: a dazzling quickstep featuring a CGI elephant barely missed a beat, while his paso doble to Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly drew a whopping 26 points from the three judges, from the maximum possible 30.

“It’s extraordinary,” he admits. “People would assume I wouldn’t be able to even keep up with the training, but I’ve surprised myself. I do a routine, watch it back and think: what happened there? I can’t quite believe I’m able to do it.”

His success is no fluke, however. He is a keen learner and spent the buildup to the show delving down YouTube wormholes into the obscure world of competitive ballroom. Also, he took a dance lesson or two as a kid. His mother loved ballroom and convinced him to attend the school on their street. “But I was a self-conscious 12-year-old boy,” he says. “I thought: I can’t do this … and then a mere four and a half decades later, here I am!”

He acknowledges that there is something bittersweet about appearing on Strictly now: his mum died of bowel cancer in 2005, which left him devastated, and friends and family members have been telling him just how proud she would have been. He says he has been startled by the scale of the show; there may be no live audience this year, but he knows everyone is watching: “A friend of mine in Herefordshire said: ‘I hear you’re doing Strictly – my fishmonger told me,’” he chuckles.

Bill Bailey Oti Mabuse
Ballroom hits … Bailey and his Strictly dance partner Oti Mabuse continue to impress on the BBC show. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

Bailey has ended up having a busy pandemic year, although it did not start out that way. He has asthma, so he was extra-careful during the first weeks of lockdown, not leaving the house other than for “a little scuttle to the shop”; his fear may have been amplified by a near-death experience in 2016 when the BBC falsely announced his passing to the world. “My tour manager phoned me up and asked if I was all right, which I thought was self-evident by the fact I’d answered the phone,” he says. “But I was annoyed they got my age wrong and that they used an old photo. And I did think: is this how it will feel when I do die? If there’s some afterlife or spirit life, will it just involve me looking on Twitter and going: ‘Oh, not that awful photo! Oh, for God’s sake!’”

Bailey is not a man to indulge boredom; he has let his curiosity guide him through the various stages of lockdown. He dug out some of the more obscure instruments that he likes to incorporate into his live shows: a hang (“Like a steel drum, but convex, so you strike it with the thumbs and it makes a haunting sound”), a bouzouki, a saz (“A beautiful Turkish instrument”) and a 10-string cittern, one of the old English forerunners of the guitar.

A nature-lover, he also started drawing to pass the time: butterflies, birds, moths and bees. This led to him revisiting a sidelined project from a couple of years ago about happiness, which turned into a book. Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness features warm and meditative musings on topics such as using coffee grounds to grow strawberry plants. Despite the creativity, though, there was one thing Bailey avoided: home schooling his 16-year-old son: “He did his lessons on the internet,” he says. “I make it a personal rule of mine: never get involved in algebra.”

Bailey’s childhood in Keynsham, near Bath, had its quirks. His dad was a doctor with a surgery in the front room of their house. “Sometimes the patients would get lost and wander off into the house, only to encounter this slightly bemused young boy on the stairs,” he says. “At other times, people would phone up for my dad when he was on call and before I could say that he was out they would start spooling out their symptoms, which was a bit embarrassing when it involved some grotesque bowel movement.”

Bailey started playing the piano at four and by seven he had realised that, just like the wolves, he had the gift of perfect pitch. He would hear music in the whine of the vacuum cleaner or the rumble of the washing machine and be able to pick out their notes on the piano. “I don’t know quite what the evolutionary advantage is, but there must be some reason,” he says. “Maybe to detect the sound of thrumming hooves in a Neolithic valley?”

It wasn’t just music that Bailey found himself drawn to: he excelled at sport, which can’t have harmed his Strictly chances. He played tennis to club level, as well as field hockey and cricket. He has always been active and still runs, cycles and paddleboards; when he is on tour, he makes it a priority to go on rambles or go birdwatching with his crew whenever they get a day off.

To research his life story is to stumble upon all manner of intriguing details. For instance, he is an honorary member of the Society of Crematorium Organists, which he thinks gives him the right to play at anyone’s funeral should the organist fall ill or go missing. “Excuse me, coming through, I’m a professional!” he jokes, like a medic on a plane. “I’ve not exercised that right yet. It might be a bit insensitive to gatecrash someone’s funeral just to get a gig.”

Bailey might not have the glitz factor of a typical ballroom dancer, but he has been a showman for decades. He started performing in the 80s and recalls arriving in London at a time when the alternative comedy scene was taking off. “It was exciting; it felt like we were carving out a life for ourselves that nobody had planned. There was a punk ethic to it.”

He developed an act that was impossible to mimic: a mix of musical parodies, obscure facts, psychedelic anecdotes and not much in the way of traditional gags. He might play The Star Spangled Banner in a minor key, or retell the nativity with the donkeys on cocaine, or imagine what Kraftwerk might sound like doing the Hokey Cokey.

Black Books
Shop of horrors … Bailey with Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig in Black Books.

In 1996, Bailey was strongly tipped to win the Perrier award at the Edinburgh festival fringe, although he was eventually pipped to it by Dylan Moran, with whom he would later star in Black Books. You suspect the experience was another thing that stood him in good stead for Strictly. “It was a strange time, with intense scrutiny brought to bear on you and your act,” he says. “But it was good, because it toughens you up and hardens you to the scrutiny and the pressure and the disappointment. You can’t assume anything in this business; you have to keep moving forward.”

Before he went on Strictly, most people would probably know Bailey as one of the team captains from Never Mind the Buzzcocks; he replaced Sean Hughes in 2002 and remained on the show for six years. The show could be riotous, but it has also been described as “cruel” and “toxic” – a reflection, perhaps, of how tastes have changed. Would he agree with those terms?

“I never thought of it like that,” he says. “People knew they were going to be roasted a little bit.” He recalls going to the Gold Badge awards, which is affiliated with the Ivor Novellos, and a host of judges and songwriters telling him how much they liked the show. “They loved the philosophy of it, the way we celebrated good music and exposed the shallow and the meretricious. But of course people remember it for barbed insults and Preston walking off.” He still seems bemused at that infamous moment – in 2007, the Ordinary Boys singer stormed off after the host, Simon Amstell, mockingly read out sections of his wife’s autobiography. “He’d been on before and he was fine,” says Bailey, “but when he came back he had been through that celebrity world a little bit and I think that affected him.”

Given his career was very much a case of building slowly and finding his feet, Bailey is all too aware of the devastating impact Covid-19 is having on the comedy scene. A week before we chat, Grayson Perry caused a stir by saying that the pandemic could actually benefit the arts by clearing out some of the dead wood. Did Bailey hear that?

“Yeah,” he says, pausing for a second. “That was a bit of a kick in the teeth for everyone who’s struggling. Who knows what dead wood is? Because, in fact, the opposite is true: it’s not the dead wood, but the new green shoots that will be most affected. People who are aspiring artists and comedians and musicians; anyone in the arts who has trained, had a dream, had a plan, had the determination to do it. And now that opportunity has been taken away. So I do think that was a flippant and ill-considered comment.”

Does he think the pandemic has made us more appreciative of culture, or has it led us to see it as dispensable? “I’d hope it makes people realise how much the arts is part of our lives,” he says. “Because it’s part of our society, whether you’re watching a show on Netflix or listening to some music on Spotify, reading a poem or a book. But never mind that: the hard financial reality is that it brings money into the country; far more money than, say, fishing, which seems to be an obsession of this government.”

You sense disgust rising in him as he moves on to the Conservatives’ attitude to the arts: “The idea it’s somehow just a hobby that people do is so insulting to all of these artists who can’t do anything else because this is what they’ve been driven to do. So the idea that you can do something else – become a crab fisherman, what’s the matter with you? – is tone deaf and insulting.”

Bill Bailey
Dead funny … Bill Bailey prepares for his gig at the crematorium, possibly. Photograph: Andy Hollingworth

What does he make of all the comics becoming politicians, whether literal ones such as Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine and Beppe Grillo of Italy’s Five Star Movement, or the clownish persona of Boris Johnson closer to home?

“It’s fascinating,” he says. “When I was a kid, politics was done by very dull grey men in suits. It didn’t have any bearing on me at all, or so I thought at the time. Now you have people adding a bit of colour to that grey world, but it’s less about the rather prosaic detail of policy and manifesto and more about the salesman pitching it to the country.”

A lifelong Labour supporter, Bailey hopes Keir Starmer’s rise to the leadership signals the pendulum swinging the other way.

“I think people are tired of these jackanapes,” he says. “These entertaining and buffoonish yet incompetent leaders. They want a bit more gravitas. There’s a degree of that in Joe Biden’s election, and also a groundswell of people wanting a return to a less divisive form of politics and more a seriousness and perhaps even a dullness.”

But he understands why the two professions have started to merge: “We’re good at speaking, holding a crowd, riffing a little bit, thinking on our feet … Those are the qualities politicians need to have.”

Hang on, I say: it is sounding like Bailey might have a post-Strictly move mapped out here. Could he master the rumba, then go on to become our next prime minister?

“Yeah, why not?” he says with a twinkle in his eye, before he reconsiders. “No, I don’t think so. I’m too busy learning the lute.”

The Guardian

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