Going back to his roots: Bill Bailey injects some humour into music

The comedian discusses his remarkable guide to the orchestra...
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The Independent Culture

How did you entertain yourself growing up in the small town of Keynsham in Somerset?

Well, there's the river at the bottom of our hill, and if you really got the right weight and the right trajectory you could chuck an apple and it would land in the river, so me and my cousin would do that to scare the fishermen! Our house was at the bottom of Wellsway, and across the road was the Chinese takeaway, next door was The New Inn and across the road was The Talbot... so that was Friday night sorted. Just past the New Inn there's a little, sloping park which goes down to the river and I remember taking a go kart down there once and nearly ending up in the river. Then there's Keynsham park - we used to hang out there under the bypass and shout.

I went back there recently and I have to say it looked quite sad really, it was quite small, quite a dull-looking place, there's nothing in particular you can commend it on. Everything looks smaller and drabber than I remember it as a kid - I remember it seeming like a world of opportunity with parks and rivers.

Bizarrely it's having a bit of a renaissance now, and there's even a music festival there. It's odd but it's one of those places that's become a kind of cult. It was immortalised in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band songs and when I got to play with the Bonzos on their reunion tour, singing about Keynsham was like coming full circle. It's not as I remembered it - everything's smaller and not as exciting - but I'd love to go back there and do the festival.

What came first - the comedy or the music?

Music! I started to learn the piano at the age of four, then learnt music at school and taught myself the guitar - I just loved it and had an affinity for it. But at the same time I loved the comedy on TV like Les Dawson. I was taken to see a play when I was very young and I don't remember much about it but I'll always remember at one point in the play Jimmy Edwards turned and addressed the audience and came totally out of character and I thought it was crazy, it was anarchy! It got the biggest reaction of the night, and I always think things like that are key moments in your memory when you realise that comedy has that way of causing chaos.

Have some comedians overstepped the mark in trying to be controversial?

I think it's all a bit contrived to be honest, it's offensive only in context. When I say chaos I mean something which breaks a barrier, it makes people think in different ways. It polarises audiences - some people get offended by it, some people don't, and comedy's always been like that. Jimmy Carr did a joke about disabled people who'd lost limbs [in the war], and his defence was that the soldiers themselves make those jokes and use that kind of comedy in the battlefield.

But that's in the context of being at war, and if you're all together in that situation then humour can be a really powerful way of dealing with those extreme situations - I think in any walk of life where there's hardship, black humour is a great way of lightening the mood and boosting morale and a sense of comradery. But transplanting that humour and putting it into the context of stand-up comedy, it somehow feels wrong.

Why did you leave Never Mind The Buzzcocks?

At the time I was on tour in Australia then I was on tour back here with the orchestra, so I couldn't do some of the shows. Normally it would have been ok, but the BBC changed the schedule and brought it all forward by about six weeks without telling anyone so I couldn't do half of the gigs and in the end I thought you know what, maybe now is the time just to say 'I've done 100 shows, I've got these other things to do' and working with an orchestra is quite a big opportunity that won't always be there. So I pursued that instead, it just felt natural.

How did working with the orchestra come about?

I was approached by the BBC concert orchestra to collaborate on a show for Comic Relief two years ago, but I didn't really know what form it was going to take as they were working with soloists and different instrumentalists and stand-ups... so really the show is a mish-mash of different things, a bit of me, a bit of the orchestra, a bit of Anne [Dudley]'s stuff.

What I felt really worked were the sections which felt like a guide, describing the orchestra and how it works, how it fits together, and then applying the orchestra to familiar situations where you wouldn't necessarily hear one, like a melodramatic moment in Eastenders, maybe somebody leaving the Square. I just thought it would be great to have this Brief Encounter style romantic score to accomapny these moments, and to work with some film and TV music - music that people are familiar with but have probably never heard played live, like theme tunes and recreating 1970's cop shows.

Do you think young people are losing touch with music?

No, I think there's more variety available now than ever before, but I do think that there's a slight preconception about classical music and orchestras - there's a a whiff of stuffiness and elitism about it. I think a lot of people just think 'it's not for me' and so don't go to see concerts, and also I think that, bizarrely, filming concerts like the Proms makes orchestras look quite static and serious. When you see rock music it's exciting! It's a very powerful medium to see and hear rock music, and classical music always looks a little bit dry. The aim of the show is to hopefully get people to take an interest that wouldn't necessarily think a classical concert is for them. Hearing an orchestra live for the first time blows people away. Perhaps people have never really imagined how loud it is, how vital it is - it's air moving around you, it's not on a record or CD, it's there in a room in front of you.

What kind of feedback have you had on the show?

It's been really encouraging, loads of kids from about ten upwards coming to the show and really enjoying it. Some of them are comedy fans who are curious to see what it is, some of them are regular concert goers who like it because it's something different. It's a kind of show they've never seen before. There aren't many shows where there's spoken word between the music, and you can see people are a bit wary of it at first. Orchestras are wary of it - they thought I was going to make them dress up in silly costumes and play hosepipes... actually, that's not a bad idea!

Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra is out now on DVD and Blu Ray