When I interviewed Bill Bailey about his new tour, Larks in Transit, he’d already spoken to six or seven carbon copies of me that day. All would have asked the same banal questions, wearing him down like a colony of seagulls picking at a biscuit, turning his life into a beige paste to be smeared across the pages of newspapers and magazines.
I was allowed to speak to him for fifteen minutes on the phone, timed by his publicist. To have any chance of breaking through his journalistic malaise, I’d have to go straight into the hot stuff:
His voice was rich like melted cheddar, deeper than it sounded on the telly.
‘So, is there a god?’ I asked.
He took a breath to steady himself,
‘Difficult to tell really.’
I’d gone in too hot, I needed to lighten the tone,
‘Apples or oranges?’ I asked.
‘Do you have to do many of these interviews?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bill. ‘Loads and loads. But I’m used to it now, I can be mildly coherent for a few hours. I’m alright now – I seem to be talking quite normally…’
‘Very normally,’ I interrupted.
‘Very normally,’ he agreed. ‘But by afternoon it’s all gone. Three pm and I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m just looking out the window going “yeah I love squirrels, they’re great aren’t they, hopping about.”’
‘I saw a squirrel fall out a tree once.’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ said Bill. ‘It gets to the point that I don’t even know where I am, it’s like an outer body experience.’
‘Talking about squirrels, what’s the worst question you get asked by the press?’
He took a deep breath,
‘I don’t want to pre-empt anything embarrassing, but very often when I’m doing this sort of thing, people just pick up the phone and say “so this comedy thing you’re doing, what can an audience expect from the show?” And all I want to ask is have you ever been to a comedy gig? You must have a ballpark expectation? You buy a ticket, go along, laugh, “oh he’s funny ain’t he”, then you go away. That’s it. You don’t expect there to be dance.’
‘There’s no dancing?’ I asked.
‘There’s a little bit of dancing,’ said Bill. ‘Not highly drilled contemporary ballet – maybe some low level shimmying.’
‘Low level shimmying sounds illegal.’
‘It is in parts of America.’
We were now bantering freely back and forth; I felt floaty, the dingy walls of my Ibrox flat melted away. Bill put on an American accent,
‘Excuse me sir, do you have a shimmying license?’
Bill was inviting me to riff a scene with him, I the offending shimmyer and he the police officer. The Introduction to Acting course I did in Govan was about to pay for itself. It felt like my heart was being chased by a fox. I seized my moment and improvised a few bars of awkward laughter.
‘Hahaha,’ I said.
His silence was pregnant. Two weeks overdue and eating a vindaloo pregnant. The pages of my jotter rustled as I scrambled for another question,
‘How do you unwind after a hard day?’
‘I go out on my bike and listen to Kraftwerk,’ said Bill. ‘The rhythms and beats match the pedals, it all makes sense when you’re cycling. They were mad into their cycling.’
‘I cycle through red lights.’ I said.
He went quiet then sniffed,
‘You’re one of them.’
I realised my mistake.
‘Not on purpose… because I’m colour blind.’
He saw through me.
‘You’re one of them,’ he repeated. ‘It’s that sort of behaviour that will unravel the fabric of society – next minute you’ll be nicking porridge out of someone’s trolley under the illusion it’s not a crime.’
‘Would such an unravelling be a bad thing?’ I asked.
‘It’s already looking a bit frayed around the edges,’ he said. ‘Maybe we just pull the whole thing apart and start again with a big ball of wool.’
We sat in silence for a moment, imagining the apocalypse and our place in it.
‘You ever notice,’ said Bill. ‘How in all robot films, there’s always a moment when the android becomes sentient and starts to grapple with what it means to be human?’
A bead of sweat ran into my eye and stung. I was losing control, he shouldn’t be asking the questions. I needed to grab the interview by the trombone,
‘What’s your best time for the hundred metres?’ I asked, before he could interrupt again.
‘Under a minute.’
‘Do you like music?’
‘Apples or pears?’
‘Do you know what, pears.’
‘Yeah, with a bit of cheese.’
It’s skilfully hidden, but I was making up this quick-fire section as I went along. And it was exhausting. In reality, the next three pages of questions I’d prepared were all a variation on what can an audience expect from the show, but Bill’s earlier comment made them untouchable. I paced back and forth hoping for inspiration. It was useless; I could think of nothing else but the unaskable, my crisp bag of questions was turned inside out and licked clean. The harder I thought of what to say, the more words eluded me. I was falling.
What can audiences expect from Larks in Transit was all there was left to ask.
In Beijing, it is common to keep undomesticated birds as pets. Some are caught in the wild, others are bred in captivity. Their lives are spent in ornate cages or chained to a perch. Different species have different attributes. The lark for example is prized for its vocal ability and can be trained to mimic other birds and animals. The traditional set of imitations is known as The Thirteen Songs of a Lark. It can take up to three years to train the bird, and the thirteen songs have to be repeated in exact order. Those that accomplish the feat are highly valued. Those that deviate are worthless.
I didn’t want to make Bill sing his Thirteen Songs. I wanted to release him back into the wild of his life; to cycle, to listen to Kraftwerk, to eat pears…
But I did have an article to write.
‘So Bill, what can audiences expect from the show?’
A sound like a puppy being stood on came through the phone. Bill took a deep breath then steadied himself,
I heard his knuckles turn white as he gripped the receiver,
‘…I.. suppose.. they.. can.. expect…’
Each word trudged from his mouth like a condemned man’s walk to the scaffold. A crackle came through my mobile as his publicist joined the call. The fifteen minutes was up, Bill was free.
That most difficult of questions – what can an audience expect? I suppose there’s only one way to answer it:
Bill Bailey’s Larks In Transit is at Dundee Caird Hall (29 May) Glasgow Hydro (30 May) Edinburgh Playhouse (31 May) and Aberdeen AECC (1 June). Full details at http://www.BillBailey.co.uk