Confused hippy and part-troll, Bill Bailey lifts the lid on some of his formative influences…
DISCOVERING COMEDY ALBUMS
“Me, my cousin and my mate from school would listen to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as Derek and Clive, the Monty Python albums… Things like this would never be on the radio or TV, only on vinyl. They were very silly and stupid, rambling on, doing songs and daft stuff. This was a window on another world, completely different from my day-to-day life growing up in the West Country. It was then I realised that comedy was a thing, that you could perform it.
“I was always trying to entertain; me and my cousin had these old puppets and we’d write these ridiculous epic stories for shows that were basically based on the puppets we had – there had to be a skeleton and a dragon in at some point. Then at school, I was always in the end of term revue, where we put on sketches and made fun of the teachers. Inspired by what we heard on record, I got hold of a TEAC four-track and we’d make our own rambling nonsense.”
THE JOY OF KEYBOARDS
“We had a piano at home and I would pick out tunes on it, going on to learn with a teacher up the road, then at school. I soon got different sets of keyboards and played in school bands. One of them was a Sequential Circuits Pro One, a monophonic synth, that was a circuit board and some knobs made of plastic, but it was made of wood. You look at it now, it’s extraordinary, a design classic. It had two lovely wooden ends. I also had a Wasp, and a mate of ours, Wivs, used to put it under his coat and we’d take it out and play it, guerrilla-style, in the shops in Bath.
“I was in New York a few years ago in a lovely keyboard shop called Two Lines Music, right at the bottom of Broadway. It’s full of Pro Ones, Prophet-5s, Roland Junos. I remember having a great time trying things out in there when two kids came in. One said to the other, ‘I love this place, you get to meet all these loons down here’, and I realised he was talking about me.
“Having all these keyboards is great, but touring takes its toll on them, you’ve got to hump them around and keep them working. That’s when one modern keyboard with all these sounds loaded into it becomes quite attractive.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS AND NATURAL HISTORY
“Where I grew up was quite a rural area between Bath, Bristol and Keynsham. Just 10 minutes on your bike and you’d be in country roads going through beautiful sleepy little villages. I would just go off on my own with an old Ordnance Survey map and explore the Neolithic remains, Roman history and, basically, old England.
“Family outings were to wildlife sanctuaries, bird reserves or the reservoir, looking at water fowl while my grandad tried to identify a grebe. At that age it really made a big impression on me and I’ve travelled around the world to get close to nature ever since.
“A few years ago I made a documentary about [Victorian naturalist] Alfred Russel Wallace and I’d love to pursue more stories about the unsung heroes of natural history, such as Georg Wilhelm Steller, the German botanist. He managed to blag his way onto a voyage in the 1740s with Vitus Bering, the Danish sea captain who was sailing around the Arctic coast to map a sea route across the top of the world. Steller was the first European person to land there and he mapped it and wrote about it, cataloguing the species. They inevitably got shipwrecked, but Steller managed to keep them all alive by his knowledge of plants and vitamins. His drawings were lost, but there’s a rumour that they still exist. It’s almost a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure.”
ONE BOOK TO RULE THEM ALL…
“I got Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ as a gift. I remember it sitting on a shelf in my bedroom and thinking, ‘Ooh, I’ll get round to that soon’, then getting completely absorbed by it. At the time I felt it was more an allegory of war and oppression and, read in conjunction with a lot of history texts, it was a comment on that and Tolkien’s experience of the war.
“I was nearly in the film. I got an audition for Gimli, the dwarf, and the casting director said, “Can you do your normal accent”, so I went “It’s West Country” and I started going, “Ere, gis that axe”, y’know. But Gimli’s Welsh, isn’t he? I should have been told the hobbits weren’t going to be West Country, I would have done something else not, “Ere, Maaaster Frodo, ooh it’s Saam Gamgeees, cor!”. I’d have gone down a different path. I’d have made Gimli Scouse [puts on thick Liverpool accent] “Eh, Gandalf, where we goin’, to find a bleedin’ rrrring? They’re buff, them Orkssh.”
FINDING AN INSPIRATIONAL MUSIC TEACHER
“I had a brilliant music teacher, Linda Phipps. She taught me piano and music A level. Her husband was the Head Of Music at school and he taught our big, unruly gang of recorder-playing oiks. From there, I taught myself guitar and I had the piano teacher up the road, but it made more sense to be taught at school. I went through all the grades and she was a great ball of energy and encouraged me to do all sorts of things I would never have done, such as recitals and playing with an orchestra when I was a teenager. It’s the time when you’re most impressionable and vulnerable and she gave me self-belief. She would influence me for the rest of my life and I can’t overstate her importance enough. She showed me how to take a risk. Don’t worry about it, just do it. You’ll feel 10-feet-tall when it’s over.
For more, visit billbailey.co.uk