Bill Bailey: 'I still see myself as learning my craft'
Bill Bailey is one of the funniest men around but at home, he tells Gabrielle Fagan, his life revolves around his family, animals and birds
Every time comedian Bill Bailey speaks, a loud shrieking ensues, threatening to drown him out. He simply shrugs.
"Parrots," he says laconically, by way of explanation. "What can you do? They're very affectionate but noisy and always like to have the last word." Enduring the cacophony and creature chaos - there's a menagerie at his London home, including four cockatoos, five dogs, ducks, chickens, and frogs - is worth it to meet the stand-up comedy icon.
A regular on shows like pop quiz, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI, he has had huge success with world tours and stadium shows, and is instantly recognisable with his bald head, neck curtain of flowing locks, and goatee beard, like a real-life Hobbit.
As is so often the case with comedians, he's far more quiet and serious in private and confesses that his enduring success - he turned 50 this year - is a surprise to him. "I thought I'd only be able to do comedy while I was young and daft and saw it as a way to avoid a boring office job. I fully expected eventually to have to do something sensible, and never imagined sustaining it for this amount of years," he says self-deprecatingly.
"Actually I had a moment of total bewilderment eight years ago when I was performing on stage at Wembley arena in front of nearly 13,000 people. Suddenly I felt myself mentally transported back to playing a gig in a pub in Hull in front of six people, in those days, believe me, that was a crowd, and I was struck by the thought: 'How did all this happen - how did I get here?' I wrenched myself back to reality pretty quickly and carried on, but it was a surreal moment."
His act could also fall into that 'surreal' category with its mix of facts - he soaks up obscure knowledge like a sponge - and humorous, convoluted stories which never contain one-liners because he can't abide them. Music is integral to the mix, he often struts the stage with his guitar, and he's an accomplished musician, able to play virtually every instrument apart from the violin and cello.
His prowess is a legacy of his childhood when he excelled at school in Bath, Somerset, but rebelled and dropped out of university to travel the world for a decade, supporting himself through comedy, playing in bands and working in theatre companies.
After returning home, he doggedly persevered for years on the stand-up circuit before, aged 31, eventually winning a Time Out comedy award in 1995 and the following year making the shortlist for the Perrier Award.
"Writing comedy's just as much a passion as it was all those years ago. It's what gets me up in the morning. I still regard myself as learning this craft and love using humour to explore the big questions like ageing, the political process, the way social media changes people's behaviour, and all the myriad events in the news," enthuses Bailey.
"I also like talking about all sorts of obscure or random things, like learning mandarin, the history of language, or musical influences. The point is to draw in as many subjects as possible and make them accessible and funny, although I do sometimes have to check myself for the humour otherwise people will go: 'Yeah, OK beardy, very interesting but where's the laughs?!'"
Having a family - he and his wife, Kristin have a son, Dax, 11 - he says has not only honed his humour, but heightened his motivation. "When I was single, this job was just for my own amusement and maybe in the early days a bit self-indulgent, but now it's about supporting us, and that makes me keep striving for higher and higher standards."
He met Kristin, who's responsible for his business affairs, at one of his gigs in 1987 and courted her by sending her a letter a week for a year until she finally agreed to live with him. In 1998 they married in Indonesia where they have a home.
"I feel hugely supported by my wife and it's fantastic having someone by your side who knows you so well. She's brilliant if I'm starting to feel nervous before a tour and she'll say, 'Hang on, don't you remember you felt worried before and it was all fine'. She's so very calming and down-to-earth and understands the pressures. I view every day as a new adventure and our levels of understanding of each other deepen as time passes."
Fatherhood, although longed-for, was a shock when it happened. "We'd tried unsuccessfully for years to be parents before giving up and deciding just to travel and have rich and interesting lives. When we had Dax we realised having a child was even more extraordinary than we could ever have imagined. He's a wonderful boy," he says with obvious feeling.
"When he was young we carried on travelling and took him with us because we resolved he'd have to fit into our lives, rather the other way around. So at 15 months he was living with us in the Sumatran jungle and loving it.
"Performing's in his blood really, he's always in school plays, and he's grown up in the wings of shows when I've been working. He came to recordings of Never Mind The Buzzcocks in his baby car seat and has even come on stage with me a couple of times at the end of shows and done a dance."
Family life increasingly features in his comedy material. "For a long while I was reluctant to talk about my personal experiences of marriage and fatherhood because I'm a very private person and not one for revelations about myself," he says.
"These days if I have funny experiences I relate them because they're things shared by other people, and through sharing and laughing about them you get insight into life. That insight's the real spice of comedy and what makes it so satisfying."
While comedy dominates Bailey's timetable it's his knowledge of and devotion to animals which has led to presenting roles on numerous wildlife and nature programmes, most notably Baboons With Bill Bailey and Bill Bailey's Birdwatching Bonanza.
He's currently supporting Be Lungworm Aware, a campaign to raise awareness of the parasite which can be fatal to dogs.
"I've had pets all my life and couldn't live without them, especially dogs who are so intuitive to their owners' moods," he says.
Walking his beloved dogs is part of his thorough exercise routine, which includes gym sessions, running, cycling and tennis.
"I'm quite conscious that although I still feel 25 I am now 50. I've got a busy life with the family and performing and being fit is vital. I'm also determined to stick around a lot longer because there's so much more comedy material I still want to discover. I don't think I'll ever get to the end of that journey."
- Bill Bailey is supporting 'Be Lungworm Aware' to raise awareness of the lungworm parasite which can be fatal to dogs. To find out more, visit www.lungworm.co.uk or speak to your vet.