Review of Bill Bailey’s Australian Adventure – Michael Portillo doesn’t deliver this level of oddity
‘Western Australia cracks open your soul,” says Bill Bailey, and if you can’t imagine Joanna Lumley or Stephen Fry using quite that wording, that’s an indication that Bill Bailey’s Australian Adventure is subtly, rewardingly different to standard celebrity travelogues.
Bailey is utilizing his entire journey in Western Australia, a region that has a similar number of inhabitants as Greater Manchester but covers an area 2,000 times bigger. It could contain 12 Great Britains and is comparable in size to western Europe. With an abundance of natural surroundings and vast open land, he has the luxury of selecting who he socializes with, which is likely to be Bailey’s preference.
As a presenter who focuses on travel, he is more interested in locations than people. Show him a tree, statue, or old photo and he will happily use it as inspiration for a poetic reflection. He clearly thrives in places where he can fully immerse himself in “untouched, uncontrolled, unrestricted” nature, even if it means facing prickly plants. In episode one, part one, he purchases an Italian accordion from a secondhand store in a small town and uses it to create a musical interlude to transition into a commercial break. Standing alone in the woods, Bailey plays his new instrument, creating an otherworldly sound.
As a passionate advocate for the breathtakingly beautiful region, with its seemingly endless supply of world-renowned beaches and vast stretches of inland forest, Bailey is usually accompanied during his travels, at least in this first installment that takes place along the Mediterranean-like south coast. The show’s format requires him to interact with locals wherever he goes, but it’s not his strongest suit. Despite his discomfort, Bailey manages to navigate through these encounters, whether it be meeting a ranger who shares their favorite trees, learning about precolonial culture from an Indigenous Australian elder, or hearing from an Albany historian about their disdain for Perth. Bailey’s awkwardness may actually add authenticity to these interactions, but it’s clear that it’s not his favorite part of the job.
Bailey feels a sense of belonging when he enters an Albany bar and remarks, “I feel like I’m with my own people.” He has come to meet the Albany Shantymen, who became popular during lockdown when their version of Soon May the Wellerman Come went viral on TikTok. These men are middle-aged, hairy, and enjoy drinking dark ale while singing loudly together. One of the group members compares their performances to apes grunting in unison to feel stronger. Bailey fits right in with them on stage and surprises some of the Shantymen with his passionate rendition of Drunken Sailor, which includes lyrics about the town’s history as a whaling port. “BASTARD DRUNKEN WHALER!” is not something you would hear from Michael Portillo.
As well as beery song and landscapes to get lost in, the far south of Western Australia seems to have plenty of the sort of eccentrics Bailey can do business with. A woman whose farm near Esperance features a lifesize replica of Stonehenge is good value, and Bailey knows a solstice-aligned giant trilithon when he sees one. He is soon communing with the henge: “There’s something lovely about putting your face against stone,” he says, doing just that.
However, he doesn’t require historic structures or Australian replicas of historic structures that were constructed as recently as 2008 to evoke a sense of nostalgic peculiarity. In one scene, he simply visits a regular coffee shop, but the warmth of the wood-burning stove prompts Bailey to fantasize about leaving it all behind and permanently moving to WA. As he makes his way there, his breath creating a mist in the early morning, he notices that the crows in the area have prolonged caws that sound “sarcastic.”
Prior to his relocation to the north, Bailey departs from us with a scene featuring only himself, a scruffy local man, and the man’s dog, taking a dip in the pristine and chilly waters of an unoccupied beach. Bailey’s new companion appears to be the type of unassuming solitary figure that Western Australia welcomes with open arms – the fact that he is actually the most renowned figure in the area, known as Luc Longley and formerly a basketball player for the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan, is inconsequential as he plays with his dog in the ocean. He has attained the very thing that Bailey aspires to: complete escape.