Ahead of bringing a brand new show to Peterborough Arena, ESP comedy columnist Sarah Slack catches up with much-loved musical comedian and Strictly champion Bill Bailey...
Despite 2020’s various lockdowns, I think it’s fair to say that comedy legend Bill Bailey still managed to end last year on a high after winning popular BBC television show Strictly Come Dancing. Fans of both his dancing and his comedy however will be pleased to know that next year Bill will be returning on a UK tour of his brand new show En Route to Normal. Ahead of his performance at Peterborough Arena in January 2022 ESP’s comedy columnist Sarah Slack sat down with Bill to discuss his thoughts on returning to performing live comedy, podcast ideas, and how Icelandic sheep may be his perfect audience...
Many thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to us about your new tour. For our readers who haven’t seen you perform live before, what can audiences expect from your brand new show?
"En Route is Normal is very much focussed on my own experiences of the last 18 months and how that has affected my ability to perform live, my creativity in coming up with ideas, and how the pandemic has affected my whole process of writing a show. There’s also some material from when I found myself quarantined in a hotel room for two weeks which reflects what I would try to do to keep myself sane, and whilst in lockdown I also unearthed some old songs in my archives at home which I wrote years ago and which I’ve managed to incorporate into the new show too.
"The lockdowns were just one of those strange and disconnecting occasions where it was a completely new experience for everyone, so there’s also material in the show about the new methods of communicating with people we discovered whilst spending time on your own, in addition to covering my own experience of being on a show like Strictly Come Dancing where all of a sudden I had to navigate being in the public eye on a popular television programme during a global pandemic."
Do you feel the pandemic has given you a different perspective on performing comedy, and have your thoughts on returning to live comedy changed since coming out of lockdown?
"During the pandemic it did occur to me that I may need to do something else aside from comedy because at the time, performing live just wasn’t a viable option and I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to perform again for a very long time. I did a handful of live gigs during 2020 however next year I’m sure I’ll be affected by going back to performing in front of larger crowds and I’ll appreciate performing live even more because it’s one of those things that I took for granted.
"I do have some anxiety because obviously Covid-19 is still out there but we want audiences to feel confident about attending, which is why we have taken measures where if we need to we are able to book bigger venues in case there needs to be further social distancing - hopefully we won’t need to do this but we are covering all the bases to make sure that audiences feel comfortable."
Many comedians who I’ve seen perform recently are currently taking more of an escapist approach to comedy by intentionally not discussing Covid-19 overtly as part of their material. As someone who is known for utilising songs and more surreal routines in his performances, how comfortable as a performer do you feel in discussing Covid-19 with a live audience?
I don’t want the pandemic to dominate the show but at the same time, it would be weird not to mention it because it was a global event that everyone was affected by and has some experience of. That’s why I thought I would use the pandemic as a springboard in this show to go into different musical directions and to link to different stories of my own personal experiences and thoughts on Covid-19, however I wouldn’t want to dwell on it too much because it’s pretty much replaced the weather as the number one topic that British people talk to each other about now!"
I think you are one of the few comedians who during the various lockdowns last year did not come up with your own podcast, so if you had the time to sit down and record your own podcast show, what would yours be about?
"I remember being previously interviewed by radio station Classic FM where I was asked lots of questions, however instead of answering them normally I was sitting in front of a keyboard and I answered them using music, so I think if I had my own podcast it would be a show where I invite guests to talk about music in more detail and in quite a nerdy way. It’s a subject I really enjoy talking about because I find the link between music and emotion, and specifically how pieces of music can elicit certain feelings when heard, to be a really fascinating topic."
Whilst the live comedy industry notably suffered during Covid-19, there were a few successes in acts such as American comedian Bo Burnham, as his show Inside received critical acclaim when it was released earlier this year on Netflix. With fewer people purchasing DVDs and instead opting for digital streaming services, would you ever consider making a shift over to streaming your performances instead of touring?
"This is a topic I think all comedians have had to consider during the past 18 months, and I’ve certainly had to re-adjust my shed studio at home so I’ve been able to record voiceovers and features for TV, however for me I view comedy as not only a communal experience, but there’s also a transaction between the audience and the performer.
"I did enjoy some streamed music concerts during lockdown and I thought Bo Burnham’s special was brilliantly done, so I think if I were to record something similar I would record a film which is not reliant on an audience’s reaction, but instead bends the genre of comedy into more of a meta-performance where you show the audience the workings of a comedy show.
"I really like the idea of recording a comedy show in the middle of nowhere like Iceland, where I’m in the middle of a bleak valley and there’s no one around for miles, apart from a few bemused sheep, but I would take the sound of an audience laughing and place that over every time a sheep goes ‘baa’ to create a somewhat surreal illusion of being at a live performance, but in a non-traditional setting."
I think it’s going to be exciting to see how comedians adapt to new technologies for their performances and how creative comedians are going to get until things return to normal - it’ll certainly be better than any of those car park gigs arranged during lockdown!
"I actually went to one of those gigs because I was supposed to be performing at one so I went along to see how it works, and I remember being told the audience had to tune in on their car radio to a certain frequency in order to hear the performers because the gig organisers were concerned about noise complaints and bothering the neighbours nearby. There were no speakers on stage and the audience listened to the performers via their radios with the windows up, however the audience were told if they liked a joke they could happily honk their horns so the organisers received noise complaints anyway!"
Finally, I can’t end an interview with the current Strictly champion without talking about your time on the show, as I think it was such a highlight for many people last year to see you perform on Strictly Come Dancing, especially your amazing contemporary dance to Rapper’s Delight. What are your feelings on giving up the trophy this year, and who do you think is going to take your place as Strictly champion for 2021?
"It was amazing to take part in Strictly Come Dancing last year, particularly as things were very grim due to the ongoing pandemic so it was nice to provide some escapism and fun for those watching at home. I think people forget that whilst it is an entertainment show, were not just sitting around a campfire having a chat - we were all learning a new skill and putting on a live show every week, so whilst the experience was really tough it was lovely to have had the Strictly experience and I do think it lifted people’s spirits during a very tough time.
"After I won the show we were not able to have a proper celebration or a party as we went into lockdown again, so I feel like I have unfinished business because I haven’t celebrated winning yet! I’ve noticed however the standard on this year’s show is very high, and the competition has been difficult to predict because some contestants start as frontrunners but then things always change.
"There have been some wonderful partnerships with the professional dancers this year but if I was pushed to say who will win, I’d probably say Rose and Giovanni. Rose is a brilliant dancer who brings something else to the world of dancing as she uses her deafness as an advantage during her performances, not as an impairment, which is extraordinary. AJ and Kai are also a very good partnership but it’s always difficult to predict who will win because you never really know who is capturing the public’s imagination every week when they perform, so it will be interesting to see who will eventually be crowned the winner."
Have you been approached to take part in the show’s Christmas special or as part of the show’s live UK tour?
"There has been some mention of a tour next year but we will have to wait and see if it’s viable, because if it is then I would love to be able to dance with Oti again and perform Rapper’s Delight in front of a live audience because we haven’t actually done that yet!"
BILL BAILEY’s En Route To Normal tour calls at Peterborough Arena on January 2. Tickets and dates can be found at www.BillBailey.co.uk or https://eastofenglandarena.com/events/bill-bailey-en-route-to-normal/