Wherever your personal politics lie, the past year has proven turbulent for all. Dramatic headlines, bus slogans and broken promises have dominated the British press. For approximately half the population, there has been jubilation. For the other half, dismay. Stewart Lee falls into the latter.
“I thought that I was going to grow old in a liberal democracy, which had the sort of values that I grew up thinking were just taken for granted but it doesn’t appear that this is going to be the case,” says the 49-year old stand-up comedian.
“I spent 30 years working on my career and now the endpoint has changed. I don’t want to live in a country that wants to deport people and their families, and I don’t want to pay tax into that country.”
Lee, who made his name in the mid-nineties as one half of radio duo Lee and (Richard) Herring, has built a name as an anti-populist comedian. Like his wife, fellow stand-up Bridget Christie with whom he has two children, he tackles issues like feminism and religion. His current show Content Provider was developed last year, prior to the EU referendum. Five months later people were coming to terms with Brexit, Donald Trump became US president and Lee realised his show needed to tackle them.
“I think [the media] partly got it wrong because commentators are removed geographically, socially and culturally from the areas where there was the most annoyance about the state of each country,” he says, with inside perspective as a contributor to the Guardian.
“That annoyance was harnessed into driving their vote. Both votes were caused by the same thing: ignorance, a begrudged feeling of rage, a reaction against austerity, and racism. The journalists writing about things tend not to know people who are comfortable expressing emotions and feelings which are probably taboo in the discourse of polite society.”
Concerns that he would have to re-write the show were shortlived. “I originally wanted to talk about the idea of how technology changes our perception of things. We don’t have an overview of the world because everyone can follow little digital wormholes of information online,” says Lee, who doesn’t own a smartphone and shuns social media.
“But Brexit and Trump wouldn’t have happened if people were unable to manipulate information online, generating the impression that certain things are happening which aren’t.”
Although the country is divided, Lee’s audiences are proving to at least be united in their sense of humour.
“I keep waiting for the point where the show plays incredibly differently, but it doesn’t seem to be happening, even when I’m in areas where there was a very heavy leave vote. I’ve found that people seem really pleased to have something to laugh about.”
Raised by his adopted parents in the West Midlands but now living in London, as a self-deprecating member of the metropolitan liberal elite, Lee has met criticism from those who believe his comedy is reserved for such audiences.
“I don’t know what I can do to not appear hypocritical other than touring the country extensively for months, performing in every place that will have me and doing the same material, irrespective of how I think it will be received,” he says. “If divided Britain means that audiences divide in two as well, because having a liberal point of view becomes unacceptable to some people, then you’ve got to take the hit.”
Politics aside, fans of Lee will note that the clearest divide during his shows is between himself and his hyperbolic stage persona – a self-aggrandiser who attempts to patronise his audience into outrage.
“The audience get the joke. They sometimes try to wind him up to see what he’ll do. They’re not really heckling or trying to obstruct the show – just trying to drive it to a different place.”
Content Provider, which is also the title of Lee’s book, is the comic’s first full tour for five years due to success with his acclaimed BBC television series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. The show was decommissioned and Lee now refers to himself as an “ex-TV comic”. Broadcasters – as well as leave voters, Trump supporters and selfie takers – are targets of Lee’s scorn in the show. But live touring has its pitfalls too, he points out.
“As I’ve become more popular, I’ve tried to do more shows to meet the demand and to thwart the ticket touts. It really annoys me that you’ll go around the country as cheaply as you can to keep prices down and these bastards are putting them on sale for about £100.”
Lee became involved in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse but it was met with the some resistance.
“The culture secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, was supremely unhelpful to the point where he actually took the side of the touts. He said that they were ‘classic entrepreneurs’, even when they were selling tickets for subsidised venues.
“It’s absolutely obscene. It sums up everything that’s wrong with the government and their whole attitude. Everything is to be exploited and if you’re not exploiting it you’re a mug.”
Even when tickets can be obtained at face value, Lee feels that art is a commodity that many can’t afford.
“As a kid, I used to read about the choreographer Pina Bausch. I always wanted to see her perform, but it was many years before I was able to afford it. She was absolutely brilliant but you wondered who it was for. It wasn’t able to influence young would-be choreographers because it was inaccessible financially.”
Lee is happiest as a touring comedian but the country’s state of affairs is causing a re-think.
“I do really want to carry on doing stand-up but I’ve got to work out how the way I’ve always done it is going to work when there isn’t a left and a liberal media anymore.
“You couldn’t be ironically racist to make some point because mainstream politicians are saying those things for real. A lot of your arsenal of saying absurd, un-PC things has gone.
“It’s a fascinating time to be going around the country. It might be the last time you can tour around Britain as such. If it starts to fragment it could all be very different.”
Lee visits Buxton Opera House, 14-15 June; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 18-20 June; Charter Theatre, Preston, 13 Sept; Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 14-15 Sept; and Sheffield City Hall, 20-21 Sept (stewartlee.co.uk)
Main photo: Idil Sukan