Bill Bailey interview: The Jungle Book, Doctor Who, Star Trek

We met the actor and comedian Bill Bailey (the same person), to talk about his role as Baloo in a new Jungle Book audio production…

Bill Bailey has had a soft spot in geek hearts since time immemorial (aka the 1990s), with roles in Spaced, Black Books and Doctor Who complimenting his uncountable appearances on Never Mind The Buzzcocks and other assorted panel shows. Of course, the man can put on a hell of a show by himself, as well.

Now, Bill Bailey has signed up for the role of Baloo in Audible’s new audio production of The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories. We met up with Bill Bailey at Audible’s recording studios to discuss The Jungle Book, the chances of him cameo-ing in Star Trek Beyond, and a whole lot more besides…

So, what made you want to get involved with The Jungle Book?

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Well! Well, there’s loads of reasons aren’t there? It’s a classic piece of children’s literature. It’s a great piece of literature, never mind whether it’s for kids or not. You know? It’s just in its own right. And, er, also I read the script, which I thought was excellent, and really captured the essence of Kipling’s original.

And, it’s funny, and it’s dramatic, and it’s quite serious. And, you know, it deals with all kinds of serious issues. And, I think it captures the original in a way that is, in a way, a sort of antidote to the rather saccharine nature of the Disney version.

Which I think probably is the one which everyone thinks of when you mention The Jungle Book. It’s so entrenched in our minds, that having a different take on it is very timely. It’s quite… lyrical, and quite, almost, old-fashioned script. But, that’s what really attracted me to it.

Baloo is obviously a terrifically funny character, in the film version. What’s your take? How’s your Baloo different to the ones we’ve seen before?

Well, I think that, the first thing is – we’re talking about just listening to the words. And the sounds. One of the great things about Baloo is – he was very physical. There’s a lot of slapstick. Physically, he’s quite funny. There’s this big rotund waddling creature, you know? So, there’s a way of trying to convey that just through sound.

And, I think, maybe it’s more about him as quite a warm avuncular character he’s become. There’s more of the warmer, teacher element of Baloo that comes out in this one, I think. And, you know, because the one who speaks up for him originally. Initially, in this script. The wolf pack are trying to decide what to do with Mowgli, and Baloo says ‘look, I’ll look after him, I’ll take responsibility, I’ll teach him.’

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And so, he kind of takes on that role, and it’s a bit more… that element comes out more, and then there’s this anguish, when Baloo loses him. That really comes out as well, he’s like a sort of slightly scruffy uncle that’s been left in charge of the kids and then he’s left them at a bus stop or something. You know what I mean? And he’s like [deep inhale] ‘Oh my god! What have I done with them?’

So, you know, there’s that element of it!

Did you take inspiration from Phil Harris’ performance from the film at all?

I didn’t listen to any other versions, I think you don’t want to. Subconsciously, you might get tainted with someone else’s take on it. So, I just tried to avoid all that.

Why do you think The Jungle Book is so timeless a story, why do we keep coming back to it?

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I think the central idea is something that’s timeless. The idea of growing up, and what I see it as – it’s very much, you could take it as all sorts of allegories. I take it as the rebelliousness of youth, and eventually you have to accept who you are. And it’s very much about that. He’s taken out of his world, and he thinks he’s accepted by this one group, and he finally has to realise ‘actually, no, I have to let go and move on.’

They’re quite serious issues, they’re quite serious subjects, but I think kids are perfectly capable of understanding them and seeing what it’s about. And I think it’s quite touching, it’s very sad, and at the same time it’s a rollicking tale, and it’s scary and funny and ultimately it’s quite sad and very touching.

You know, there’s the scene where Mowgli has to say goodbye to Bagheera, and he realises ‘that’s it, I’ll never go back to the jungle,’ and he’s back to the human world. It’s extremely sad, a very sad scene. There’s elements of that, but then also throughout the story there’s elements of self-reliance and a morality and an order of things that Mowgli has to learn. Which is, sort of, could apply to any society really.

Has it been a benefit for you to come in and actually record it with the other actors, rather than all doing your bits separately?

Oh yeah, it’s much easier when there’s people there to play off. Saying the lines and then leaving a gap is never quite the same as another actor filling in the lines. So, it was brilliant – such fun. There’s some excellent actors involved with it, and it’s – as a comic – good being part of something. A collaborative process.

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Normally, with stand-up, it’s quite solitary, you write the material on your own, you perform it on your own, it’s all very much on you. Your own thoughts. You have to sort of modulate your own performance. Direct it, perform it. It’s all about your own thoughts. You go slightly bonkers with it, you know? You go down the rabbit hole with it, really.

Whereas, with a team, with other people, it’s a bit more relaxing. It’s why I love doing things like this – films, plays, audio books – where there’s other cast members. Yes, it’s like you think ‘I can relax a bit here, slot in with my bit, do a bear roar now and again, cup of tea – what a day!’

Do you think the audio book is in for a big resurgence? Well, bigger than it already is…

I hope so! I mean, I’ve been listening to them for years, I love them. I guess it just becomes easier to access these things, I think it can only get bigger. Um, people start listening to them on their phones and tablets. You can put whole reams of books on your phone, and just listen to them on the train or whatever.

I think it can only improve, and the way you’ll be able to get this stuff is a lot easier. I remember buying great big boxes of cassette tapes, and putting them in the car, and listening to them on long journeys. Now you can sit and download a bunch of stuff while you’re stuck at a… well, for me it would be airports. Waiting for a plane, you just go ‘ah, I’ll get a few books and listen to them!’

There’s something nice about it being read out to you. I mean, that’s the other thing. For me, audio books was about when you can’t actually physically get hold of a book, like when you’re driving. It’s a fantastic companion on a long journey.

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So, I hope so, I think the fact that… this whole world of literature, is going to be available to people. And I hope that with an interesting narrator, it brings it to life.

The last time Den Of Geek interviewed you was a few years ago, when you were doing Guide To The Orchestra

Oh yeah…

You said then that you would love to make a Star Trek cameo. Now that Simon Pegg is doing the script, have you got him on speed dial for nagging purposes?

Well, that’s it, exactly! I’m just sitting around… waiting [laughs]. But yeah, that’d be great. A baffled Klingon. One of the Klingons who’s just not quite as switched on as the other ones. Maybe like a Romulan bee-keeper or something. Just that, I’d be happy with that!

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Since then, you’ve appeared in another geeky institution, Doctor Who. How big a moment was that for you, as a sci-fi fan?

Ah, well. Having grown up with Doctor Who, obviously that was a big moment. And certainly the business of filming it was… as if I needed any reminder of how big a show it is, and how popular it is… the effort that people will go to to find out about it. We were sort of screened off from where we were filming. So these rabid Doctor Who fans couldn’t suddenly invade the set.

So, it was fascinating. And also, the effect it had… the amount of photographs of me, dressed as this space woodsman. Essentially a space parky. The amount of photographs people send me, it’s just gone a bit silly. It’s like ‘can you sign this? Can you sign this? Can you sign this?’

There’s been a massive spike in requests for photographs, of me in character. And, of course, I got a lot of respect from the kids. My son and his pals were very impressed. And anyhow, it’s an institution isn’t it? I remember hiding behind the sofa when the Sea Devils came out of the sea, and the Cybermen!

I have an abiding fear of lifts thanks to the Cybermen. Because there was a scene, where he opens the lift door and there’s a Cyberman right there. And I always think that, when the lift doors open, you know? ‘AH!’ I always get a shiver…

Did you know that you’re also in a Doctor Who book? I was looking up your episode, and the Who wiki also said you were mentioned in a book.

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Oh, no! Really?

Yeah, it’s called The Tomorrow Windows and it says you attended the launch of this new gadget that lets you see the future. Stephen Hawking, Blur and Richard Curtis also attended…

Wow! Fantastic! It sounds great, I wish I had gone. I wish it had come real!

What else is on your slate at the moment, then, besides attending futuristic gadget launches?

Well, I’ve got a tour about to come up. In September. It’s called Limboland, my new show. It goes all around the UK and then we head to the West End at Christmas. And then it just carries on, it rumbles on into the New Year. More UK dates, then Europe as well, which has become a bit of a new place to play. It’s amazing. All these people understand English, they speak perfect English, and they want to see British comedy. That’ll take me up for the next year or so!

Brilliant! And are you still working on a children’s show about music? That’s one you mentioned to us before…

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Yeah! Funnily enough, we had a meeting about that just a few days ago. The idea was that it was about sound and music, and I think that it may emerge in a slightly different form. But, certainly, yes, it’s one that we’ve been keeping on, bubbling away, for ages.

A lot of the time, you need to find the right home for ideas. You know, sometimes you think ‘oh this’d be a sitcom, oh, no it wouldn’t, it’d be a drama, or an educational thing, or a doco or something.’ I’ve got loads of ideas and you just have to keep sending them and pitching them. Because, eventually, the time, the slot, the broadcaster, all of those elements will align, and they’ll go ‘yeah, we want that.’ But yeah, it’s hard sometimes, but you need to keep plugging away. And that’s what we’re doing!

Bill Bailey, thank you very much!

The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories is available from Audible, here.

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