Bill Bailey: "I remember"

Joy Persaud

…we had quite a big kitchen garden

and my parents grew lots of herbs and vegetables. I remember the strong sensation of soil, putting my hand in it, digging around and pulling things out of the ground. It’s quite a primal sensation that really stuck with me for years. I miss gardening a lot—it’s something that’s stayed with me, that love of the outdoors.

...until I left school and moved up to London

I spent all of my time, my formative years, in the West Country. It’s a beautiful place to grow up in. I would go on long bicycle rides down country lanes. My father had a huge collection of Ordnance Survey maps, which I still love. I treasure these things—they’re like treasure maps. They’ve got little signs on them: churches with a spire, churches with a steeple; there’s a bit of marshland…

They’re so detailed and one of the things that I remember about them is the little symbol to depict the steepness of the road. You’d have two arrows, like two chevrons, and that would be really steep. That’s the place I would aim for on my bike. 
I’d think, Oh, that would be great to cycle down there.

...a wasp flew into my mouth.

I was ten or 11 and I remember the wasp buzzing around my mouth. I was singing, or I just had my mouth open and I remember thinking, Ugh, ugh, there’s a wasp, and trying to spit it out. Of course, the wasp wasn’t happy about this either; it didn’t want to have flown in there. I blame the wasp as...well...it should have looked where it was going. As I spat it out I thought, Oh thank goodness I didn’t get stung, but as a sort of parting gift it stung me on my bottom lip. I remember feeling this enormous jolt of pain and I almost fell off my bike. I pushed the bike to a phone box and I phoned my dad because he was a GP. I didn’t realise that my lip had swollen so much that I could hardly speak and was saying “Uhhh”, so he just hung up. He eventually realised I wasn’t some kind of crank or crazy person and came and picked me up.

…my first home was a very old house

It was part of an E-shaped building and we were the end bit of the E. The house was Elizabethan and it had gone through various incarnations. One bit of the house had once been an old shop and you could still see the etching in the window, “Fry’s Chocolate”.

Bill's Mother, Madryn

We had a garden with apple, plum and pear trees; there were vegetables like potatoes, rhubarb, raspberry canes, gooseberries. There was even an old bird table in one corner of the garden where mum would put out all sorts of peelings and carrot tops for the birds. It had a groove around the edge. I loved to pour water and watch it flow around the channel and pour over the front—it was only when I was much older that I realised that it was actually an old cider press. It would originally have had a big stone on top of it and you would have put apples on it, crushed them up, and the apple juice would have flowed around it into a container. It was an idyllic childhood really.

…spending a lot of time with my grandparents

when I came home from school because my dad was working and my mum was always busy in the kitchen cooking. She would have loved The Great British Bake Off so it’s a pity she’s not around to see it.

Getting his hair cut by Grandad, which put him off haircuts for life; (right) at the Christmas table with the family

I would come home and her and my father’s mother and her mother would all be stood in the kitchen. There would be a whirlwind of activity and it would all just appear—jam tarts, roly-polys, turnovers, angel cake, fairy cake, Welsh cake, scones. My grandparents would be there and ask me about the day, you know, “How did you get on?” I remember it being like an inquisition.

"My grandmother was a lovely, sweet woman and when my grandad died, she used to write to me—reams and reams of letters"

…my grandad had really strong opinions

—he was a real socialist. He was a fascinating character to talk to. I learned a lot from him and he gave me a different outlook on the world. My grandfather was a stonemason and my grandmother was a florist. She was a lovely, sweet woman and when my grandad died—and he died many years before her—she used to write me reams and reams of letters, many of which I’ve kept.

…dreaming of being an actual astronaut 

I wanted to change my name as well—I had this other persona, Mick Kennedy. I’ve no idea where it came from...well Kennedy, I guess, from the American president, or maybe the Kennedy space station—it was in the news when I was a kid. Maybe I was channelling Jagger or maybe it was somebody my dad knew who was called Mick. I have this vivid memory of imagining myself as an astronaut called Mick Kennedy. So I was channelling a pop star and, perhaps, the president.

It could have been very different—could have been Ringo Gandhi. I’ve no idea what happened to my dream, the whole notion of becoming an astronaut somehow faded. It ceased to become exciting and became very dull. You just go to the moon and then you come back again. Is that it?

…senior school was a transitional period

I was a real swot to begin with—I’d always do well in class and in the end of term exams and at the prize giving, I’d always get a prize. And then, I suppose, what the school said was that I’d completely gone off the rails: “He’s stopped, he’s lost his focus.” But I just saw it as being normal, you know? I was just mucking about a bit, I was in the school band, I had a bunch of friends and I was simply discovering growing up. Schoolwork suddenly wasn’t quite as important to me as it had been before.

…Behind Closed Doors there was the school band

that I was a part of, and I remember at one of the concerts, we decided to bring the smoke machine along with us. Of course, there was too much smoke on stage. Nobody could see anything. They thought the building was on fire—it was a total disaster.

"When I became a dad, it was wonderful because we didn’t think we’d have kids, but he came along and it was a great big bolt out of the blue"

Playing clarinet with his cousins. “We were the von Trapps of the West Country”

…music was actually a real salvation

I had a fantastic teacher, Lynda Phipps, and she was a real guiding light for me in school. She taught me piano and her husband was the head of music so I learned music theory with him. She encouraged me to do more, all the way through up to diploma level. Under her support and guidance I performed a Mozart concerto at 16 or 17—I’d never have done that without her encouragement. She would take you beyond what you thought you were capable of.

Bill playing guitar. “A career in entertainment was clearly on the cards”

When I step out on stage now, I always think of Lynda Phipps. I remember, years ago, when I was doing my first arena shows—at Wembley for goodness’ sake—I mean, how did this happen? Standing on stage in front of 12,500 people and I can hear Lynda’s voice in my ear saying, “Yeah, of course you can do it.”

…doing a gig many years ago

with an old friend from school. We were a double act, and we were performing in Edinburgh. A girl came along to one of the shows and I just happened to talk to her afterwards when I was on the stairs. She said, “Oh, I really enjoyed the set,” and we got chatting. We kept in touch and wrote to one another for about a year. I still have the letters now. Kristin and I were together for about ten years before we got married in Indonesia in 1998.

…Black Books was great fun

—great cast, great writing. It was also great to be part of a team; there was a collaborative sense of contributing to an ensemble piece rather than being a solo stand-up, which is a solitary profession. It’s good to mix it up now and again, to be part of a play or collaborate or write with others. I think you can sometimes do your best work that way.

…realising I’ve carried some element from all those childhood trips

to wildlife parks with me into adulthood. My mum was quite passionate about animal welfare. She wasn’t an activist, but she loved being outdoors and she loved animals. I remember this mantra she had, “I want you to love nature.” She always sat me down as a kid and drummed it into me. It’s obviously worked, as we’ve got a menagerie of rescue animals at home.

…when I became a dad

it was wonderful because we didn’t think we’d have kids, but my son Dax came along and it was a great big bolt out of the blue really. It made life a bit more straightforward for me. Your priorities change and you realise it’s not about you and that there’s someone else you’re responsible for. I think that’s a good thing. You can think too much about meaning sometimes, and tie yourself up in knots about what life is all about, and then something like that happens and that’s it—you don’t have to worry anymore.

…being grateful for the way my early life panned out

My mum and dad are quite influential in that regard. They didn’t constrain me in any way or say, “You have to do this.” I was so lucky that they didn’t insist on a certain career and it’s allowed me to always do what I wanted to do. In hindsight I realise that it was a very generous sort of thing for them to do, and far-sighted in many ways.

Bill Bailey kicks off his nationwide Larks in Transit tour this month. To book tickets, visit atgtickets.com