As the phone rings out in Bill Oddie’s house, I find myself sitting on the other end wondering if the man who picks up will be one of those comedians who are huffingly terse in real life. And so, when he reveals that he'd turned in for the night an hour earlier, it would be understandable if my fears were confirmed.
Instead, Oddie apologises profusely that I may have felt unwelcome and pads off to an opposite corner of the house so that he doesn’t wake anybody up. He proceeds to talk with great aplomb at whatever fanciful question I fling at him, with the vim of a man at the very peak of his circadian rhythm.
Oddie’s legacy with The Goodies – the comedy trio he formed with Tim Brooke Taylor and Graeme Garden in 1970 – has gone on to influence great British talent like the Mighty Boosh, the Young Ones and Bill Bailey, as well as Australia’s own Chaser team. (Oddie in turn rates our man Adam Hills.) In the UK The Goodies was aired on the BBC after the watershed, yet in Australia they were given a long-running kids’ TV slot, with their surreal humour and slapstick antics appealing to the younger audience.
"We never thought of it as a children’s programme," Oddie says. “We got hauled into the BBC office more than once for being subversive. Some critics said, it’s not childish, but childlike – in the same way you could say South Park or Beavis and Butthead or The Simpsons are childlike… but if you listen to what’s going on they ain’t.”
It was in Australia that The Goodies had something of a comeback, being invited out to Sydney's Big Laugh Comedy Festival in 2005 and reforming for a nationwide tour.
“It started off as an invitation to just be there as some strange act of nostalgia, and became a 'my god, they’re still alive!'," reflects Oddie. "It was just nice to be wanted. The Australian audience is so much more affectionate because the show was aired at a time that was really seminal in people’s lives, whereas in the UK I don’t think it stuck in people minds in quite the same way because the people who were originally into it can barely remember it anymore."
Oddie originally met Brooke-Taylor and Garden through Cambridge University’s Footlights Dramatic Club. British universities have traditionally been a breeding ground for comedic talent, but none more so than the Oxbridge pair.
"It was almost why you went there in the first place," he says. "It wasn’t quite as calculated as that, but I must admit it didn’t take long to get involved in my case and I think both Tim and Graeme and some of the [Monty] Pythons who were there realised it was almost a less embarrassing version of drama school.
"Really the history goes back even further than one realises. Most people think of Peter Cook and um Jonathan Miller and Toby Moore and Alan Bennett who came out of Oxford and Cambridge, but in fact Cambridge in particular had a reputation going right back to the '30s and '40s. It was this rather more polite kind of comedy, with songs about bumping up and down on the river on balmy days with a straw boater and a lovely girl and all that sort of thing."
The 1960s proved to be a most fortuitous time for Oddie and his comedy peers. They were able to ride a wave from stage, to radio, to TV at a period when the mediums garnered a lot of excitement.
"We were very lucky, because it was a natural progression," he agrees, "although there is a final step that we never got to do – which was to get a movie. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you enjoy television more than any of the other things. In many ways radio shows are the most fun to do… and the biggest buzzes are inevitably from doing the live shows. But look at it this way – if you’re not on the telly, by and large 90 percent of people won't have clue who you are. And even if you have been on the telly for a long time... I haven’t really done any major television for a couple of years due to health reasons and various other things, and it’s amazing – amazing is probably not the word; let's say sad, tragic – how quickly you get people coming up to you and saying, 'Oh god, are you still alive?'"
As a form of profile maintenance, Oddie pops up on many British game shows and panel shows, although only the sort you would actually admit to watching. "There are several that I won’t do, the main one being I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, which I think is filmed in the gardens of a hotel in Queensland. I mean, I’ve turned that down three times now. And also, do you get that bloody ballroom dancing show, Strictly Come Dancing? I’ve declined that more than three times as well. I’m not just being prissy about it – I actually cannot think of a single type of entertainment, or whatever ballroom is called, that I hate more. I absolutely loathe it and always have, so I’d just be really bad and grumpy and get thrown out or hurt myself very badly."
But on to the matter at hand, the Astor Theatre show. Oddie is keen to have guidance – via his Twitter – on what the audience would like to see and hear.
"I haven’t done anything quite like this," he admits. "I did that one tour in Australia with Tim and Graeme, but then they came back twice without me and also toured in Britain, and I didn’t do those – not because I wasn’t interested but because I was busy doing wildlife programmes. That was my main job and I was often away in another country. So most of the live shows that I’ve done over the past few years have involved doing wildlife things; I used to have a very strenuous one-man show with slides and audience participation and impersonations of the breeding dances of birds, which frankly would probably kill me if I tried to do it now because it really was exhausting.
"I’d quite like to get some feedback about what people would like to know about, because we did live through some scandalous times and I might be able to come out with revelations that have never been made before. I’m working on something that isn’t just Goodies nostalgia. I was thinking today about how people are always asking how much are the characters based on ourselves and how much of ourselves is in the themes that we did... and I thought that would be interesting because we always give a glib answer. Instead I thought I’d look at the programmes and figure out where we used our own expertise or obsessions and incorporated them."
WANT MORE? Here's Bill on…
...his secret hobbies
"Even though people probably don’t go home musing on the lyrics of ‘Funky Gibbon’, they might be surprised to know how much I know about music. Life simply wouldn’t exist without it. I’ve had a lot of Australian connections, as most of the bands and the musical director I worked with around the Goodies’ Antipodean tour are from there or New Zealand. You might expect people of my age to have mellowed into easy listening, but that’s not the case. [It’s worth mentioning here that the White Stripes named their album Icky Thump in honour of The Goodies episode, 'Kung Fu Kapers'.] Most recently I’ve been listening to the Waifs and Kasey Chambers."
...admiring the fauna of Australia
Oddie has always combined his musical talents with his comedy, but he insists that if the comedy career hadn't taken off he'd have more likely been an ornithologist than a rock star. "I’d actually booked myself up to be the resident ornithologist on some cruise to Russia," he says. "I never got to do it, unfortunately, as other things came along, but I wanted to be Darwin."
With his programmes devoted to wildlife outnumbering his programmes devoted to comedy, it's unsurprising that a visit to Australia usually means factoring in some sightseeing of the fauna. "I did one trip way back in 1980, roughly speaking, and I said to a publisher who had an Australian branch, 'Hey, instead of paying me an advance, is there any chance of sending me to Australia so I can go birdwatching?' It was quite a memorable trip really because I had a fairly long-haired hippy look so I got searched at very single airport I went to. Especially when I got up to Queensland, it was very much, 'What are you doing here? We don’t like your type around here.'
"I got in a lot of trouble. It was entirely unjustified, I might say – my look was purely a style. But I did get to go out to the Barrier Reef and the rainforests, and then later on I went over to spread the word of bird watching for the Australasian Ornithology Student Organisation. In two and a half weeks I didn’t discover a single radio interviewer who could pronounce that, so it changed to the Bird Society or something."
...writing his autobiography, One Flew into the Cuckoo’s Egg
"I found it very easy to be absolutely honest, but there was an irony to it, which is I wrote it incredibly quickly – it was about five years ago – over a couple of months, and looking back I think it was actually the result of a manic side of a bipolar nature, which at that point hadn’t been diagnosed correctly. I’d been having some shocking depression on and off over the last 10 years. I understood the depression, but the manic thing is very complicated. A lot of the time it is very productive – and so I dashed the book off with a lot of enthusiasm. But I look back at it now and think, bloody hell, you must have been on something.
I have no objection at all to talking about it and if somebody wants to bring the mood down and ask, 'How easy is it to avoid committing suicide?' I’m quite happy to answer – because it might help somebody.
"I've had a lot of organisations approach me to talk on the matter. MIND is one of the obvious mental health ones. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of talking to about 300 GPs in Birmingham, Manchester and London, which was quite a revelation as to how many GPs still don’t really take it seriously. I very much try to be as available as I can for that area of things. My only misgivings are that there are so few definitive answers, so I am conscious that when somebody asks a question – they might say, 'Is it true that it will help me if I did this?' – I can’t answer definitively. For example, I spend a lot of time in the countryside with nature, but whereas I know that helps me, it might not be the answer somebody else wants, because even though we may have roughly the same illness, or condition, or whatever it is, it doesn’t mean that the treatment should be the same, because you don’t lose your individuality."