Actor, writer, musician and, of course, stand-up comedian - Bill Bailey has become one of the UK’s most popular figures over the past thirty-plus years. We chat to the comedy legend about lockdown, Strictly Come Dancing, and his latest tour, En Route to Normal…
The last year and a half has been a weird one. We all know as much. We've all said as much, perhaps a little too often. The lockdowns put everyone in a strange state of paralysis, leaving us desperate to find some way of pushing through the boredom. Some of us relied on Netflix, some of us (probably too many of us, in truth) tried our hand at baking banana bread. But when you’re one of the nation’s finest comedians, you have to put your mind to something a little more productive.
Take Bill Bailey, national treasure and an ever-present in British comedy, who spent a large portion of lockdown piecing together En Route to Normal, his hilarious new show which will tour everywhere from Plymouth to Glasgow to, most importantly, the glorious city of Nottingham. “There was loads of music and new songs that I wrote as a response to being cooped up in my shed for months,” Bill laughs. “I did a lot of thinking about other times when there has been such a monumental moment in human history. I did wonder if I really wanted to talk about the pandemic too much, but it’s such a huge subject that it would be weird not to acknowledge it. In the end, though, I use it as more of a springboard to talk about a lot of other things, like, ‘What is normal? What does it mean? Do we really want that?’”
Although Bill has emerged from lockdown with an arena tour, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Like the rest of us, he found vast spells of the last eighteen months “really hard”, as normality shut down and we were all forced to keep our distance. “It was so tough on everyone. It was just such a surreal situation. Some days felt like they would go on and on, and then other times you’d blink and three days had gone by,” he says. “It was very strange. I found it really difficult to be creative at times.”
I’ve watched loads of these shows that grip the nation and capture people’s imaginations, and then suddenly there I am in the middle of it
As has often been the case throughout his life, the wildlife enthusiast turned to nature for comfort when things became particularly challenging. Bill speaks of the “huge amount of solace” he gets from being out in the open, going for walks and listening to birds to savour some much-needed moments of calm. This has become increasingly important with the rise of technology, he adds, believing the great outdoors can help to tackle the “low level pressure and anxiety to constantly be in touch” that many of us feel. “It’s a great relief from all of that,” he claims.
Yet the 56-year-old also tried out something slightly different towards the end of last year - taking part in and, of course, eventually becoming the champion of hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing. As each week passed and Bill wowed viewers with everything from the Charleston to the quickstep, the unlikely star quickly won over the public, helping to deliver a string of joyous moments as he marched to victory. “It's very strange when you find yourself at the centre of something like that,” Bill muses, giving the sense that it still hasn’t quite sunk in. “I’ve watched loads of these shows that grip the nation and capture people’s imaginations, and then suddenly there I am in the middle of it.
“At times it was very hard to gauge what people's reaction was, because we didn't see anyone and we weren't meeting anyone,” he continues. “In normal times, you might go out to the shop or to a restaurant and people will come up to you and let you know what they think. But because we were in the middle of that lockdown and we were in a bubble, it felt like we were almost on another planet for a while. Social media was how we could tell we were really lifting the spirits of the country, which was amazing, and I slowly started to find that I could dance!”
This show is more reflective than a lot of my other stuff. It's much more introspective
With restrictions now lifted and the country feeling like it is - you guessed it - en route to normal, Bill is returning to more familiar territory by swapping the dancefloor for the stage. The former Never Mind the Buzzcocks regular will bring his tour, which has been described as “hilarious” and “unmissable”, to the Motorpoint Arena just before Christmas and, rightly of course, he can’t wait to come back to the East Midlands.
“It's somewhere I've spent a lot of time at over the years,” Bill says - and he isn’t lying. Back in the late eighties, while still part of a double act with Toby Longworth, he would perform at Nottingham Trent’s Students’ Union and make the most of the city’s pubs after each gig. Since then, he has rocked up at Just the Tonic on numerous occasions, and he regularly visits friends and family in the area. Decades after first bringing a smile to audiences in Nottingham, he still feels a strong connection to our hometown.
If you pop by the arena to watch this legend in action, you can expect the same witty humour and unique creativity that has made Bill such a popular figure over the years - but with a bit of a twist this time out. “This show is more reflective than a lot of my other stuff,” he explains. “In previous shows I’ve been able to use my experiences of traveling around the world and seeing new things and new places, but of course that hasn't been possible. This is much more introspective as a result.” Amusing musical numbers, whipsmart jokes and a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of life? Sign us up.
Bill Bailey’s En Route To Normal tour calls at the Motorpoint Arena on Thursday 23 December. Tickets and dates can be found at billbailey.co.uk.
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