BIG INTERVIEW Bill Bailey: 'The show is completely different from how it started'

Bill Bailey, 2018. Picture by Andy Hollingworth
Bill Bailey, 2018. Picture by Andy Hollingworth

Larks in Transit began life as a show Bill Bailey first performed in New Zealand and Australia back in 2016.

It is the follow-up to his smash-hit tour, Limboland, which saw the musical comic, more than 25 years into his career, mining his own life for the first time.

And with all those performances down under, plus more than 70 dates on the UK tour of Larks under his belt by the time he gets to Portsmouth, you'd think the show would be well honed by now?

'Not at all, quite the opposite really,' he laughs. 'Actually, it’s a curious anomaly of the touring process I have. I tour quite a lot in the UK and in New Zealand and Australia, and the show sort of rolls along and changing as it goes and eventually morphs into another show. There’s no sort of point where I say: "I’ve stopped doing this show and now it’s this show". It just mutates into another. The show I was touring in Australia and New Zealand as Larks in Transit was completely different to the one I’m doing now!'

'I came up with the name while I was in Australia, and thought, I really like this. But since then and over the last year, I’ve written a lot more stuff, incorporated a lot more stories and written a lot more music, so the show is completely unrecognisable from that one.'

When The Guide spoke with Bill back in February, the show was still in a state of flux, which is just how he likes it.

Bill Bailey, 2018. Picture by Andy Hollingworth.

Bill Bailey, 2018. Picture by Andy Hollingworth.

'I tried it out over Christmas in London at Shepherds Bush Empire, and gave it a Christmassy feel – I hired a choir for the first time, which was a great revelation to me, and that inspired me to write a bit more music, so the show is actually in quite a raw form at the moment, and open to change.

'There’s all manner of stories I want to tell and some make it into the show and some don’t. It’s at that stage, which I like, it’s actually my favourite time in a show’s life – it’s still mouldable, mutable, I don’t quite know where it will go.
'Sometimes I’ve told a story which leads to another story, which prompts another memory, and I’ve come to it in a roundabout way. It’s much more of an account, stories which try to illustrate some point of my life, where comedy has taken me over the years.'

A keen birdwatcher, the show's title is an obvious reflection of that, as well as a look at some of the 'larks' he's had over the past 25 years as a globetrotting comic, actor, TV presenter and simply someone who loves to travel. So does it continue the more personal theme he began with his last show, Limboland?

'Yes, and more so. In that show I told a story about my family going to see the Northern Lights which went wrong and that was really quite a watershed moment for me – I’m quite a private person, I’ve never really talked about myself or my family in my shows.

'It was a bit of a tough choice actually to include that story. It was story I'd told around the dinner table and with friends, but it had gone beyond that, it’s a more universal thing about holidays generally – the expectation of something being so great, and then you get there and it’s a complete disaster.

'I thought there’s something more here than just a story about my family – and that’s what encouraged me to tell more stories.'

There's politics in there too, including a reimagining of the Stars and Stripes, and he acknowledges of trying to make comedy out of a subject as out there as Donald Trump.

'I do a section about the major and minor keys, so I transposed it all to a minor key which gives it a very apocalyptic, dramatic makeover. One night, by accident, and that’s one of the great things about live comedy, serendipitously, I pressed a button on the keyboard that I thought was for the piano sound but turned it into a sort of huge marching band/brass band tone. So then the whole thing sounded like a Russian marching band, totally accidentally, but it lent it another layer.'

'Trump is such a difficult thing to talk about in satire, because he’s beyond it, so you have to find other ways to talk about him.

'I vividly remember, I stayed up to watch those debates with Hillary Clinton, for one I happened to be in Prague, and I stayed up to watch it, it was fascinating. The next one I was in Australia, so I kind of tracked him while I was crossing the globe, and I kept thinking, surely not? Really?

'And yet, it gradually began to unfold, and then I watched the election.

'People have been in such a state of shock – people are shocked that it’s happened, shocked that it’s so chaotic. As a comic you have to find ways that haven’t been picked over by endless punditry and late night commentary and endless op-ed articles. He’s the most written about and talked about person on the planet.'

With a mere 30-or-so shows left on the tour, are we getting any closer to a definitive Larks show?

'Who knows. By the very nature of it, things happen along the way that get folded into it.

'What tends to happen, and this is true of all tours, when you approach the end of a tour, or a time when you want to record it, you want it be in a polished or honed state, but sometimes, and this isn’t always the case, but because I’m always very critical of my own work, I feel like maybe something was lost in the sealing up of the show. I go back and look at material I’ve written.

'Once I started to delve into the idea of telling stories and trying to get them to hang together, all this other stuff has come to light. It’s a puzzle trying to put it altogether.'

Away from the stage, there are also plans for a new sitcom, but it's proving to have a lengthy gestation.

'These things move at glacial pace. It just inches along, which is fine, that’s the nature of the business in many ways. I have these windows of opportunity for writing in between touring and those times are when you have to be creative in another way, the problem is that the scheduling and finding a window and a place to do it, and the will to do it, and then there’s a new controller at the channel who says: "What’s this?" So you have to go through it all again.

'One of the reasons I like doing stand-up is that there’s no hanging around. If you want to do something, you put it in a show and you go do it, there’s nothing stopping you. It’s very instinctive in that respect.'

And lastly, what's with the promotional pictures of you with the enormous rabbit​​​?

'We have a couple of giant rabbits – amongst the many other animals we have.That's Max, we've got a companion for him now, he’s got a girlfriend.

'They’re Flemish giants. They’re very sweet actually, very friendly and amiable and they lollop around the garden to the amusement of our friends and neighbours, but they’re huge things about the size of a dog. A fox got into the garden and had a go at one of them and there was this yelp – and the big male booted it in the face. I kind of like that, they’re rabbits with attitude.'

Bill Bailey: Larks in Transit is at Portsmouth Guildhall on May 24 and 25. Tickets cost £31.80. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.