Bill Bailey at the Royal Albert Hall
Music from ’70s cop shows? Noise fights with the brass section? Just what is Bill Bailey up to at the Royal Albert Hall?
It’s 4am in Melbourne and comedian Bill Bailey has just got back to his hotel. He has been out at a 24-hour diner celebrating the end of the Australian leg of his sell-out ‘Tinselworm’ tour. For anyone else that would represent bedtime and a well-deserved rest, but for Bailey it is simply time to turn his attention to his next project and cheerfully chat to me about it.
On Wednesday, he takes over the Royal Albert Hall for three nights with his show, ‘Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra’. In it he examines the instruments and their associations with characters and animals in classical music, films and TV, with the help of the 72-piece BBC Concert Orchestra under Anne Dudley. A conductor, arranger, pianist and former member of the Art Of Noise, Dudley has composed for films and adverts and so is a perfect partner.
Bailey is impressed: ‘It was brilliant luck that she was able to collaborate. Working with her was like another dimension to writing comedy because I was able to think of an abstract idea for the orchestra of how to extrapolate my way of doing comedy… But it was very hard to know what sounds to use and what was feasible. Working with Anne made all that possible.’
It is a mutual admiration. Dudley extolls how the comedian has ‘first-class musical ability, an excellent singing voice, great diction and can effortlessly adapt to playing anything’. Bailey is indeed an accomplished musician, for behind his bumbling parodies and cockney knees-up piano playing, there are post-Grade 8 diplomas. Not limited to keyboards, he also plays, among others, guitar, Alpine horn and the theremin. ‘Yeah, bring something in and I’ll get a tune out of it,’ he laughs.
The theremin is a particular favourite of his. It’s basically an aerial, and sound is created by moving an object, usually a hand, into its electrical field – like Jean Michel Jarre in his white gloves, I suggest. Bailey is not so sure. ‘God knows what he is up to,’ he says, mock-seriously. ‘That could just be an old toaster that he has rigged up to an FM radio or something.’
It seems that behind the comedy, he wants to encourage the audience to think about what the composer intended thematically. ‘I always project scenarios on to it,’ he says. ‘Take “Finlandia” by Sibelius. My mother would play it to me and invent scenarios as to what was happening in this music. And I was just absolutely enthralled… things like that have just stayed with me for years.’
Other examples of programmatic writing in the show include Saint-Saëns’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’ and Bernard Hermann’s music from the films ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. Plus Bailey and Dudley have written a suite of music that is an amalgam of ’70s cop-show music.
The inspiration for it all stemmed from a conversation. ‘I was chatting with friends who said an orchestra had come to town and the one thing that was missing from the show was someone to explain to them what was happening as the thing was going along. And I have always though that, too. I have been to classical concerts and they are great but, because I work in the spoken word, that is an element that I crave from it.’
The show concludes with 'Duelling Codas', in which the orchestra and a band led by Bailey battle it out for the loudest finale. That and three nights at the Albert Hall: it all sounds pretty rock ’n’ roll. ‘Yeah, I’m up there with Sting,’ Bailey jests, modestly – he has already played Wembley Arena. But come next Saturday he will finally be able to rest. Won’t he?
Of course not. On November 10 he takes up residency at the Gielgud Theatre as the London leg of 'Tinselworm' gets under way. But as he says ‘There’s no rest for the bearded.’
'Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra', Royal Albert Hall, Oct 8-10.
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