Bill Bailey pays tribute to the NHS in new arts show

As a youngster, Bill Bailey had a voice almost identical to his father’s, which led to more than a few misunderstandings.

Brought up in Somerset, the future comedian and TV presenter was born into a family of medics – his father Christopher a GP, his mother Madryn a nurse. And it was from the family home in Keynsham, near Bath, that his dad operated his surgery.

“I’d pick up the phone during the day sometimes when my dad was on call,” Bailey tells the Daily Express. “My voice was very similar to my dad’s and people couldn’t distinguish between us on the phone. So when I picked the phone thinking it would be one of my friends, it would actually be a patient.

“They’d go, ‘Is that Doctor Bailey? It’s a terrible business…’ And then they’d start to recount the disgusting symptoms of a terrible, embarrassing condition and ask, ‘What do you think about that, doctor?’. I’d go, ‘Er, sorry, I’ll just get the doctor.’

“They’d shout, ‘Who’s this? Is that an imposter?’ and put the phone down. And my dad would come in and say, ‘Oh God, you’ve done it again!’”

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He never followed his parents into the profession but, decades on, his second-hand experience on the coalface of health provision is serving him well. On Monday, the 58-year-old is presenting a new series called Extraordinary Portraits on BBC One.

Broadcast to mark the recent 75th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, it teams six health service heroes with some of the UK’s most acclaimed portrait artists.

The idea is to convert the potent experiences of the doctors, nurses and other staff into memorable works of art. In the first episode, sculptor Nick Elphick reflects the work of Martin Griffiths, a trauma surgeon at one of London’s busiest hospitals.

The statistics from Martin’s department are shocking. On average, he deals with two stabbings a day and two shootings a week. What makes these figures more disturbing is the fact most of his patients are children.

Martin admits: “That feeling of hopelessness and helplessness I got when I was just doing that drove me bonkers. I’d go home and I’d just cry because it felt so pointless.”

The surgeon continues: “For lots of people, this is just theoretical, just something you read in the papers, but I’ve seen what this stuff does to families.

“I’ve seen what it’s like when you lose somebody you care about, someone you spent years bringing up… there’s a hole that’s never going to be filled up. I know what it feels like when you tell a mum that her boy is gone. It’s something you never get away from. It doesn’t need to happen in a first world country. We can do better.”

When Nick’s sculpture of Martin is revealed to the surgeon’s family and friends at the end of the first episode, everyone is highly emotional.

Bill, a keen amateur artist himself, confesses he also shed a tear at that moment. He explains the health service is a subject very close to his heart, especially as his mother, who died of cancer in 2005 and father – the latter still with us at 91 years old – worked for the NHS for many years.

“I could see how much of themselves they put into their work, how much energy and compassion,” Bill adds.

He says Nick’s sculpture “resonated with me on a personal level, very much so, because I remember my dad working long hours. He’d get up at all hours of the night and go out on call.

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“My mum was a nurse, too. The two of them embodied that same spirit of selflessness and of duty and of care for others.”

Today Bill lives in west London with his wife Kris, son Dax and a menagerie of 50-odd rescue animals.

But it was all very different from his upbringing in a Somerset GP practice in the 1970s. Bill recalls how many of his father’s patients were farmers.

“At Christmas they would bring gifts to the house. The doorbell would ring and I’d open the front door to a ruddy-faced farmer with a brace of pheasant – ‘There you go, for the doctor’ – and you’d be struggling with this pheasant through the house. A common feature of my childhood was poultry appearing at the front door.”

To this day, Bill remains a passionate supporter of the NHS.

“It’s one of our greatest assets,” he stresses. “If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be ill in another country, you are definitely going to treasure the NHS and have a newfound appreciation for it.”

The comedian shudders as he recollects his experience of healthcare in the US. “They have pharmacies the size of massive supermarkets,” he explains. “I’ve never known a country which is more in thrall to pharmaceutical sustenance.

“When I was working in New York, I was doing this show off Broadway, and I got an ear infection. So my promoter sent
me to a doctor who had a practice on Broadway – of course, he did! The receptionist there did show tunes.

“The doctor looked at my ear for less than 10 seconds. Then he gave me a huge box of drugs. It was not just a little blister pack of antibiotics – it was the size of a shoe box.

“Take 20 of them right now,” he said. “Then take 10 of them, four of them and two of them. And, by the way, that will be $10,000.’”

The comedian admits thinking: “What the hell is the matter with you? It’s just an ear infection. Maybe some drops would do.”

But he explains that this is the way healthcare works in the United States.

“People just medicate, medicate, medicate and walk around rattling like pharmacies. So, if any encouragement were needed, that reminded me of what a fantastic institution the NHS is.”

Even so, the NHS seems more under threat than ever from a combination of increasing demand, dwindling resources and creeping privatisation. Will there still be an NHS to celebrate in 75 years’ time?

“I hope so,” says Bill. “It means so much to so many people. Anytime I’ve had the cause to be treated by the NHS, I’m struck by not only the level of care, but the professionalism, the skill, the patience, the kindness and the compassion that you receive.

“Anyone can walk through the door and receive the same treatment. That is what is so wonderful about it, and why we should never take it for granted.”

The comedian offers a nightmare vision of what could happen if we don’t look after the national treasure that is the NHS.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Then we’ll get American supermarket-style medicine. The doctor from Broadway will come over here and set up shop in the West End. He’ll soon be producing a musical entitled, ‘How You Can Dispense Very Expensive Drugs’.”

However, he adds, perhaps optimistically: “It needs an enormous amount of money for starters, extra funding for more nurses and doctors. But for all that, the NHS is so woven into the cultural fabric of this country, I can’t envisage it ever not being there. So I don’t think it will come to that.”

During a very busy career, as well as presenting TV programmes, Bill has worked as a stand-up comedian, an actor, a musician and, as fans of Strictly Come Dancing will know, also a ballroom dancer.

In fact, in 2020, aged 56, he became the oldest winner of the BBC dance contest, partnered with professional Oti Mabuse.

Surely he’s running out of subjects to explore? No, he has another new role as presenter on a series on Sky Arts, looking at the ancient crafts of woodcarving, stained-glass making and silversmithing.

Called Bill Bailey’s Master Crafters: The Next Generation, it pairs three young students from each discipline with a master crafter, charging each team with creating an arbour bench fit for a king, which will go on display in the garden of Charles III’s country home, Highgrove.

“The show is a celebration of each craft, which I love,” Bill says.

“The fact young people are doing it as well is great. These are crafts that are endangered. I feel very strongly about the fact that they’re all part of our shared cultural heritage. We’d definitely lose something if they were not around anymore.”

The presenter, who is just as much of a genial comic genius off screen as on it, insists he won’t be playing the role of a sadistic hatchet-man judge on the crafters’ programme.

Having battled his way to the podium in Strictly, he’s relieved there is no knock-out element to this new show. “What I love about it is that it’s not competitive,” he adds.

“Everyone gets to stay in it. There’s none of that ‘Call that a wooden bowl? Out!’. There’s no voting out – unlike a certain dance show.

“Don’t get me started! There’s none of that cut-throat theatre of cruelty: ‘I’m afraid your pasa doble was distinctly below par!’”

  • Bill Bailey’s Master Crafters: The Next Generation is on Sky Arts on Thursday at 8pm. Extraordinary Portraits is on BBC1 on Monday at 8.30pm

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