Opinion: Stand-Ups Can Also Stand Out in Documentaries

bill bailey

Television seems to be going through one of its phases where it gives comedians interesting jobs rather than just going "ooh look, how about a nice panel game/quiz show to be charismatically spontaneous on?" Last week Victoria Wood was poured all over our screens talking about tea. For the next two Sundays Bill Bailey is going to be in the jungle.

And before you ask, his career is not on the skids and he's doing I'm A Celebrity, he is telling the story of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was a contemporary-slash-rival of Darwin who also came up with the theory of evolution, but somehow – maybe Darwin was better connected because he was posher, maybe Darwin just had a better publicist – he got elbowed out of history.

Bailey sets out to put the record straight, following in Wallace's footsteps and travelling to the Far East, He is his usual engaging self and very watchable. A lot of people will tune in because they like Bill Bailey on QI and will then find out that this is more than a quite interesting story. There are some fantastic clips of some truly bizarre Birds of Paradise, some great anecdotes and you will learn something too.

It is always interesting to see how a comedian presents a programme like this. The dilemma is do they do is straight or do they play it for laughs? Victoria Wood really went for the jocular jugular in her programme, while Dara O'Briain, for example, is witty but pretty straight compared to the gag-rate of his frenetic stand-up when presenting science programmes. Bill Bailey treads a tidy path between the two, joking that the locals may be recognising him as a farmer from Nanny McPhee 2 or getting into a tangle with a butterfly net. It all works really well.

I'm not for a moment saying that TV broadcasters are cynical – oh no – but someone somewhere must be saying that Michael Palin cannot last forever. Or for that matter David morrissey victoria woodAttenborough  – whose cameo in Bailey's show is good, but rather lacks the Oscar Wilde-ish panache of Morrissey's turn in Victoria Wood's tea exploits. Maybe when these programmes are commissioned there is the thought they could spawn a new globetrotting charmer to rival Palin. But you've got to get the match of subject and presenter right of course.

I'm not sure if Victoria Wood would be such a good fit for a doc on the Nazis, but Al Murray was excellent when he enthusiastically explored Teutonic history and culture in Al Murray's German Adventure for BBC4 in 2010. You could see that Murray was clearly interested in the subject. He studied Modern History at Oxford and had already made Al Murray's Road to Berlin for the Discovery Channel in 2004. If he ever finally decides to give the Pub Landlord his marching orders Murray could probably make a decent crust presenting further historic docs. Likewise Glamorgan-born Rob Brydon was perfectly placed to explore the Welsh psyche in BBC4's Identity Crisis in 2008. I'm sure someone from Bangor could have done it, but maybe not as amusingly or with as much skill and insight as Brydon.

Comedians are perfect for these shows – witty, well-informed, interested in everything, able to think on their feet if necessary and loved by the public. If TV is hoping to track down a rare hybrid of Michael Palin and David Attenborough Bill Bailey certainly fits the, erm, bill. But he has plenty of competition. As well as those I've just mentioned Paul Merton has donned the obligatory Panama hat and done this sort of thing, Jo Brand did a series all about water. I sometimes wonder if these days comedians bump into each other at airports rather than service stations and instead of asking each other what gig they are heading for they ask what part of the world are they filming their next documentary in.

Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero is on BBC2 at 8pm on Sunday 21 & 28 April.

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