Interviewing Bill Bailey comes with a small caveat: he reads everything. So be nice, or you might end up in his show. One hapless journalist who referred to Bailey’s “egg-shaped head” and hair that “flows like a shower curtain down his back” ended up having their description mocked on stage every night in his show Part Troll. “People get very creative in their descriptions of my physical demeanour,” Bailey admits. “I don’t have a team of image consultants, much as you may find that surprising. It’s down to my own laziness, I suppose, it’s something that’s not really bothered me. I’m aware of it, because they say ‘Oh, you look like this, you look like that’, and every single review, ‘Oh, the wurzel-head, the bearded thing’, and I think, ‘Blimey, I hadn’t really paid it much attention.’”
Bailey loves to talk. We go fifteen minutes overtime (“Yup, that’s him!” says his unfazed publicist blithely) and I don’t get to half of my questions. Far from seeing journalists as a necessary evil taking up his valuable time, though, the actor, musician and comic – whose inventive live shows incorporate all these talents – finds long stints of interviews useful to his process. “Very often, you’re in a writing mode; I’m writing the show, I’m immersed in the show, performing the show, writing the show, making notes, recording the show, listening to the tapes, going back, making notes, meeting with lighting people, stage people, working with filmmakers – you get totally wrapped up in the mechanics of the show,” he says, rapid-fire, “And then I sit down to talk to journalists and try to explain myself, and I very often realise in the midst of it I actually figure out what the show’s about.”
In its present form not even Bailey knows what it will look like by the time it arrives on our shores in September. The new show Qualmpeddler has been heavily influenced by a trip to China Bailey took with his family in April this year, although he also promises a “reggae, Jamaican, dub version of Downton Abbey.” He explains that it’s been one of his long-held goals to travel there. “In 1989 I was touring around Japan with a theatre company, and at the end of the tour we were going to do some shows in Beijing,” Bailey explains. “And it was all planned, we were all ready to go, and then Tiananmen Square happened. So that was the end of that. And our flights were cancelled, and we couldn’t go, and we ended up going to Hong Kong instead. And I remember very vividly the signs that were up around the place, saying ‘Fax the Truth to China’. Other modes of communication like phone, mail and Telex were all monitored. But faxes, for some reason, were getting through, and that was the only way that people in Hong Kong could get the information to China, and tell people in China what was happening.”
China these days, Bailey says, is a fascinating place to visit. At one point, he bought a live owl that was offered to him in a restaurant and later released it into the wild. “I did not eat an owl,” he says. “I would not eat an owl. And the other thing is, there can’t be all that much meat on an owl, really. I know owls, and there’s not much to them.” He had better dining experiences later, in Yunan province, he says. “Pine needle salad was something I’d never had before, but it was strangely tasty. I actually really liked it. It’s like they had no idea what to do with the Christmas tree at the end. ‘No, no, don’t chuck it out! Put it in a bowl with some dressing on it!’”
More than anything, though, he was struck by the strangeness of the oppressive political culture. “You have to get a guide to take you around,” he recalls. “And I was trying to talk to her about Mao, and Mao’s legacy, and she would almost look over her shoulder and say, ‘Yes, he was a great leader,’ and then lean in and whisper, ‘But he made a few mistakes.’ And you say, ‘Yeah, 70 million dead in peacetime, that could be a mistake’. And they just laugh nervously and say, ‘Anyway, here are the tombs!’”
The Qualmpeddler tour poster draws on Maoist propaganda artwork, with Bailey in a Mao-style jumpsuit towering over a phalanx of people with whom he has, one presumes, qualms: Kardashians, the Assads, Simon Cowell, Flash Gordon villain Emperor Ming. “It’s a pastiche of an actual early Mao propaganda poster. And that particular pose was a denunciation. And all of those people who are now celebrities and dictators were all factory workers, pointing at this individual grovelling on the factory floor. And then there was this giant, beneficent Mao, floating above them, pointing at all of them, denouncing them. And there was blossom, and all these people working in the fields. And it looks like this wonderful photo of harmony, but the reality is that it’s basically someone being hounded to death. And that’s the duality of the whole Mao era: beautiful art depicting scenes of cruelty and horror. It’s an extraordinary painting.
“And this is the brilliant, delicious irony of the whole thing,” Bailey goes on, both a little horrified at himself and proud. “There is a service in China where people will hand-paint the poster. So I will get a genuine pastiche of a Mao-era propaganda poster made in China. So that seems very fitting.”
BY CAITLIN WELSH
Bill Bailey’s Qualmpeddler shows at Hamer Hall Monday September 10, Tuesday September 11, Wednesday September 12 and Thursday September 13.