Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero

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Graham Turner speaks with the seasoned comedian Bill Bailey about his first foray into the anthropological

When you consider the theory of evolution, everyone’s first thought is Darwin. British comedian Bill Bailey, however, is out to tell you that this is only one half of the story – with the other revolving around a little-known anthropologist called Alfred Russel Wallace who spent eight years in the tropics of Indonesia coming to the same conclusions as Darwin himself. Airing on April 24, Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero is going to lift the lid on this unsung hero and explore how his contributions to the theory of natural selection were just as important as Darwin’s. “I did a poll of random people and asked them who Wallace was – most people didn’t have a clue or thought I meant Wallace & Gromit,” says Bailey.

The documentary follows the comedian as he retraces Wallace’s steps through Indonesia with a friend where the idea first sprung to Bailey’s mind. “I realised that this guy Wallace did this in the 1850s,” says Bailey. “But now, here we are with mobile phones, computers, GPS technology and we’re struggling! So I thought, this is a great tale and he is a fascinating character with no documentary to his name, so I’d make one myself!” Bailey isn’t exactly Attenborough – having found his fame on British sitcom Black Books before then becoming something of a comedy hero through his work on quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His lack of experience in making this kind of documentary is a fact he embraces and sees as a potentially liberating facet of it though. “I’m not an academic or a scientist – I’m just a comedian, so I don’t have any sort of academic reputation that I have to consider or try and protect. So I can have a lot more freedom to say what I want to say.”

Considering how he relates to Wallace, Bailey says: “I always root for the underdog because I always see myself in that role. Of me, people always thought ‘oh there’s Bill he’ll never make anything of himself’, so I always think I’m someone who’s against the odds. I feel an affinity with him and the fact that he was just an ordinary guy. He wasn’t particularly connected nor had a wealthy family. He had to leave school at 14 and was self-taught. So he kind of got there against the odds.”

When talking about what we can expect from the documentary, Bailey says, “There’s a bit of history, evolutionary and natural history, but I think really it’s just a personal story, a tale of adventure and one man against the odds. And it’s got quite a compelling, romantic element to it.” Wallace’s story is a truly remarkable one which deserves a telling with adventure and articulate wit that only a personality like Bill Bailey could pull off.

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Premieres Apr 24 at 9.55pm on BBC Knowledge (NowTV #220/Cable TV #49).

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