Strictly winner Bill Bailey is pictured above with wife Kris
Almost a week after he won
‘It feels surreal, extraordinary and wonderful, all at the same time,’ he says, beaming.
Last Saturday night, at the age of 55, Bill made a little bit of Strictly history by becoming the oldest contestant to lift the glitterball trophy since the show began in 2004.
On his route to twinkle-toed victory, he beat fellow finalists
It was a hugely popular result for the comedian, musician and author who has starred in sitcoms such as Black Books and Skins and is also a regular participant in panel shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI. Yet way back in October, when this Covid-depleted 18th series began, Bill seemed the unlikeliest of potential victors.
For a start, he is not your average Strictly celebrity contestant, given that he even hates the word ‘celebrity’ and has never considered himself one.
Not even when he was being hosed down with fake tan, stuck underneath a sequinned top hat or poured into fringed cowboy trousers to dance a paso doble in front of a wagon in Movie Week.
Now he reveals it wasn’t just his age that was against him — he had to triumph over various health problems, too. Bill is asthmatic and last year was also diagnosed as pre-diabetic. With a history of diabetes in his family he had to completely overhaul his diet and lifestyle — out went sugar, in came wholegrains and avocados.
He also has bad posture and a slouch from a back injury — a crushed spinal disc — he received over 20 years ago when lifting a heavy stage prop.
Then, last year on holiday in Indonesia, he slipped in his Crocs while walking to a temple, where, coincidentally, he was going to see a dance performance. ‘Blam,’ he said. ‘My legs went out from under me. I thought I had broken a few ribs but I was OK. Just typically clumsy me.’
Clumsy, creaky, a little bit wheezy? An old crock in Crocs? I think we can all agree that the omens were not good. When he burst onto the screen in week one, wearing yellow satin trousers to perform the cha-cha-cha with his professional dance partner Oti Mabuse, it was the first time since they met over 30 years ago that his wife had ever seen him do a formal dance.
‘I knew he had a sense of rhythm. I knew he wouldn’t make a total fool of himself. But it was still quite a moment,’ says Kristin, 58, a former costume designer who has been her husband’s business manager for the last ten years.
‘Our small family business,’ is how he describes it.
Bill only decided to take part in the show in late spring, when the pandemic laid waste to his global touring schedule, with dates in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere indefinitely postponed.
Like many, Bill found himself at a loose end with a gigantic and unexpected window in his diary. ‘I was stir crazy. My professional life had disappeared,’ he says today.
When Strictly pounced with an offer, he was torn. Should he do it or not? He and Kristin talked it over. ‘We mulled. We discussed. We ummed and ahhed,’ he says.
He is pictured above with Oti Mabuse on Strictly
The pros? He had nothing else to do. ‘It was a way to do something, it was a way to perform,’ he says. Kristin encouraged him to say yes. ‘She was very good at persuading me. She said, “It will be great. You’ll enjoy it. You’ll learn a new skill and it will be fun”.’
It should be noted that Bill had at least danced on television before — although it was with a dog. In a 2008 episode of Skins he performed a country dance with a specially trained sheepdog.
‘I had to learn to dance with the dog and we spent two days rehearsing together. The dog was brilliant. Better than me,’ he says.
The cons? The risk of public humiliation in front of a television audience of millions is huge, as have-a-go heroes but ultimate dance duds such as James Cracknell, Gregg Wallace and Hairy Biker Dave Myers will attest.
‘I just didn’t want to be the donkey on the show,’ says Bill. ‘There is usually a donkey, isn’t there? There is a type. I didn’t want that to be me.’ He had his moment of truth when Strictly bosses called on his mobile when he was in a Tesco car park in July. They needed an answer.
‘I just said, “OK, I’m in! Let’s do it!” And I decided to throw myself into the whole experience.’ And that is exactly what he did.
From day one his ‘brilliant’ partner Oti was a tough taskmaster.
‘No funny money,’ she told him, meaning that they were taking it seriously and that there was no way her charge was going to end up as the series’ comedy contestant. She ticked him off for having ‘Elvis knees’ (‘I can’t help that,’ he said). She wired him into a wooden frame and made him wear a neck brace to improve his posture.
She shouted at him when his shoulders rose up when his elbows were meant to be down.
And he had a lot of trouble with his left leg. ‘It was just uncooperative. Oti would just say move it but it wouldn’t move. It was almost like my left leg was complaining. “Like, why now? After all these years you want me to dance and jump about?” But I just think that as in life, as in legs and as in politics — in order to move forward, the left has to cooperate with the right.’
The pace was gruelling, with ten hours of rehearsal every day and only Sundays off. Bill had to get used not just to ballroom dancing but the shoes that went with it, which he describes as like ‘wearing a leather sock with a heel made from a flint axe head’.
He had to master complicated routines. And as he did so week in and week out, audiences warmed to his determination, musicality and good humour.
‘The show must go on,’ was his Strictly motto and in many ways his struggle but determination to stay positive to keep up echoed the daily difficulties of many. And it cheered us all up. It helped that far from being a comedy turn, it became clear Bill could really dance.
One newspaper called him ‘a latter-day performing minotaur — with the upper body of a superannuated roadie and the pins of a Broadway star’. Judge Craig Revel Horwood described his hand shaping as ‘absolutely extraordinary’.
Shirley Ballas raved — and always played the age card. ‘There are young people who can’t do that. I am in awe,’ she told him, after one dance early in the series. ‘I mean 55, look at you!’
Bill credits Oti with ‘finding something in me, the part of me that could dance’.
Yet he also found out things about himself — and his body. One is that the bottom of his sternum is abnormally large. During one dance when Oti had to push him in the chest with the flat of her hand, she almost screamed. ‘Is that a pacemaker?’ she asked. Hardly encouraging words to hear for a man about to perform a tango in front of ten million people.
Elsewhere Bill carried his asthma reliever with him at all times, but only had to use it on a few occasions — including once when he had an attack after rehearsing a jive routine six times in one evening. Who wouldn’t, really? ‘The jive,’ he gasps in memory, ‘is just so fast.’
Despite all this, he stormed through all eight weeks to ultimate triumph, lifting the glitterball trophy in a final watched by 13.2 million viewers — the highest Strictly audience in eight years.
So where is the trophy now? ‘I’ve put it on the piano, next to my 2012 Spirit of Metal Award, which I think is a nice balance,’ says Bill.
Due to Covid restrictions we do not meet in person, but are Zooming across West London; Bill and Kris in their Hammersmith home, me a few miles away in mine. They are in their conservatory, where a giant cheese plant looms triffid-like behind them and the same squall of winter rain beats against our respective windows.
Earlier they had their socially- distanced photographs taken in the garden, cheerful in the downpour; Kris in a warm hat and coat, Bill in one of the new suits he has had to buy because he has lost so much weight during his Strictly experience. ‘I’ve lost ten kilos and size-wise I’ve gone down from XL to M,’ he says. ‘His shirts are like smocks on him now,’ says Kris.
The weight loss is all the more remarkable when you take into account that he has replaced fat with heavier muscle — but it is not all due to dancing.
Since the pre-diabetic diagnosis, Bill has been on a keto diet; a low-carb, high-fat regimen which has been linked to improvements in insulin sensitivity.
But Strictly training meant he needed carbs, too. For the healthy packed lunches she made for Bill and Oti every day, Kris would add good carbs such as red rice or cauliflower rice along with quiches made from almond flour or vegetable preparations with butternut squash and sweet potato, plus lots of Gwyneth Paltrow’s favourite homemade kale crisps.
Today Bill looks amazing — not just leaner, but more youthful, too. He also reveals that is it not just his body that has been improved by the Strictly schedule — so has his brain. ‘I certainly feel fitter than I did. I’ve shed some weight. I sleep better at night. I feel invigorated and able to focus more.
‘One of the things that really struck me is how much you have to concentrate when you’re dancing. I always thought the physical act of dance would be the hardest thing, but it’s not.
‘Maintaining concentration, zoning out any distraction so you can remember complicated steps while looking like you’re enjoying the performance and maintaining your frame — that’s hard, too.’
He had mixed feelings when host Tess Daly called out that he and Oti had won. ‘There was elation and utter joy — but also a little bit of sadness. I thought of my mum and how she’s not around to share this moment, knowing how proud she would have been.’
His mother, a huge dance fan, died of cancer in 2005. It was she who encouraged 12-year-old Bill to take ballroom dancing lessons in their home town near Bath. ‘I just felt so self-conscious, but four decades later, here I am!’ he says.
He also thought of his father, a retired doctor who had been self-isolating at home and was on his feet shouting when his son won. ‘And I realised because of the new restrictions I would not be able to see him over Christmas. But lots of people are in the same boat. We’ve just got to stay positive.’
Like everyone else, the Baileys have had to make sacrifices. Their 17-year-old son Dax lived in their annexe for three months so as not to puncture the Strictly bubble.
His parents delivered meals to his door and worried that he might be spending too much time on his PlayStation. Now Christmas will be just the three of them. What are they having for Christmas lunch?
‘I think we’ll keep it simple,’ says Kris. She’s made a Christmas pudding but thinks they might have the Indonesian rice dish nasi goreng as a main course. How come? Read on.
Bill and Kris met in Edinburgh in 1987 when he was appearing at the festival and she was running a bar. She and her flatmate went partying with him, he slept on their sofa. ‘Antique, short, very uncomfortable,’ he recalls. The next morning Kris made him cheese on toast for breakfast. ‘I have never forgotten that. I thought, “Cheese on toast for breakfast. What a woman!”’ says Bill, who also loved her ‘individual sense of style and special aura.’ He drove back to London and the next day sent her a dozen red roses. ‘Hmm,’ she thought. ‘He can come back anytime.’
It’s not true, he says, that he pursued Kristin by writing her a daily letter for 12 months before they finally got together. ‘That would have been a bit creepy.’
They fell in love and married on a whim 11 years later while on holiday on one of the Banda spice islands in Indonesia, exchanging vows in a crumbling 18th-century Protestant church.
The preparations were simple. The couple were asked if they wanted a three-chicken or a four-chicken wedding and opted for the latter, which came with a band.
Before the ceremony, they went for a picnic on a neighbouring island — and a pod of dolphins obligingly escorted their boat back. Two of the hotel receptionists did Kris’s hair and acted as bridesmaids. Bill borrowed a jacket from the vicar.
‘Oh, yes, I’ll never forget what I was wearing,’ he says. ‘It was a traditional red velvet wedding jacket.’ ‘It was purple, Bill.’ ‘It was a purple wedding jacket about eight sizes too small and I couldn’t move my arms. It looked like a Led Zeppelin tour jacket.’
Since then, Indonesia has played a big part in their lives. The Baileys return often and went back in 2018 for their 20th anniversary. So rice it will be, as the family catch their breath after this all consuming, three-month experience.
The question is, after this unlikely victory, would Bill consider doing another reality show?
‘Probably not, but then again I said I probably wouldn’t do Strictly. Never say never, although I can’t imagine myself eating a kangaroo’s nether regions.’
You never know. For who could ever have imagined that, powered by kale crisps and a determination not to be a donkey, dear old Bill Bailey would have waltzed his way to such a triumph?
‘Certainly not me,’ he says finally. ‘But it shows what you can achieve with a great teacher, a lot of determination and a lazy left leg.’