Like most men who grew up in the Seventies, Bill Bailey became a dedicated Doctor Who fan at an early age. But being Bill Bailey, destined for a career in offbeat comedy, his experience of the show took on a slightly surreal tinge.
“My grandparents lived with us,” recalls Bailey. “And I remember watching Doctor Who with my granddad on his new telly. These were the days before remote controls but my granddad, being quite a resourceful sort of chap, had fashioned his own remote control – which was a length of bamboo pole with a bit of cork that he’d glued on the end.”
Bailey – who has grown from that bamboo-wielding child to be one of the guest stars in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special – went on to pay homage to the programme in his live show. “I wrote a Belgian jazz version of the theme music, Docteur Qui,” says Bailey. “One night at the Comedy Store, I was about to go on stage and somebody left a beret in the dressing room. I put in on, purely on a whim. I was going to play the Doctor Who theme – but then I thought, I’ll sing it in French.”
Docteur Qui became a staple of Bailey’s act, described in this newspaper as “probably the pièce de résistance” of his hit touring show, Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra. When Bailey was eventually asked to take a role in Doctor Who itself it was, he says, “almost like you get venerated, like a knighthood or something. There should be a ceremony.”
We meet on the Doctor Who lot near Cardiff, and Bailey looks anything but venerable. He is in costume for his role – alongside Arabella Weir and Benidorm’s Paul Bazely – as what he describes as “three futuristic Forestry Commission workers. We’re like space gardeners, guarding the forest.” Their full body armour is redolent of Star Wars stormtroopers – except it’s yellow, and dirty.
The forest that Bailey and co are patrolling has more than a touch of Narnia about it. In the film, the Doctor has gatecrashed the 1941 Christmas of evacuees Madge (played by Claire Skinner) and her two children Cyril and Lily – and Cyril goes “through” one of the presents under the Christmas tree into the forest. Soon the children, their mother and the Doctor are in a battle for survival in a magical new land.
“When I arrived at the set, it was quite breathtaking,” says Bailey. “This beautiful forest, decked out in snow – it looked amazing. And then us as forest space farmers clanging around, it was such fun. It was a juxtaposition of all that is the essence of Doctor Who for me.”
Given the setting and the costume, he adds, it wasn’t difficult to get into character. “There’s something about the fact that you’re all there with your visors down and holding big guns,” he says. “There’s a sense of power that goes with all that. Like when you get riot police and they’re driving around in a van with all this hot and sweaty stuff on, and guns and shields and masks. When they jump out of the van, their adrenalin’s pumping, they want a confrontation. We had the same sort of thing. We were like, ‘Come on!’”
Despite the heavily armoured costume, Bailey was glad to play a humanoid character – if only so it will be easier for his seven-year-old son, Dax, to recognise him. “I’m glad I wasn’t done up like an alien in huge make-up – it would have been very difficult to convince him I was in it,” says Bailey.
“Also because I’m a comic, and the idea is there are some comic elements to it. The fact that I am almost playing a human means the expressions are easier to do. If I was an Ood, with a face full of tentacles, that would have been harder to bring the funny.”
Bailey says he hasn’t brought his son to the set, but that Dax has been “dropping the Doctor Who name at school”. And, says Bailey, the whole family will gather together to watch the finished product. “Oh yes, we’ll all be there on Christmas Day,” he says. “With a proper battery-powered remote control.”
Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is on BBC One on Christmas Day at 7.00pm