Last night I went with Former Flatmate Al to the Riverside Studios, nestling in the shadow of the lovely old Hammersmith Bridge (about which I've written before), to see a performance by the multi-talented English comedian Bill Bailey.
Not content with mere success on the comedy circuit, Bailey moved into radio and TV work and attained wide popularity, both in acting roles and appearances as himself. He has been a team captain on the quixotically brilliant music quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks for ten years and 100 episodes, makes frequent appearances on Stephen Fry's witty and ideas-laden panel show QI, and his performance as the hapless and put-upon shop assistant Manny Bianco in three series of Black Books is legendary. Manny was forever the victim of his misanthropic boss, Bernard Black (sample managerial technique: 'You know what you are? You're a beard with an idiot hanging off it').
Standup comedy with a musical bent is still Bailey's forte, and was best expressed in his 2004 show and DVD, Part Troll, in which he mused on the meaning of Englishness (which is to celebrate inherent mediocrity whenever possible), the possibly futile search for meaning in life, and the relaxation that can be obtained from peering at one's washing up underwater through a transparent bowl in the sink. His musical talents give him another string to his bow, whether he is subverting the stadium-filling rock riffs of U2 or the techno-trance BBC World idents.
Last night's show fitted the Part Troll model, with rambling, genial anecdotes punctuated with philosophical outbursts and keenly-observed messing about on the keyboards and guitar. Bailey worries about the seeming pointlessness of modern existence and the contradictions involved in trying to be good in a world compromised by consumerism and environmental decay. But ultimately, like the rest of us, Bailey sometimes falls short:
Sometimes I leave the lids off things. But that's where Satan gets in! And grows the fur on top of the jam! Satan's furry jam hats!
He also offers musical alternatives to soothe society's fevered brow (aka plays some silly tunes), illustrating his point that God Save The Queen would sound far better if it was performed jazz-style (he's right, you know) and that the Imperial March from Star Wars would sound much less intimidating and creepy if it was performed in a jazz-scat bebop version.
I'm generally terrible at remembering jokes, so suffice it to say, it was a good show. It felt a little odd though, because for some reason the Studios audience felt compelled to make numerous trips to the bar during the performance, despite there being an intermission for this very purpose. Due to the low-level stage and the layout of the seats, this meant plenty of punters were wandering right in front of the stage, interrupting Bailey's flow at times, and he was clearly a little surprised and put out that people couldn't just sit and enjoy the performance. On the plus side, one lady in her fifties misplaced the exit and managed to stroll blithely across stage right and behind the stage curtain into the dressing room, where Bailey assured the audience she was rifling through his backpack. We never saw her again, so perhaps she's still in there.
Bailey also attempts to involve the audience and get some feedback to incorporate in his shows, and English audiences generally cooperate. The ordinary punters often think to themselves, "I'm quite a character, I could foot it with this guy and give as good as I get", which is invariably wrong but can generate some useful material. The worst ones are the toffs though. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with confidence. But the sort of confidence instilled by the more refined educational establishments in England encourages some people to share views that are better kept unshared.
For example, in Bailey's monologue he offered a nice melding of particle physics and surreal comedy in discussing the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which will be switched on in August, either leading to 'absolutely nothing happening, or a massive black hole forming under Switzerland, sucking in cows, chocolate, cuckoo clocks...' One possibly cider-augmented posh audience member then piped up in a loud but strangulated student voice, exclaiming, '...ah well I should apologise because my girlfriend's father is probably responsible you know' It turned out that said girlfriend's father works at CERN, and may or may not be involved in the Collider project. Yes yes, well done, but the last time I looked this was a Bill Bailey show, not the Bill Bailey And Some Sozzled Trustafarian Show.