Bill Bailey a man of many colours

IN LIMBOLAND: Bill Bailey says he finds himself in a halfway stage in life.
IN LIMBOLAND: Bill Bailey says he finds himself in a halfway stage in life.

Listening to Bill Bailey reel off his list of pets is beginning to get exhausting.

"We have a few birds of all kinds of different hue, we have parrots and cockatoos and pigeons and starlings," he is saying.

"We have tamarin monkeys, we have chameleons, snakes, an argentinian hornfrog, some fish, five dingoes, cats," he pauses. "I mean it's getting to the point where we're going to have to move out, I think, and live in the garden, the place is too full."

GROWING UP: With age has come confidence, Bill Bailey says.
GROWING UP: With age has come confidence, Bill Bailey says.

Bill Bailey the nature lover, the comedian, who lives in a house-turned-zoo. For fans of his whimsical comedy, the fact he has an unconventional love for exotic animals might not come as a surprise.

He's eccentric even by comedic standards, and New Zealand and Australian audiences will be the first to hear Bailey's new material when he tours here with show Limboland in November.

The star of Black Books and Never Mind the Buzzcocks was last here in 2012 with Qualmpeddler .

Since then, a lot has changed in the life of Bailey - and much of it has stemmed from his affinity for nature, he says down the phone from west London.

The last two years have seen Bailey trekking around the wilds of Borneo, filming Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero with the BBC's Natural History Unit.

The documentary tells the story of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a victorian-era explorer who came up with the theory of evolution around the same time as Darwin.

"He was an extraordinarily courageous and brave man, and I happened to find out about him and became intrigued by his story," Bailey says.

"I found out he came up with the theory of evolution independently of Darwin and hasn't really got the same amount of historical credit for it. From that moment, I found myself traipsing around Indonesia, and since we produced the doco last year it's taken on a life of it's own."

The series prompted an upswing of interest in the naturalist. In one of his most surreal moments, Bailey found himself unveiling a statue of Wallace at the Natural History Museum in London alongside one of his heroes, David Attenborough.

If it seems like an odd tangent for a comedian to take, but Bailey isn't your average comedian.

His self-deprecating comedy is full of meandering stories, audiences following him down a circuitous route that doesn't always end in a traditional punchline. Bizarre tales are punctuated with songs he's written - he plays almost every instrument you can name - and delivered with a shake of his shaggy, half-head of hair.

(Sidenote: in 2007, fans began a petition to see him cast as a dwarf in The Hobbit. It was sent to producers, but did not gain traction.)

The boy from Keynsham, a tiny town in the west of England, began dabbling in stand-up in 1984. After years of touring, in 1996 he was nominated for the Perrier Comedy Award which launched him into his own BBC TV show, Is this Bill Bailey?

He began touring internationally in 2001, and this season has seen him include Europe on his schedule - from town halls in Latvia to theatres in Estonia.

But Bailey, now 50, says it never gets easy.

"It should be about trying something new, always. You know you're trying an idea, a thought, telling a story, trying to have a view, trying to crystallise some idea you've had about life, try to impart a bit of wisdom you've learned along the way, and at the same time trying to make people laugh for a couple of hours. You should never make it easy for yourself and I try not to."

Bailey's answers are all like this: Contemplative and lengthy, with a rhythm you could almost beat a drum to. On stage, some of his more surreal stories almost seem designed to baffle. How does he make sure that audience are with him?

He laughs. "I suppose you'd hope that they are, and occasionally I'll stop and say: ‘Are we all going the same way here?' I think the benefit of having done [this] for a number of years is that you are able to gauge that moment a bit better."

With age has also come confidence, and while he has set pieces around which a show is grounded, he feels able to have fun with the audience. "More and more I've realised that I sort of start to let go a little bit, and just see where the show might take me."

The rise of social media has also given Bailey the chance to engage with fans. While initially sceptical of Twitter, Bailey decided he needed a profile when he found no less than four impostors.

"I was on Twitter by default, really. I didn't know much about it and then I investigated Twitter and I realised there was a fake Bill Bailey who was attracting a lot of interest and that just freaked me out," he says.

"Then it turned out there was another one, and then in fact there were four fake Bill Baileys at one point.

"One of them dropped out, another one gave up, and the other two persevered for a bit, and then I thought I'm going to have to announce myself here and say ‘it's me! I'm Bill Bailey!' It was a very odd experience but I thought I had to, social media is a vacuum and if you don't have a presence there then someone else will fill it."

His new show, Limboland, explores the differences between how people think their life will turn out and the reality.

As always, it features songs: about the world, about the Ukraine, a country and western song played on a musical bible, and a downbeat version of Happy Birthday. The show, Bailey says, is reflective of where he finds himself.

"Limboland is this place we all inhabit that we never sort of expected - the gap between contentment and happiness, that kind of halfway stage.

"I guess I'm in that stage of life, a sort of transition. I was this sort of feckless, callow youth that used to do material about getting stoned with my mates, and now I sort of aspire to maybe do something else with a bit more thought. This documentary journey, this kind of year of Wallace really had this kind of deep effect on me, and perhaps that's it, that's what I'm in. I'm in limbo."

In another life, Bailey reckons he would be a musician of sorts - or even a teacher. He realised the latter just a couple of days ago, while helping his 10-year-old son with the piano.

"He said ‘I'm having a bit of problem with this piece of music' and I said ‘I can help you if you want' and we spent an hour. I realised I kind of like teaching, and I like imparting things, and I realised that's probably a great part of the stand-up stuff that I've done. I always try for there to be something in there that you can take away.

"As we were walking that night my son said, ‘Dad, you really are quite an awesome teacher', and I thought oh! Suddenly that was one of the nicest walks I've had for a long time."

You can catch Bill Bailey's Limboland in Wellington on Saturday, November 1. It will also be travelling to Christchurch, Auckland, Hamilton and New Plymouth.

Sunday Star Times