Bill Bailey

The hirsute comedian brings his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra to Belfast

The Times described Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra as ‘blissfully funny’. Stephen Fry said it was ‘wonderfully enjoyable – like driving a Rolls-Royce off-road’. Bailey himself is more matter-of-fact. Speaking ahead of this month’s Belfast Waterfront performance, he says: ‘It’s very loosely a guide to the orchestra. It’s a loosely educational, rather irreverent, fun romp.’

As with the show’s sell-out 2008 run at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the subsequent BBC Two version, Bailey’s Belfast extravaganza unleashes the comic’s surreal imagination alongside some of the British Isles’ finest musicians. At the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, he is joined by Dublin’s prestigious RTÉ Concert Orchestra, as well as Academy Award-winning conductor and composer Anne Dudley.

‘Hopefully they know what they’re letting themselves in for,’ laughs Bailey. ‘I’m sure they’ve been briefed. It’s like a double act between me and the orchestra. The comedy comes from the narrative, which I include between the music. It’s very much like one of my stand-up gigs, where I include a lot of music, but in this case I get to play around with a whole orchestra.’

According to the press release, the show allows audiences to ‘hear the trombone’s affection for Cockney music’ and to ‘find out what bassoon-players are secretly obsessed with’. Bailey’s own songs feature alongside 1970s cop-show music, news themes and Dudley’s specially written new work.

For Bailey, the most heartening thing at previous performances has been the crowd's reaction. ‘It was extraordinary,’ he says. ‘I was playing at the Albert Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra. It’s like the Valhalla of classical music – a Mecca, a holy ground, with the Proms and everything – and I was there openly making fun of it all. But I think regular concertgoers really appreciated it, because what the show is really about is celebrating the music and having fun with it. People realised that I know my stuff – that I wasn’t just some oik, some scumbag comedian!’

Classically trained in music at the London College of Music, the Bath-born 45-year-old has, over the years, covered all kinds of music in his act. The former team captain of BBC Two’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks says the long-running comedy pop quiz allowed him to meet many of his musical heroes, though not always with the desired outcome.

‘I met Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols’, sighs Bailey. ‘I was telling him, “Oh yeah, you can download the whole Bill Grundy interview now, the original one, ‘The Filth and the Fury’,” and I said: “It’s quite quaint if you listen to it now. It’s really quite tame.” And he said: “Yes, well, it was daytime TV, Bill.” I started apologising! I wanted him to be going, “Yeah, we should have swore more! Bollocks to them! F**k the establishment!” And in fact he was going, “Well, it was quite serious. It was during the day.” I was quite let down by that – old punks, eh?’

As well as Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Bailey has starred in cult sitcoms Black Books and Spaced, and makes regular appearances on the likes of Have I Got News for You and QI. Meanwhile, his acclaimed stand-up tours continue to bewilder and delight audiences across the UK. No stranger to Ireland, Bailey has played Belfast numerous times and in June completed a sold-out week at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin.

The upcoming Waterfront date has been relocated from the larger Odyssey Arena, a move that pleases Bailey. ‘Having done an arena tour in 2007, I’d be very wary about doing it again,’ he says. ‘The only reason I even considered the larger venues for this tour is the fact that it is a physically big show. There are a lot of people to get on the stage, and it makes a big noise. As a spectacle, it suits the larger venues, whereas stand-up is a different thing. I think there’s something lacking from arenas that you don’t get in a smaller venue, where you can hear the responses from people. I always love to interact with the audience and have a bit of banter. In some enormo-dome you can’t do that.’

Bailey says he had initially hoped to succeed as a straight musician, but abandoned the idea in his early 20s: ‘So many people I knew when I was a teenager desperately wanted to be in bands. It didn’t pan out, and they ended up doing something totally different. In a way, when I look at people who were – and are – great at music, yet they aren’t able to do the thing they want to do, it affects me. At least in comedy I get to play a bit of music onstage.’

Future projects for the versatile performer include the Sky1 series Bill Bailey’s Big Bird Watch, a film about the controversial naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and, if Bailey gets his way, a role in the sequel to JJ Abrams’ blockbuster Star Trek remake. ‘I could play a surly Klingon,’ chuckles the self-confessed Trekkie – ‘or maybe a bewildered Klingon. That’d be me, I expect!’ 

Andrew Johnston
Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra is at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on November 22. Check out the Culture Live! listings for full info and booking.