Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

There are plenty of struggling pub-room comedy clubs who would kill for an audience of 63… but that’s just the number of people on stage in Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra.

And a damn talented bunch the BBC Concert Orchestra are too, coping with all the unconventional demands Bailey makes on them with faultless technical skill and brilliant flair.

But now he’s assembled the full complement of musicians, what’s the bearded, bug-eyed one going to do with them? It’s a question Bailey himself doesn’t seem quite sure how to answer.

This is a rag-tag collection of musical sketches, ranging from the hilariously inspired to the pedestrian and indulgent, with no strong central idea or theme driving the show forward. Fortunately the successes tend to be excellent, more than compensating for the segments that just bumble along amiably, but unspectacularly.

Sometimes, Bailey uses the immense power of the orchestra to drive home tried-and-tested routines, such as his Insect Nation rock opera, with added oomph. At other times he gets mighty laughs from sharp routines that use the musicians to their best advantage.

But when he believes that the very presence of the orchestra itself will provide all the humour, the show stumbles. Using them to play Bee Gees covers simply smacks of the populist classical CDs you can genuinely buy that satisfy neither to classical music buffs or fans of the pop originals. The Cavalcade Of The Unloved, an overlong section of pieces specially written by Anne Dudley – the Oscar-winning film composer who also wields the conductor’s baton here – to evoke unpopular animals such as locusts as chameleons, is little more than glorified incidental music with scant comic input. And the section playing out the entire funk soundtrack of an imaginary Seventies cop serial seemed far too straightforward, despite the callback flourishes.

If those were the weak points, what of the triumphs? Bailey’s finest musical moments have always been in reimagining family tunes, and his version of the Dr Who theme as if a piece of Jacques Bruel Belgian jazz is simply sublime. Likewise, he messes about with a set of Alpine horns, a very entertaining bit of slapstick that could almost have come from an edition of the Generation Game from the Seventies – but was no less funny for it. But in both of these cases, no orchestra was required.

He does use them to god advantage when he indulges in some Knockabout fun with the Cocknification of some popular classics, or comparing and contrasting the portentous NBC Nightly News theme, with the jaunty track used by ITN in the Fifties. And mucking about with the Universal Pictures corporate ident, as seen on the only bit of DVDs you can’t fast forward, is hilarious and requires truly impressive split-second timing from the musicians and their conductor.

The he actual ‘guide’ part of the show, leading us through how the various instruments have traditionally been used to impart specific moods and emotions, is more hit-and-miss, with a few exceptionally nice gags diluted by the need to go through each section in turn.

Taken as a classical concert, it’s certainly a lot wittier that you could hope for. But taken as a comedy show, Bailey often seems a little too awed of the impressive might and talent of the orchestra to keep a tight hold on the laughs.

The fact I couldn’t help but imagine what new musical comedy wunderkind Tim Minchin, the much-touted pretender to Bailey’s throne, could do with this set-up indicates that Bailey hasn’t quite managed to nail the truly excellent show that lurks within this generally decent, but only fitfully brilliant, one.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Brighton, October 9, 2008

Review date: 9 Oct 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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