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8 December 2021

Bill Bailey Q&A: “My earliest memory is the smell of nylon waterproofs in a hot car”

The comedian on Suleiman the Magnificent, Starsky and Hutch and why he should have been a town crier.

By New Statesman

Bill Bailey was born in Bath in 1965. An actor, comedian and musician, he is known for his TV roles in Black Books and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and his live performances. In 2020 he won the BBC competition Strictly Come Dancing.

What’s your earliest memory?

I would like to say it was watching the moon landings! But it was Weston-super-Mare. We used to go there as a family. I remember the sea air, the sand and the smell of nylon waterproofs in a hot car.

Who are your heroes?

As a kid I loved Starsky and Hutch. I thought Starsky was the cooler one; he was a bit of a dude, but also a wisecracker. In adult life I’d say David Byrne, because of his inventiveness and creative brilliance.

What book last changed your thinking?

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It made me think about who we are and why we are the way we are. It explains, brilliantly, how those little quirks – random evolutionary mutations – allowed us to have the skills for speech and cultivating food. We all should read this book at school.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Suleiman the Magnificent. I love long-distance walks and I’ve been looking further afield, at longer walks. Recently, a walk has been opened up from Istanbul to Vienna: it’s called the Sultan’s Trail. It’s the route that Suleiman took to try to conquer Austria. He was by all accounts a brilliant leader: thoughtful; benevolent; he did an enormous amount in terms of provision for ordinary people.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The life of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian explorer and naturalist. He was a self-taught biologist and chronicler of the natural world who went off around Brazil, and then Indonesia and what is now Malaysia, Borneo and Singapore. He, independently of Darwin, discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.

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What TV show could you not live without?

I can’t think of one I couldn’t live without. Though I haven’t missed Eurovision since I was a kid.

Who would paint your portrait?

Hans Holbein, who painted incredibly naturalistic portraits. He always made people look complex and moody.

What’s your theme tune?

The theme tune to The Professionals. It’s dynamic, with a bit of wah-wah guitar in it. It’s the sort of song where, as you walked into the room, everyone would look round, and you’d just take in the admiration.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I once asked Bob Mills what the secret of comedy is, and he said: “Keep saying funny things.” He was absolutely right.

What’s currently bugging you?

I’ve got a crick in my neck. I must have slept in a very odd way. I have to constantly stretch and activate my shoulders.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having slightly longer arms. It would be useful for reaching out for things, playing the triple-neck guitar…

When were you happiest?

Walking along the Ridgeway a few summers ago, with family and friends.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A town crier. I like the idea of ringing a big bell, walking through the town, shouting out the news. It seems like a job that would make you popular: you probably wouldn’t have to pay for a lunch in any tavern.

Are we all doomed?

Probably. But we’ve got a while yet. We’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.

Bill Bailey’s “En Route To Normal” tour begins in Plymouth on 12 December. Tickets and dates at billbailey.co.uk

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special