8 Jul 2023

'Happiness is elusive' - Bill Bailey on the joys of ambling and rambling

From Saturday Morning, 4:30 pm on 8 July 2023
Bill Bailey

Photo: supplied

Bill Bailey walked 100 miles in memory of his late friend Sean Lock last year, inspired by the hikes the two comics used to take together.

Bailey has become evangelical about the benefits of a good walk, as an opportunity for blokes to be a bit more open with each other about difficult subjects.

The comedian, musician and actor - best known for his film and television work on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI, and the award winning Black Books - was also host of the first season of NZ hit comedy panel show Patriot Brains.

He's returning to Aotearoa in November and December for a 14-date tour of his new show Thoughtifier.

As the pandemic has receded, Bailey told Saturday Morning’s Kim Hill that he's happy to once again resume touring.

"I love it because I get to see places. I'm not much of a tourist, I like to go somewhere to do something, to have purpose, and that's what touring provides me with.

"You entertain people, you talk to people, you work there and you get to know a place."

Bailey said he likes to get out and do things - such as swimming with a whale shark in Australia recently.

"I want get the most out of every minute of every day because lord knows how many of them are left."

Bailey's good friend and fellow comedian Sean Lock died of cancer in 2021 at age 58, and Bailey said the experience changed him. Bailey also wrote a book, his Remarkable Guide To Happiness.

"When someone very close to you is going through that and living with such a diagnosis, and you don't quite know how it will pan out, it does make you think, actually. Certainly made me consider my own mortality.

"Maybe it brings those things into sharper relief because you focus then on what's important and you try to sift out the things that aren't, and you then perhaps focus on the things that make you happiest.

"Because happiness of course is elusive, it can be slippery, mercurial, how do we pin it down? I think a lot of times people don't quite know what it is."

One of Bailey's new projects is the British TV series Perfect Pub Walks, which he says is about more than just popping into a pub.

"It's not really about pub walks, it's about walking, it's a walking show.

"What it's about is about the nature of walking, how it elicits conversations that you perhaps didn't expect. It frees people up to talk in a way that's not quite so, shall we say, intense.

"If you're sitting across a table looking at someone eye to eye it's difficult sometimes to break that spell. But if you're walking side by side with someone, you're stopping, you're admiring the view, conversations tend to flow in a way that's slightly freer."

Among his walking partners on the programme were ITN journalist Sir Trevor McDonald and Shaun Ryder of the band Happy Mondays.

"People would talk about all sorts of things, and they found themselves like, 'I don't really talk about this, I never really have this conversation, but I'm glad that I did.'"

Bailey said that you see confused young men turning to people like controversial misogynist Andrew Tate, possibly as a result of uncertainty about what it means to be a man in 2023.

"The problem with men that they feel by talking about this, people are going to go 'Toughen up, princess,' and that's what happens. And yet society demands men to be sensitive as well.

"So many young men are thinking what am I supposed to be, who am I supposed to be? Am I supposed to be tough, am I supposed to be sensitive? Who am I, what am I?"

Bailey said for blokes, there's unexpected mental health benefits from going for a good stroll together.

"The act of walking with someone, you form a bond, a companionship and you sort of feel you're able to talk about anything. I think it's a much underrated activity."

He's less enthusiastic about a place like Twitter, which, as far as he's concerned, is a "vituperative swamp of unpleasantness".

He's scaled back his own posting on the platform bought by billionaire Elon Musk last year.

"I can't be bothered with it any more. ... It's a shame, because there was some good things about it, but I can't be done with it now.

"I think the fact (Musk) allowed back onto Twitter all of these banned accounts that had been banned with good reason, that sort of poisons the well of public discourse."

Bailey said the tone of Twitter has notably changed in the past year or two. 

"It once had a kind of civic power, not just a sort of endless shouting about trivia."

So what to do instead? Well, Bailey recalled a recent visit to an Australian pub where he ended up singing with "a bunch of blokes who sing sea shanties in pubs".

"Honestly, I think singing might... My avowed hope is that people start joining choirs and go singing in pubs and find that's the way forward, not just saying 240 characters of bile."