Television does strange things to some people, but not to Bill Bailey. In person, he looks and sounds exactly as he does on the telly. We've grown accustomed to his face, and so, it appears, has Chris de Burgh, butt of many of Bailey's routines. "I'm told he did an interview where he said I was very ugly. And balding," Bailey recalls as we sit outside his local pub in west London. "I'm still reeling." Considering that, in one routine, Bailey has a picture of Osama Bin Laden morphing into the face of de Burgh, that seems a thoroughly restrained reaction by the beetle-browed singer.
That is about as barbed as Bailey gets, however. His spoofs are usually affectionate - and always alarmingly accurate. His absurdist condensed rock operas, Insect Nation and Leg of Time, for instance, might just as well be the real 1970s thing. He is an amiable cove. He doesn't swear on stage or in interview. And although, as a team captain on the television pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he played up to a hippie image, Bill Bailey is not an invented character. Beyond the fact that his real name is Mark. "It's easier," he admits. "Steve Coogan once congratulated me on the slightly mad character I played on stage, who thought insects were going to take over the world. He said I should work on that character. But it was just me. I think like that."
Bailey seems to be in a bit of a career shift at the moment. Although his passport says "comedian" rather than "musician" (too much trouble at customs with the latter, he says), he seems to be leaning more towards musicianship. Now 45, after years of sell-out tours, three series of the sitcom Black Books and various stage appearances, including a Pinter miscellany, he is returning to one of his side projects: Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra.
We're familiar with Bailey playing keyboards, guitars, even that weird early-20th-century proximity-sensor electronic instrument, the theremin. He can hold a tune, too. But he's happy to admit that he can't bow strings, and even he can't impersonate an entire orchestra on his own. Hence the Remarkable Guide, which started life as a Comic Relief radio special in 2007 and last year enjoyed a three-night live outing at the Albert Hall, later televised. Now he's stepping it up another gear with a dozen performances in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, which kicked off last week at Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre.
Bailey becomes the genial master of ceremonies, working with a full symphony orchestra conducted by Anne Dudley. "Anne's name had appeared on so many albums I'd owned - she'd arranged the strings on ABC's The Lexicon of Love, composed lots of film and TV music, and been in the Art of Noise. I'd seen her perform in the 1980s. They did a lot of sampling of voices, and that became an inspiration for some sampling I did much later in my stand-up." In other words, Dudley is well up for playing around with received notions of what musicians can do, and Bailey, with his analysis of 1970s cop-show theme music or mucking around with cowbells, is fine by her. For instance, they upturn the Carnival of the Animals notion with their Cavalcade of the Unloved. It's Dudley's task to express, say, a swarm of locusts or jellyfish, musically, while Bailey does the commentary. He gets almost misty-eyed when he recalls the first time he heard the full orchestral take on one of his old standards - the Doctor Who theme tune reinterpreted as a Jacques Brel-style ballad, and renamed Dr Qui.
There are plenty of good moments in the Remarkable Guide - Bailey as a newsreader getting his timing disastrously wrong when reading the headlines between the bongs of News at Ten, for instance, a gag that's a lot harder work than it looks. Indeed, the whole section on the music for news programmes is a joy. Did you know that the ultra-staccato Panorama theme sounds pretty much identical played backwards or forwards? Bailey has to splice his humour into the mindsets of no fewer than eight orchestras on this tour. Comic timing (or deliberate mistiming) in these circumstances is tricky. "It takes months. The key to it is preparation. All the calibrations of the joke have to be written into the score."
We can expect a more streamlined show this time round, he says. He's going to be cutting out some familiar routines to concentrate more on providing a proper guide to the orchestra, instrument by instrument. Watching him evoke the characters of particular instruments, such as the oboe, harp or trombone, turns him into the world's funniest music teacher.
Does he feel any affinity with the great Gerard Hoffnung, comic classical-music whimsy merchant of the 1950s, who liked nothing better than placing vacuum cleaners and floor polishers in a symphony orchestra? "There's a bit of channelling of Hoffnung," Bailey concedes. "When I was first approached by the BBC Concert Orchestra, I think the players thought that I would dress them up in silly costumes, make them play hosepipes and chairs and things, like Hoffnung. When it wasn't like that, there was a noticeable shift in their attitude. There was some respect for the fact that I was a proper musician as well, who was actually going to celebrate what they did."
Bailey doesn't do jokes in the traditional sense. He's the man for quirks and strangenesses. His gift is to lay bare almost forensically what a particular instrument or passage of music is doing. It's only a semitone off being a rather serious business. But this is Bill Bailey, so it's more like a circus. Do you know, I think he's close to becoming a proper old-fashioned family entertainer. It's perhaps his bravest move yet.
Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra tours until December 14; the DVD of the show is out on November 23
Hugh Pearman in The Sunday Times, 15 November 2009
Bill Bailey will be performing his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra with Manchester Camerata at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall on Monday 16th November and at Warwick Arts Centre on Monday 30th November. Visit www.manchestercamerata.co.uk/whats-on for ticket details or www.billbailey.co.uk for more information on Bill Bailey.