Stewart Lee: “It feels like watching news from another country”

The comedian on how Brexit killed satire. 

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On 24 June 2016, Stewart Lee learned his career in stand-up comedy could be over. He had been up until 5am, trying to make sense of a referendum result that left his latest script in tatters, before driving from Bristol to London for a doctor’s appointment. He was told he had severe high blood pressure, and was advised to avoid stressful situations. “I thought: I’m not going to be able to do stand-up,” he says now.

Instead, he spent a week writing a satirical drama about a “charming, confident and Machiavellian politician” called Horace Thompson, an Islington-dwelling graduate of the Bullingdon Club. As Thompson struggles to process a bitter referendum he narrowly won, the amoral MP games the media in pursuit of his own ambition. Remind you of anyone?

Channel 4 wanted to turn it into a series, but it never appeared. By the summer of 2017, with the Brexit crisis intensifying, Lee concluded that Thompson no longer made a likeable antihero. He abandoned the script. Political satirists, he complains in his new book, March of the Lemmings, have nothing left to aim for.

“Boris Johnson sort of drifted away from the centre of the Brexit story,” he said when we met at his publisher’s offices in Bloomsbury, London. “He was replaced in the public eye by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who became the funny toff… He’d lost control of the wild pony of Brexit.” For three years, Lee has been trying to tame it himself: on the stage, where he has forged a reputation as a scourge of illiberal Britain (or as he puts it to me, a figurehead for the metropolitan elite), and in print, as an Observer columnist.

From 2016, he wrote with “half an eye” on publishing a book that told the story of Brexit from its beginning to its scheduled but ultimately delayed end – 29 March 2019, when he filed his manuscript.  “Rarely has a minor celebrity’s cash-in book creaked so loudly under such a lofty weight of intent,” he jokes in its preface.

He describes the book as a chronicle of his failure to escape the “toilet-flush pull” of Brexit when writing and performing. It was written mostly on the road – often from the towns the media accuse liberals of fearing to visit. Throughout the book, the real Lee offers his reflections on the fictional Lee – the maudlin columnist and the irascible comic – through the footnotes. Meeting the real Lee, 51, is a little disarming. Dressed in a Fred Perry polo shirt, he looks less like the “crumpled Morrissey” he was once likened to than just plain old Morrissey (he jokes that Rees-Mogg and Brexit have made him fatter and greyer). Out of character, he is an amiable, reflective conversationalist.

The night before we meet, Boris Johnson prorogued parliament, to protests from opposition MPs. Lee is quite literally exhausted by politics. “I’m knackered today. I couldn’t turn away from the telly last night… It feels like watching news from another country. You think, ‘Oh, what a mad place!’ What must it look like?”

Has Brexit changed his act? It is, he concedes, making it harder to write: clips of him haranguing his audience have been shared by right-wingers online, as if it were a smoking gun for Remoaner groupthink. “It’s actually the nicest compliment you can pay someone: to feel like you know them well enough to be rude to them. So that’s disappointing… I would think about things differently now.”

Initially, Brexit allowed Lee to be as caustic as he liked about Leave voters and politicians, “because I’d lost”. He does live in Stoke Newington, north London, prime “liberal elite” territory. But over the 18 months his last show, Content Provider, was on tour, his shtick “started to feel like bullying”. Brexit, he told me, “looked as though it was going to be a bit of a pyrrhic victory. Remain won the argument, but Leave won the referendum.”

Now, on stage, Lee would be more forgiving. “One can’t help but have sympathy for both sides… A Remain voter thinks the original referendum was rigged by Cambridge Analytica, and a Leave voter thinks the intervening period has seen the liberal elite block their result. Everyone is at an impasse of annoyance. I couldn’t write a show about it now, because that last show wasn’t supposed to be about Brexit. Brexit leaked into it.”

His next live show will avoid the subject altogether.  One half is almost entirely about “the two rotisserie chickens in Dave Chappelle’s dressing room”.  He laughs: “I partly did that like some old vaudevillian, some old wartime entertainer. I thought, ‘Everyone’s having a terrible time at the moment, I’d better give them something to laugh about.’”

The second half amounts to a defence of the so-called snowflake generation.

“I want to make that work, but I can’t at the moment. I want it to be about the idea of ‘Why should young people be traduced for caring about things?’ It seems amazing that Arron Banks [the so-called man who bought Brexit] can dismiss Greta Thunberg.”

Lee fears for the world his young children will grow up in, but intends to see it himself. “One of the only reasons I want to stay alive is that I love to see little kids, out of academic curiosity, when they’re old… and I’d like to see what it’s like to be really mad on stage at the age of 80 without becoming reactionary.”

Stewart Lee as Ken Dodd? He smiles. “He didn’t become anti-feminist.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain