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Larking about

By Jarrod 5 Oct 2016

British comedy legend, and certified crematorium organist (it's true!), Bill Bailey probably needs no introduction - but just in case, you likely know him already from his role as Manny in TV's Black Books, from his numerous appearances on UK panel shows, or from his live comedy performances.

Jarrod Baker spoke to Bill ahead of his upcoming tour of New Zealand and Australia, Larks in Transit.

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Bill Bailey

Tell me about ‘Larks in Transit’. Australia and New Zealand are getting that first?

Yeah, basically it’s – this last year I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff, and the kind of show that was Limboland really sort of morphed into something else, and this is the new show emerging from that.

As always is the case, if you’re touring constantly the show changes over time, it evolves, and of course the events of the summer politically had a big impact on comedy generally. I read several cases of comedians who’d written a show for the Edinburgh Festival and then Brexit happened and they just kind of chucked out the show they were going to do and wrote a new show, to respond to it. I don’t think you can overstate the rupture that it has meant in Britain, and the impact of it, and how profoundly significant this is and will be for many many years to come.

So that sort of changed the whole nature of the beginning of the show and then it sort of led off to other things and really it became a signifier for change. The idea of change and what you make of change, what you take with you, what you leave behind – and that got me thinking about this title. Also the fact that – it’s a number, but it’s 20 years since I first came to New Zealand to perform in the Comedy Fest, and I just thought it’s quite good to mark these milestones, and maybe that’s something I do more of now.

But it’s also meant to be – it’s a lot of fun. Larks is as in the Dickensian sense, of frivolity, rather than actual larks, being transported.

Obviously you include musical elements in most of your shows, some more than others?

Sure. There’s a lot of experimenting going on in this show, actually – something which I’ve started to work with, a bit of new technology, which is the most advanced digital sampling kit that I’ve got hold of, and it allows me to sample the audience in a way that I’ve never been able to do before, and that is to get a really good sound from the audience joining in, a choral sound, and sample individuals in the crowd, to build up a sort of collage of sound.

I’m still kind of really experimenting with it and some of the results are just extraordinary. Every night I try this out in the tryouts for this show, I just - the hairs go on the back of my neck when I hear the whole crowd, everyone’s voices singing together, and you can create in a very short space of time, it’s like creating a choir, from the audience, every night, and then using that choir – I get somebody to be the bass, and somebody to be the drums, and somebody plays a solo – you create these amazing sort of patterns of sound, like a band almost, like building up an orchestral sound, just on the spot. I’m still in the process of getting my head round this tech, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years and now the tech is there to do it.

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I saw from Twitter that you’ve been doing a bit of travel around the EU – I think I saw Ireland, Sweden and Holland?

That’s correct, yes – it’s like a farewell tour of the EU.

Yeah, I was thinking you’re getting in while the borders are still open and you’re-

Yeah, I mean that’s it, it literally is that. I tour in Europe quite a bit – a lot more so in the last few years – and one of the things which will be really directly affected is my ability to tour around. I mean I’ll still do it, obviously, but it’ll become a nightmare in terms of visas, and crossing borders. At the moment it’s – you arrive from an EU country, you walk straight in, go through “nothing to declare” we’ve got piles of gear, all this runs smoothly. We got a little taste of that when we – earlier this year I was performing in Norway, and Norway of course is not in the EU, it’s in what’s called the EEA, the European Economic Area. They can trade with the EU but they have to abide by trade regulations and they have to basically – they can’t influence the EU they just have to abide by it. That’s what some people in Britain are trying to push for British status but I doubt that that will happen. But even that, even the fact that Norway is a big contributor to the economy, to Europe – we had to jump through an amazing amount of hoops to get from Norway to Holland, which is in the EU. I just thought yeah, this is what’s going to happen. This will be Britain now in the future. This’ll be us, increasingly isolated, and people will start to realise it when they go abroad and they have to provide visas, and they have to pay for this and that – it’s just – it’s a spectacular act of self harm.

When was the last time you were in New Zealand?

It was 2 years ago, and I was touring around – I think I played in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. And I played in New Plymouth and Hamilton. And I had a great time – in fact it was brilliant, in New Plymouth we arrived, and we went up Mount Taranaki and then went quad biking, so we had a riot of a time in New Plymouth, it was brilliant.

This time I’m going to one place I’ve not been to, Invercargill. I’ve never been down there, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m also returning to Dunedin, which I played a few years ago with Rich Hall, on a tour I did of New Zealand with just the two of us. Some new places and returning to some old haunts.

Was that ‘Limboland’ you were touring last time?

That’s right. Which I’ve realised is actually not a bad name for Britain now. Or Poundland or something, I don’t know. But yeah Limboland, that toured around New Zealand, Australia, and a few dates in the Far East, then it went into the West End of London, a little bit more of a UK tour, and then we just, well, a few months back I filmed it for future use. I don’t know quite what format it’ll be, maybe not DVD, I suppose that seems more or less defunct, it’ll be, uh, some kind of, you know, streaming thing.

Is there more acting in your future?

Well actually I’ve only recently discovered that I’ve been commissioned to make a sitcom for BBC 1, which is great fun. I wrote this show – it was just a bit of fun – I wrote this half an hour episode of a guy running a wildlife park in the west of England, and the animals are super-intelligent and talk to each other, quoting Tolstoy, and he has a dysfunctional band of keepers who are trying to stop them from escaping. And anyway the BBC went “yeah yeah this is great” so it looks like I’m going to be making that next year. 

One last thing – I read on Wikipedia that you were an honorary member of the society of crematorium organists, and it being Wikipedia, and you being a comedian, I instinctively distrusted that information…

You’re right to – you’re right to distrust Wikipedia. I have no input into Wikipedia and never have. I’m always fascinating to know what goes up there. But in this case that’s actually true! I’ve got a nice letter to prove it – a sort of embossed letter – I don’t know quite what this means – if I attend a funeral in a crematorium, and the organist doesn’t show up, or takes ill – I’m qualified to- “excuse me, excuse me – crematorium organist coming through”.

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