Strictly star Bill Bailey on how winning the show changed him

Entertainer Bill Bailey playing a keyboard on stage.

Bill Bailey is a skilled musician - everything from guitar to the didgeridoo. - Credit: Andy Hollingsworth

SU CARROLL talks to Bill Bailey about returning to stand-up, the secrets to happiness and the strange impact of winning Strictly Come Dancing… 

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Bailey before. He was then described best as a comedian, musician, writer, nature lover and the star of TV’s Black Books. Today he seems to be summed up simply by the phrase “Glitterball Champion” after lifting the trophy in last year’s Strictly Come Dancing with partner Oti Mabuse. 

“It is weird,” he admits, laughing. “To be admitted to the hallowed halls of dance and become Bill from the dance show; it’s great. It was the last thing I could have possibly imagined until ‘that thing’ happened.  

“I had been asked before but it’s a huge time commitment for yourself for weeks and weeks. When the show goes on it’s the run-up to Christmas and I’m normally on tour. So when gigs were cancelled because of covid, I thought it might be a laugh. But 13 weeks?  

“It was a wonderful experience, especially reading the comments and the things people sent to me and the messages and letters,” says Bill. “We were all having a really rough time of it last year. Then the nights were drawing in, we couldn’t go out or see friends and family and the final blow was when Christmas was cancelled as well. The show was already very popular anyway because it’s great escapism but it took on a greater intensity when people were locked in their own homes and couldn’t go out. 

“People find the story, the ‘journey’, to discovering dance quite compelling and people like an underdog, it’s a very British thing. It drew people together – I had so many messages from my own family and from people around the world. It spread exponentially in terms of its reach and how people were connected to it.” 

Bill is a very skilled musician – everything from piano, clarinet and guitar to the bouzouki, didgeridoo and theremin. So did Strictly give him a new relationship with music? 

“Naturally. Whenever I hear music I automatically will slide into whatever the rhythm is. I’ll be walking in a supermarket and will co-ordinate my moves – I have programmed choreography into my life,” he laughs. 

Entertainer Bill Bailey holding a guitar. 

Bill has a whole new feel for the rhythm of music after winning Strictly Come Dancing. - Credit: Andy Hollingsworth

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“One thing that has happened, is that when people asked for a photograph, I never knew where to stand and I would be very awkward. After Strictly, it’s head up, shoulders down, I look at my posture and there’s one leg out, toe pointed.  

“I don’t even know I’m doing it now. I stopped at a garage to get petrol when I was driving to see my dad and a chap came up and asked for a selfie which was posted on Facebook. There he is, slumped, in a high vis jacket and there’s me, ramrod straight, toe pointed and I don’t even remember that.  

“I was talking to Rose [Ayling-Ellis, partnered with Giovanni Pernice this year] and she says exactly the same thing happened to her,” he says.  

“I was talking to her about how her deafness is almost to her advantage in the way that she does her routine. The first step in a dance is so important and if you get that wrong your whole routine goes out the window. She counts in her head all the steps which is incredible.  

“When you are in the rehearsal room, the music is usually on a phone. When you are in the studio everything feels slightly slower with the sound bouncing around the big space at Elstree. You have humans playing instruments and it doesn’t sit exactly on the beat so for the first few dance routines I was ahead of the beat. Oti kept saying ‘rein it in’. 

“The other thing, when you are in the moment, is that you want to feel the other dancer’s movement, to feel connected to them. When Rose and Giovanni did the routine for the Viennese Waltz where they used sign language was to her great advantage because, in a way, you’re doing something where not speaking works brilliantly.” 

Bill is now returning to stand up with a show he started writing before covid struck, En Route to Normal. “It sounds prescient – if I was writing it now I might put a question mark at the end,” he says. “I wrote it as a reaction to the general state of things. Everything seemed to be in a state of flux. When I was a kid, it seemed like a more stable time. A lot of the show is about the experience of lockdown and trying to be creative.  

“It’s also about all the sounds of lockdown – I’ve got the Skype theme as performed by an ’80s punk band. And I’ve listened to birdsong and created music around them. Sounds revealed themselves and connected us to the past.” 

Bill Bailey’s tour will kick off in Devon this month. Born and raised in the West Country, it feels like home, as he explains: “I always like to start in the West Country because it’s not far from places I know and love. I’m looking forward to it.” 

  • Bill Bailey’s En Route To Normal tour begins at Plymouth Pavilions on December 12 and 13. Buy tickets here
Entertainer Bill Bailey smiling for the camera.

Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to Happiness was written in lockdown. - Credit: Gillian Robertson

Bringing happiness to book 

Never one to stand still for long, lockdown lead to Bill writing a book inspired by sorting through his things and archiving them.  

“I had time to archive material and I was looking at transcripts,” he explains. “When I delved into the memories, I found that a lot of what I’ve written and performed was about happiness.  The circumstances in which we all found ourselves offered a moment to have a pause and take a moment to reflect about what’s important in life.  

“It seemed the right thing to talk about. It was about more than just a pleasurable event, it had a deeper resonance. A lot of books miss the point. It’s not just about pleasure.” 

Bill ends his book with something he said in his show Limboland. “Contentment is knowing that you’re right. Happiness is knowing that someone else is wrong.” 

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness is published by Quercus