By Stewart Lee
BBC Comedy Production for BBC Two
Saturday, 8th March 2014
Each episode of the new series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle opens with a clip of what I think should be called Chris Morris Talks To… Stewart Lee. In Carpet Remnant World (2012) Lee read out things that people had written about him online; and these discussions with Morris (who in this series replaces Armando Iannucci) are a way of building the same effect into the formal structure of a television programme: they are the Scriblerian footnote, the bathos or critique, and perhaps also an opportunity for prolepsis, the anticipation of possible objections in order to deprive them of force. At it’s baldest this involves Morris accusing Lee of having developed a system that, ‘knowingly operates the leavers that make people laugh by using any means possible apart from actually saying anything funny.’
The discussion at the beginning of S03E02 (‘England’) can be tidied up into a dictionary definition of what an imagined critic might say is Lee’s modus operandi as a comic:
Snuff comedy, n.
Pronunciation: /snʌf ˈkɒmᵻdi/
Etymology: < snuff n. + comedy n., app. after snuff movie.
Comedy involving a character or performer thrashing about desperately trying to prove that they have an identity; the final moments of an expiring talent, thought to be entertaining in the same way that it might be interesting to watch an animal expire after its throat has been slit.*
In other words, Lee knows that there’s a contradiction between his purist’s notion of what alternative comedy is, and, for example, the BAFTA he won for Comedy Vehicle in 2012. Hypocrisy is an unusual sin in that to admit to it is to diminish it, so Lee makes a joke out of admitting to it: ‘I’m a person who sits every night, looking at a mantelpiece, literally creaking with awards, and yet every single one of those awards is like a vampire bat sucking all the energy out of me.’
The show proper begins with some behind-the-curtain stuff with the audience:
I don’t wanna waste any time faffing around or trying to create a good atmosphere in the room, so, er, what I’m gonna ask you to do in about thirty seconds is clap for about three seconds […] and I’ll come off the back of that on the move as if we were already in the show […] and you’ll see that works just as well as if I’d done something good.
Lee begins ‘off the back of’ the applause with some true non sequiturs (they follow nothing), before introducing the episode’s subject (England) with a straw (cab)man, who is reported to have said: ‘These days you get arrested and thrown in gaol if you say you’re English.’ In the sequence that follows, with his hallmark repetition-with-variations, Lee sands down this rightwing hyperbole by incredulously asking the cabbie to confirm what he said to be true: ‘When did this come in?’ he asks.
Then we cut back to Chris Morris Talks To, and Lee is picked up for the fact that the cabbie was a clearly fictional straw man: ‘I needed them to say particular things to make the routines work,’ Lee admits, ‘I don’t have time now to have adventures or experiences or ideas’.† So in discussing a story that none of us actually thought was true, he alludes to one of the things about stadium comics which presumably keeps him up at night, grinding his teeth, which is whether or not they make up their ‘this genuinely happened’ stories. As is often the case with his routines, it turns out to be about both comedy and society. The vehicle of the programme’s title is both a jibe at series cobbled together to ‘to display [a] [comedian] to the best advantage’ (OED), and also a sincere claim to be a ‘medium by which ideas or impressions are communicated’ (OED).
The story about the cab driver is a way in to discussing anxieties around cultural identity. And having got there, Lee narrows his focus to the political establishment’s current bête noire, ‘Nigel Farage of the UKIPs’.‡ Farage, he says, is a ‘character’ in the Dictionary of Theatre’s sense of ‘something that gives the illusion of being a person.’§ He goes on to say that protest votes are supposed to be given to parties who are nice but won’t get in, and to bemoan UKIP’s appropriation of them in spite of being nasty and standing a genuine chance (at the European elections). He addresses Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s deputy leader, and asks him, ‘how am I supposed to get cheap tea and coffee unless there’s a massively overqualified east European philosophy professor prepared to make it for me for significantly less than the living wage?’ It’s the bit of the show where Lee satirises us, his audience, eliciting (as he put it in Episode 1) ‘the sound of the middle classes applauding their own guilt’. (I sense he’s taken that sort of material as far as it will go now, and hope there are no similar lines in Series Four.) In conclusion regarding UKIP, voting for them is ‘like shitting your hotel bed as a protest against bad service, and then realising that you’ve now got to sleep in a shitted [sic] bed’.
Lee’s response to UKIP and their ilk is to make the point that any Briton who is not an immigrant is descended from one. In the words of his fellow West Midlander, Benjamin Zephaniah, in ‘The British (Serves Sixty Million)’,
Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately four hundred years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.
It’s quite well-trodden ground, but Lee’s petty perseverance on the silliness of the ‘comin’ over ’ere’ argument makes the viewer feel, by the end, that only now has the point been properly made. When he reaches the Anglo-Saxons on the devolutionary pilgrimage he recites some of their poetry. By way of introduction he proclaims ‘Lif is læne’ (‘life is fleeting’) and then launches into the Old English elegy The Wanderer.‖ (And is it my imagination or does he slip into a slightly Caribbean accent?)
Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
Wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre.
([F]ate is inflexible.
Mindful of hardships, grievous slaughter,
The ruin of kinsmen, the wanderer said…)¶
This recital is in the same vein as his playing ‘Galway Girl’ at the end of If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One (2010). In that show he argued that the last taboo in stand-up is not jokes about race or rape, but ‘a man trying to do something sincerely and well’. Anyway, the payoff is a reduction to the absurd of the anti-immigration position: ‘You come over here, Anglo-Saxons, learn to speak the fucking language!’
Like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, Lee’s onstage persona can move fluidly between inconsistencies, so long as he’s the vehicle for satire. In Episode 1 he was bemoaning Twitter as a paranoid, small-c conservative, but in this devolution sequence he persists at such length that it’s as though he intends to eviscerate all conservative ideologies. Doing a turn as Paul Nuttall (speaking to a lobe-finned would-be tetrapod of the Devonian period) he whines, ‘I say we need to ensure the brightest and best fish stay in the sea and concentrate on making it aquatically prosperous.’ By the end it’s, ‘I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted a big bang […] I liked it when there was nothing’.
The episode closes with a high-end, well-shot sketch, starring Kevin Eldon as the would-be tetrapod, and Paul Putner as a UKIP-man, who has travelled back in time to impede evolutionary progress. The striving, pioneer fish attempts to leave the ocean and crawl up the beach, and the Faraginary is there to whack it down using a brochure with, in the words of Michael Crick, ‘no black faces on it’. The seaside setting brings to mind King Cnut (one of Zephaniah’s Vikings), who is said to have sat on the bank of the Thames at Westminster and ordered the tide to go back. But wyrd bið ful aræd: fate is inflexible, so don’t be a cnut about it. The time machine malfunctions and the man ends up getting his head bitten off by a green sea beast. He stumbles around (like a headless chicken, I think we’re to infer) and then falls down dead, as the sound of Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ fades in, the perfect music to evoke the necessary ambiguities of thoughtful English patriotism. Lee is mindful of kinsmen, with a generously broad understanding of who that includes. The episode is an assertion of humaneness as a response to the Other, and one which, ironically, swims against the tide.☞
* I am referring throughout to Lee the onstage character, not Lee the performer. The design or intention of the real Stewart Lee is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of one of his programmes.
† This picks up from the routine in Carpet Remnant World in which he repeatedly claims to do nothing these days except drive around and watch Scooby-Doo.
‡ ‘The UKIPs’ is an example of the Lee & Herring -s suffix, used to great effect in references to ‘Tony Blairs’. The morning after this episode went out Lee was in the Observer, again discussing UKIP.
§ Though at this point Lee is holding his authoritative bit of paper, I have been unable to trace a dictionary containing such a definition, and have reason to believe he invented it ‘to make the routine work’.
‖ Lif is læne does not actually appear in the corpus of Old English texts, but was written by Tolkien (in ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’) as a way of articulating the theme of several Old English poems. One of these is The Wanderer, which Lee would have studied at Oxford. It may also have appealed to him on account of the twelve-bar-blues song of the same name having been covered by one of his favourite comedians, Ted Chippington. (Chippington changed the wayfaring lyrics to make it an anti-wandering song: ‘And when she asks me if I’m in for tea | I say yes please, where else would I be? | I’m not the wanderer…’)
¶ Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland, in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Lee does not provide one.
☞ Lee’s personality seems to pervade even as far as the final frame of the credits. Where nowadays many comedies list three or even four independent production companies, here the screen is puritanically clean, just as I’m sure he likes it. On a black background it reads, ‘BBC Comedy Production London © BBC MMXIV’.