Bill Bailey’s comedy needs little introduction to many readers of this site. Whether you’ve come to know his work through Black Books, his stand-up tours or assorted television projects, he’s a unique comedy talent with a massive fanbase. And now he’s lending that talent to his latest project, an introduction to the orchestra, which is shortly to arrive on DVD and Blu-ray.
In advance of its launch, we got to natter with him about his projects, what he’s up to next, and his plans for the next Star Trek film…
You dedicate your guide to the orchestra to your music teacher. I’m guessing the very roots of this project started there?
That’s right. When I was at school I was the only ‘A’ Level music student and she was my tutor. And so she took me through the whole exam procedure, but more than that she was my piano teacher as well. So she taught me the piano and encouraged me to, basically, really challenge myself and push myself to do things that I wouldn’t have done before. And to really test myself.
She was a tremendously energetic woman, full of passion for music. And really kind of inspired me to have a life-long love of music. But more than that I think even, it inspired me to always strive for me. If you really push yourself you can perhaps achieve something you didn’t think you could. And so really she was more than just a teacher. She was a bit of life advice that’s kept me going for years.
Sadly, she died last year. And so it was really fitting I thought to put that on.
The show itself has roots back in your Radio 3 work a few years back, too. But you talk in the extras on the disc that this show took eight months for you and Anne Dudley to put together. How did you go about fitting it in? How intensive was the work?
It was on and off, punctuated by times away when I was working or touring. We kind of kept in touch and then we’d have these writing sessions where I’d drive up to Anne’s house – she’s got a studio there – and work for days and days, just writing, coming up with ideas, trying things out, recording things. Just working out arrangements and then I’d be off working, she’d be off working – she’s very busy too.
There was a lot going on, but in amongst it all you’d suddenly have an idea, an inspiration and we’d work on it and put it together. It’s quite a long and slow process.
Trying to write for a show like this is difficult. It’s quite unique in a way. It’s not just writing a classical piece of music to order. It’s trying to incorporate that in a narrative that’s got to be funny, and have a point and feed into the guide element of the show.
The orchestral bits were like the punchlines to my set-ups, so they had to arrive fully formed. And there’s no real way of trying them out. It’s quite intense and quite, for me, a very disciplined way of working.
I’ve seen you live a couple of times, and heard you play your own songs many times. Just the challenge of arranging those sounds testing enough?
Well, yeah. That was one of the great thrills of doing the show for me. To hear, finally, these songs in the way that I heard them originally when I first wrote them.
All of the parodies and pastiches are of quite grand ballads and prog rock anthems and rock operas. All of those things would have originally been scored for an orchestra, so this was the ultimate for me, finally hearing these things in the way that I’ve imagined them.
That was down to Anne, really. The way we worked she was able to interpret my comedy ideas into an orchestral score. I was so lucky to have been able to work with her, because she gets her comedy, too.
How was walking in front of the BBC Concert Orchestra and telling them that they’re going to be doing a comedy version of the William Tell Overture?
The thing is, I think the orchestras really enjoy it. It’s something a bit different from all the rest of the concerts that they normally do, and it allows the orchestra to be centre stage for a while.
Most of the time when they collaborate with an artist, they’re the backing band as it were. And they turn up, play the arrangements, the star gets all the acclaim and that’s it.
This is much more about featuring the orchestra and the orchestra get to join in and shout out and stand out and stamp their feet. The soloists get featured and get a go. I think orchestras like that, that the spotlight is on them for a change.
Would you like to tackle something like a BBC Prom in the future?
Well, yeah, yeah! That would be a great thrill, actually, and a great accolade. And something that, I suppose, is not that unlikely to happen. They have things like the Doctor Who prom.
The point with me is that it’s always been, even with the stand-up, that the music has to be right. You have to take it seriously. You have to try and play it as faithfully as possible. That way it helps the comedy. Rather than just playing it in a silly way.
At first orchestras perhaps thought that I was going to do a novelty show where they all wore hat and play bits of hosepipe. When they realise it wasn’t, that’s when they realised it was going to be a bit more fun.
On the extras again, you look in awe of the Royal Albert Hall. You talk there about playing on the same stage as Sinatra and people like that. Firstly, how much of a thrill is it to play the Royal Albert Hall, and secondly, how well does the show then scale as you visit other venues?
Firstly, as you say, it’s got so much history attached to it. It’s a national monument as well. The building itself is an extraordinary architectural wonder.
Before, I had a little run there. I played three or four nights. And during the run, the staff there took me into the dome, to look down on the stage. It’s amazing, these Victorian iron girders up there, these huge nuts and bolts holding it together. It’s amazing, the structure. Then right in the top is a tiny little dome which is 125 feet above the stage. And there’s a little bit of mesh that you can walk about on…
… are you good with heights?
No, I’m okay with heights. It’s just, you know, the falling off.
You walk out on this bit of mesh and stand above the stage and look down on the keyboard. And I was going to these guys ‘what’s the mesh?’ And it was the original Victorian mesh. 120, whatever it is, 150 years old. And all of that played on you. You think ‘I’m not just playing some council venue. This is the Royal Albert Hall!’
And also it’s got a wonderful atmosphere to it. It’s quite big. It does hold about 6000 people in it, but it doesn’t feel that big because it’s round. It’s actually strangely intimate in a way, because the back of the stalls is not that far from the stage. You can see the people quite clearly and there are people all around you as well. It’s a lovely venue to play.
I was also very aware that there’s been lots of comedy and stuff over the years, and people say that comedy doesn’t really work in the Albert Hall, so I was kind of aware of that. So I was actually thinking that it isn’t just me doing stand up. There is an orchestra here. With venues like that you’re almost obliged to play music, I think. It’s a waste, in a way, if you don’t play music in places like that, because that’s where it really comes around.
As for playing in venues around the country, there are some beautiful ones. We’ve played some concert halls that have just undergone some huge refurbishment programme so they’re lovely venues to play and also lovely venues to go and see a show.
Have you ever sent Chris De Burgh a ticket to one of your gigs?
He’s always very welcome! [laughs] There’s an open offer.
I always put two tickets aside for De Burgh, everywhere I go. He’s never picked them up yet!
I’ve got a question that was put to us via our Twitter feed for you, and I feel obliged to ask it. Would Bill Bailey like to be immortal?
Immortal? Oh right! No, it’d drive you mad, wouldn’t it? It’d get a bit dull after a while! You just go to the same shop, buying the same cheese, buying the same crackers. Just plod plod plod. I think a lifetime is great. There’s enough years. Assuming you do live a full life. That’s what makes life so interesting. If you were a vampire, one of these nerdy Twilight vampires who drive Volvos, it’d drive you nuts!
I remember a while back that Harry Enfield, when he was at the height of his success, did his guide to opera. And it strikes me that when you lend your name to something like this project, it opens up the subject matter to an audience who wouldn’t necessarily have seen things like this before. You’re doing birdwatching now with Sky (Bill Bailey’s Big Bird Watch), but are there any more projects of this ilk that you’re keen to get off the ground?
Well, I think the bird thing, and any wildlife projects, conservation projects, I’m very keen on. That’s something that I’m quite interested in and passionate about. Things like that, any opportunity to do that and bring it to a wider audience, I’ll take it.
Comedy can be quite all consuming at times, and if you’re not careful you end up doing a tour, then a DVD, then another tour then a DVD. Suddenly the years have just flown by.
These other projects are things that you need. I’ve always had five or six things on the go. Curiously enough, they all feed into each other eventually. One will help the other.
Having a break from comedy is quite good. Even though this isn’t really a break, it’s still a comedy show. But certainly the birdwatching thing is as much about birds and conservation and getting out and enjoying the countryside. And that’s something I like to do in my spare time anyway. It’s building that into the work, I think. You have to try and mix it up a bit.
We found an Internet search site that allows you to find the top celebrity rankings. You’re ranked at 251st, one place below Bette Davis, and 15 places above the cheerleader from Heroes…
Really? Oh, I’m glad about that! [laughs]
Presumably you’re happy with where you are?
Well, obviously, I’d love to try and move up to 251…[laughs]
But you are 251.
I’m 251? Oh, brilliant! Fantastic. Well, I’m happy with that!
Sadly, Louis Walsh is number one, which probably doesn’t help.
Who is number one?!
Louis Walsh? Well that’s why I’m always very suspicious of these surveys. Because you think of all the great people in the world, and it ends up with people like that. Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole! It’s just people who are on the telly! There’s no indication of any merit. It’s about how many times you get your picture in Heat magazine! In which case, Peter Andre is probably above Nelson Mandela! [laughs]
You’re one place below Bette Davis.
Well, I’m very honoured to be in that company!
It’s no secret that you’re a massive Star Trek fan. Are you putting your CV forward for the next film?
Well, yeah, obviously if they need some sort of dopey looking Klingon in the background, I’m up for it! A Klingon’s mate who keeps dropping his gun. The dopey one. A simple Klingon! [speaks Klingon to us. Our translator, however, was broken].
Have you got more film and TV work lined up next?
Yeah. My production company that I started up a couple of years ago, we’ve got a big commission from the BBC to make a kids’ show about sound. The history of sound, how we hear, how the ear works, everything. That’s going to be taking up quite a bit of next year. And there are some other things.
I’ve got a documentary about Alfred Wallace, who was a contemporary of Darwin. And then, hopefully, do some more wildlife stuff and there’s a couple of films I’m in next year. A few things. Ticking along! Always busy…
Bill Bailey, thank you very much!
Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra is on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday 23rd November.