Bill Bailey/Manchester Camerata Review

Posted on December 2, 2009

Taking in the sublime and the ridiculous, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra is a glorious achievement.

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by Dominic Cavendish

Do we quite appreciate what we’ve got in Bill Bailey; how lucky we are he’s on the planet?

More blokey than boffinish, he wears his intelligence, comic ability and musical talents so lightly, in such a spirit of low-key, grinning affability, rather as if he were 45 going on 14, that it’s easy to underestimate what a rare old bird he actually is. 

Everyone on stage in Coventry with him – the Manchester Camerata orchestra and the immaculately groomed conductor Anne Dudley – looks more presentable than he, scruffy as ever, does. Yet this is his brainchild – and it’s completely wonderful. The self-effacing Bailey may not care to blow his own trumpet but his endearingly daffy introduction to the art of orchestral noise is touched with genius.

You only have to look at other recent efforts to combine classical music with comedy – the painfully flat Monty Python oratorio ‘Not the Messiah’ or the fairly execrable Barry Humphries escapade ‘Last Night of the Poms’ – to measure this show’s success. Building on his past synthesizer-based mash-ups, the evening is attuned both to the initiated, who will surely delight in the in-jokey games Bailey and co play with established classics, and to those who can’t tell a harp from a harpsichord.

Everything from Nokia ring-tones, the Emmerdale theme-tune, and the Bee Gees on the one hand to samples from Beethoven, Handel and Strauss on the other are harnessed to the service of this hallucinogenic musical-mystery tour. We hear pastiche symphonic homages to wasps, locusts and jelly-fish. The Match of the Day theme-tune is recast as a Jewish folk-song. The introduction to current affairs flagship Panorama gets played backwards, while other TV news oddities are played straight, for laughs. You marvel at how slick, sharp and well-timed the whole thing is – relying as it does on the parachuted participation of different orchestras.

The piece de resistance probably comes when the radiophonic nightmare of Doctor Who gets shuffled into a cheesy jazz-piano parody. But then there’s also Saint-Saens’ The Swan – manically performed on cow-bells. And that’s capped by Bailey indulging in a curtain-call battle with the entire orchestra to see who can have the last laugh and play the final note. To quibble, it wouldn’t hurt to make the pop-culture references more child-friendly but all in all this is a glorious achievement that forever keeps sweeping from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again.

This article originally featured in The Daily Telegraph, 1st December 2009. Click here to read it on The Daily Telegraph website.