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Sunday Life

Bill Bailey on love for 'teenage kicks' and his memory of touring Northern Ireland in an ambulance

 

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey

By Ralph McLean

He may give off the air of a slightly confused hippy, but Bill Bailey is an old-fashioned rocker at heart.

Talk music with the much-loved comedian and he's off waxing lyrical about everything from classic rock to sludge metal before you've time to draw breath. Mention Teenage Kicks to him though and those wild eyes really light up.

Bill, who brings his Larks In Transit live show to the SSE Arena in Belfast on June 13, chose that home-grown punk anthem by Derry legends The Undertones as one of his Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the radio show back in 2008 and he remains a fervent admirer of the tune to this day.

"That song is a real part of my youth," he tells me with typical punkish passion. "It was something that really encapsulated that time of teenage angst. It's got such a plangent chord progression, even if you don't play it in the punk style.

"It's such a fun song to play live as well. Me and a bunch of comics have a band we get together occasionally, called Beergut 100, a tribute to the Haircut variety, and it's the song we open our set with because it really sets out your stall y'know? This is what we're about. It's a cracking song!"

The Somerset-born surrealist has a passion for this part of the world that runs much deeper than just classic punk singles of course. He's keen to stress that this week's return to a Northern Ireland stage is merely the latest in a long line of visits.

"I've been coming to Belfast since the 1980s when I was in a double act," he says, referring to his earliest days working under the name of The Rubber Bishops with his friend Toby Longworth. "We used to come over and we'd play the University of Ulster and the Empire comedy club."

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Bill Bailey and Joanna Lumley
Bill Bailey and Joanna Lumley

The Eighties were a time of much tighter security, of course, and for young comedians starting out on the live circuit it wasn't always the easiest of journeys.

"Just flying to Belfast from Heathrow you were channelled down a different alleyway," he remembers with a chuckle. "There'd be a lot of, 'So why are you going there?' and we were the scruffiest looking herberts ever, carrying strange bags of props and drum kits.

"They were always: 'We need to have a word with you!' So I saw Belfast from then and I've been coming ever since for the last 30-odd years and I always have great fun. I've had some fantastic gigs there and it's always great audiences."

It's a love affair that's mutual, with crowds here connecting with Bill's whimsy and musical diversions like few others.

"I remember I came over as a solo stand-up more than 20 years ago to Ireland and the reaction I got was so strong, I felt this is a place I naturally should perform in," he says with genuine pride in his voice.

"The combination of the love of words and the revelling in live performance, especially music, is something which always knocks me out when I come there. I remember thinking this is changing the way I perform. Irish audiences would be happy for me to play mandolin for a bit without recourse to any sort of joke! London crowds would be quite critical, 'Oh yeah, are you just playing music? Where's the joke?'

"I'd pick up the mandolin in Ireland and audiences would be shouting 'Go on Bill', encouraging me! They just go with it."

One early visit to these shores for the future star of Black Books and Never Mind The Buzzcocks stands out, though.

"One year I came over with a juggler called Paul Morocco to do a show in Derry," he recalls, shaking those wayward locks as he laughs at the memory.

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey

"He was an American, lovely guy, but he had no actual idea about the political situation in Ireland, no idea of the tensions. He was such a blissful innocent and he kept saying, 'Hey, look at those armoured cars,' and he'd get out all the time to take pictures and I'd be mumbling under my breath, 'Just get back in now.'

"We were driving around Derry in a converted ambulance and he'd crossed out the word Ambulance and put Ambiance. And we were driving around at 2 o'clock in the morning. Honestly, how we got out of there unscathed God only knows really."

Those decades of wild and woolly trips all over the world are what inspired the title for his new live show and the well-travelled troubadour and storyteller can't wait to bring it to Belfast on the 13th.

"It's not just a list of places I've been," he stresses, not unreasonably. "That would be tedious after a while. The show is about where comedy has taken me over the last 20 years. So not just the travel parts of it, but the situations you find yourself in and the opportunities it's afforded me to make documentaries, programmes, films, TV shows, sitcoms and God knows what. I never thought comedy would take me to those places, but it has.

"Larks In Transit is very much a representation of everything that I am about really and all the stuff I love from music and the spoken word to history and language and the way the natural world enhances our lives.

"Over time you learn to find out the things that you like and really care about. You realise what we call the fripperies of success are just that... fripperies, and what really matters are more simple things like being able to get outdoors, spend time with friends and listen to birdsong.

"The show is like a journey around my mind, if such a thing could be bearable."

Bill Bailey Larks In Transit is at the SSE Arena Belfast on Thursday, June 13. Tickets from www.ticketmaster.co.uk

Bill Bailey
Bill Bailey

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