Bill Bailey: "I Don’t Think Anyone Expected It, On Either Side Of The Vote"

4 October 2018 | 3:53 pm | Sam Wall

Bill Bailey, the self-titled 'Earl Of Whimsy', talks to Sam Wall about England's 2,000-year feud with the neighbours and "the absurdity in nationality and nationalism".

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It's unlikely there are many people who can say they've been named a nation's foremost "rock goblin". For comedian, actor and author Bill Bailey, it's just one of many colourful labels he's acquired over the years, falling somewhere between "a martial arts master in mufti" and "a Jedi of juxtaposition". “Which, I kind of quite like that,” admits Bailey. “‘Hobbit on speed’, that was another one. One was, ‘The sort of guy who runs the local drum hire shop.’ Which, is very specific."

Chatting with the affable and articulate humourist it seems reductive to pin his appeal to a beard and an odd haircut, but then even Bailey’s press refers to him as a “straggle-haired polymath”, and the comedian is the first to admit his idiosyncratic style is somewhat of a magnet for hyperbole.

“They’re drawn to that,” says Bailey. “They like the visual. We’re a very visual-based society, everything is about how you look and how you are, visually. So yes, I guess that’s what it is. And I’ve toyed with the idea of not having the beard and the hair, but, you know, I can’t be bothered to change it,” he laughs.

“I’ve been called all kinds of things, over the years. People have come up with names, and nicknames, and this and that - and, you know, that’s all fine… I just thought, ‘You know what [laughs], sometimes you’ve got to control your own narrative, and you know what? I think I had better think up my own title for myself and call myself that.’"

As well as reclaiming his own name, Bailey’s new show Earl Of Whimsy started with the aim of creating “an escapist sanctuary” from England’s current political situation, a lee in the deluge of Brexit chatter following the United Kingdoms’ vote to leave the European Union.

"What is the British way? Who are we? Where do we come from?"

“I think there’s been a lot of soul-searching in the last couple of years, in Britain,” says Bailey“Because it was quite a sort’ve, shock, really. The result of the referendum. I don’t think anyone expected it, on either side of the vote.

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“I mean, it’s been quite divisive, in many ways,” he continues. “Because there’s millions of people who voted one way and millions who voted another way, and this is a sort’ve, permanent state of affairs. It’s not very much like an election, where, you vote, somebody gets in and - people who prove to be very divisive, you know, like Trump, he proves to be very divisive. Some people love him, some people hate him - but the electoral process will mean that you can vote him out, you know, eventually. 

“With Brexit, it’s very much, like, this is almost a once in a generation - well, longer than that. I mean, this is probably the most significant constitutional change we’ve had since the War, the Second World War. So it’s quite a big thing that has kind of dominated the public discourse in the last two years, to the point where you virtually cannot escape it. And to the point some people are driven to distraction with it.”

So, at least to begin with, Earl Of Whimsy was conceived as “a bit of a haven from not talkin’ about it” - a chance to be distracted from the state of the world by ‘dismantled jokes, crowd singalongs, weird instruments and musical showstoppers’. “Of course,” Bailey says, “inevitably I ended up just ranting about it one night, and I thought, ‘Aw for god’s sake.’

“But I tried to channel that in a good way, like, ‘Well… How can we, y’know, get some good out of this?’ [Which] led to a sort of a conversation, nationally, about what it is to be British; ‘What is the British way? Who are we? Where do we come from?’

“I just became fascinated with this ancient history, this sort of, fractious relationship that Britain has had with Europe over the centuries. And it’s a real revelation to me to see how little has changed," chuckles Bailey. "You know, 2,000 years and we still mistrust the people across the channel. So we’re a very strange, odd bunch.”

Britain’s tumultuous, multi-millennial relationship with its neighbours, capped by Brexit, sounds like thick material for an hour of stand-up, but Bailey's inspirations often seem more academic than comic. This is the man that wrote a three-minute pub joke in the style of Chaucer. It's also a conversation that has become unavoidable when talking about contemporary England, if only because the referendum seems so unreal, even two years later.

“What Brexit has done, is prompted the rest of the world to then pass comment on Britain, and the British, and there’s an enormous number of news column inches have been written about what this is, what the vote is. A lot of it is obviously quite, ah, shall we say mocking? To the point of [laughs] sort of disbelief, bafflement, you know, like, ‘What have they done!?’ hand-wringing. ‘Oh my god, what have they done!? The Brits, they were so steady and now look at ‘em.’

"I guess it sort of made me, not just me - a lot of artists, comedians - it’s done the same thing. It’s sort of made us examine ourselves a little bit and find the absurdity in nationality and nationalism."

"We’re all trying to feel positive [laughs]. Whatever we can find to find positive about it, we will. Because at the moment it’s pretty depressing."

“Anywhere in the world, in a restaurant, if somebody drops a tray, most people in the world will just, like, look away embarrassed and go, ‘Oh, poor guy, dropped a tray of drinks.’ Brits will cheer. They’ll go, ‘Woo-aayyy!’ Like that... It’s like this is the dropped drinks tray of all dropped drinks trays, this is the mother of all dropped drinks trays. This is like, ‘Woo-aayyy! Look what we’ve done, Wa-haow [laughs]. Aargh brilliant! Stick it up ya, bloody Europe.’ So that’s how we get through it really, is to try and laugh at our own absurdity. And hopefully, that will long continue, beyond the point that Brexit will be - people will have forgotten about it, hopefully, at one stage.”