Bill Bailey's lyrical love affair with German

Alex Evans
Alex Evans - [email protected]
Bill Bailey's lyrical love affair with German
The Local spoke to British comedian Bill Bailey when he brought his European "Qualmpeddler" tour to Berlin. Photo: Josie Le Blond

Germany may not be British comedy's natural home, but it hasn't stopped comic Bill Bailey visiting Berlin on his whistle-stop Europe tour. The Local caught up with him under a giant fish tank to pick his brains.


It appears Bill Bailey doesn't tire easily.

Arriving laden with suitcases and guitars for our meeting in a Berlin hotel straight off a delayed flight from Vienna, Bailey sat down, sipped an Earl Grey tea, and immediately adopted the same air of jovial whimsy he does on stage.

Even the hotel lobby's giant suspended aquarium above our heads only flummoxed him for a moment.

Impressive for a comedian who's spent the last two weeks gigging in a different European country almost every night, chasing his tour bus to the next venue by day.

“It's been mad,” he said. “I've got a wallet full of strange-looking money and I have these weird days, like yesterday in Vienna I said thank you to a waiter in Estonian.”

"I'm getting a handle on all these languages and then I forget where I am."

Bailey's latest live show "Qualmpeddler" – which has toured 10 countries so far including Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – hit Berlin's Quatsch comedy club on Wednesday night. When The Local spoke to him just before the show, he said the tour was "laying the ground" for more visits to the continent.

"I'm already talking about doing a big tour of Germany, playing lots of cities and venues," he explained.

Bailey has played one-off gigs in Germany's major cities before, but his relationship to the country doesn't stop there. He's read Goethe, regularly exchanges German articles with a Berlin-born friend, and has fond memories of his German teacher at school.

He also recalled a friendship with a German exchange pupil in his childhood.

"What was his name again? Georg" – 'Gay-org', he says in the German pronunciation – "unfortunate for him in Britain, school kids, you know."

Bailey certainly seems to have a handle on German, often translating songs from English for comic effect on stage. He even treated us to a tantalizing preview of "Demolitionsball" - an in-the-works German language parody of the Miley Cyrus hit Wrecking Ball.

"I'm not 100 percent on the translation just yet," the 49-year-old admitted.

'Lyrical German'

In fact, he's so taken with Deutsch that Bailey's latest show includes an impassioned defence of the German language.

"There's this cliché that German is a very harsh language, but it's not, it's soft and lyrical," he said, a far cry from his Black Books co-star Dylan Moran's belief that German sounds "like typewriters eating tin-foil being kicked down the stairs".

But for all his defence of the Teutonic tongue, there's no doubt Bailey revels in its comic possibilities.

His translated rendition of Lionel Richie's "Three Times a Lady" (einmal, zweimal, dreimal eine Dame) prompted an audience member to correct Bailey's vocab, to which the long-haired comic's response was: "First heckle of the show in Berlin and it's a grammar correction – that is in no way stereotypical!"

Bailey's final encore even ended with a surprisingly well-pronounced German language version of Abba's "Waterloo" in the style of 1990s metal band Rammstein.

His songs are reminiscent of Bailey's earlier Kraftwerk-inspired version of "Das Hokey Kokey", a song parodying the minimalist electronic group from Düsseldorf. Bailey said he had been a big fan of the group's work since his schooldays in the early 1970s.

"'The Model' was the first one I encountered, but since then it's everything, especially 'Autobahn'."

Bailey said the band were a sight to behold live.

"It's amazing to see the reaction, there's just these four bank managers checking their emails on stage, and people go nuts."

"I think one of them moved their ankle at one point," he said.

'I'm a European'

Bailey, who grew up in England's west country and now lives in London, has introduced more political material into this European tour than his previous shows such as "Part Troll" and "Bewilderness".

He explained it was because issues like "the rise of the right, voter apathy, the cult of celebrity, superficial culture" affect all European countries, not just his native Britain – especially in the wake of the recent EU elections, which he followed closely.

“I think we need to forge stronger ties with Europe, you know, I'm a European, I don't think that we [Britain] should pull up the drawbridge and just opt out."

"You have to engage with Europe," he said. "There's no point in going backwards."

The comedian, who appeared in long-running British panel shows Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI, as well as the hit 2000 sitcom Black Books, told The Local he was mystified by those who attacked Germany's leading role in Europe.

"Countries have proved that they're mismanaged politically and financially, and then there's a lot of criticism about Germany and Merkel running the show.

"And I just think, yeah – but what else where you going to do? Are we all just going to fracture and collapse?"

But Bailey said his biggest political bugbear was anti-EU parties, as he couldn't get behind their arguments on integration and immigration. The very mention of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party raised a weary frown.

"They're just beyond satire, they're beyond parody.

"If I have to see another one of their stupid faces, Nigel Farage's stupid grinning face with a pint ...," Bailey said before trailing off with a sigh.

"I find that anti-European rhetoric so hollow.

"You think, well, what are you suggesting? What else have you got?”

"On this tour I've talked to British people all around Europe who because of the EU have been able to come and work, set up businesses and employ people," he added. "Surely that's a good thing."

And Britain seems especially affected by a fear of European integration, he said.

"Perhaps being an island there's a general sense of Europhobia…a kind of island mentality."

The suggestion that maybe the Brits were truly "Inselaffen" – island apes – a modern German nickname mocking the UK's pride in being isolated from the mainland, went down well with Bailey.

"Yeah," he agreed, "like those animals in the zoo, that can't get off Monkey Island, going 'AAAGH! HELP US!'"

Bill Bailey is playing another two venues in Norway this weekend before heading back to the UK.

SEE ALSO: Eddie Izzard on adventures in languages


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