Stewart Lee: 'I'm not going to change who I am or what I think, even if it did mean losing audiences'
- Claire Sawers
- 5 March 2020
As the comic straddles the line between 'has-been and legend', Lee's new two-part show Snowflake/Tornado is set to split audiences yet further
'I didn't get into this to get big crowds,' says comedian Stewart Lee. 'I got into it to be free to do what I want. People can come and see me if they want, but it doesn't make any difference to the work I produce. I'd do it anyway, to no one.'
The less Lee panders to his crowd, the more they seem to like what he does. He wrote Content Provider after the 2016 Brexit referendum, then toured it around a divided Britain for over 18 months. 'I don't really change what I say in different parts of the country,' he explains. 'I am a graduate who works in the arts from a 78% Remain-voting constituency so obviously my attitude to Brexit reflects that. I wouldn't be as aggressive about it now as I was last time I toured, because I don't think anyone has got what they wanted, so it just seems like a massive tragedy. But I'm not going to change who I am or what I think, even if it did mean losing audiences. They've gone up if anything!'
A live recording of Content Provider was shown on BBC iPlayer in 2018 and watched by 2 million people. 'Before it went out I grew a massive beard and let myself go a bit so I didn't get attacked in the street. The problem is, I can't seem to find my way back to normal now, so I look like a furry bin bag.' Lee's new live show Snowflake/Tornado sees him, in his own words, 'negotiating the thin line between has-been and legend'. It's two one-hour shows back to back: Tornado is the story of Lee sharing a venue with a famous American comedian and getting chased by his security team while Snowflake is more ideas-driven, about political correctness from someone who describes himself as 'a 1980s snowflake liberal'.
Although Lee doesn't adapt his show for individual cities, when he plays Glasgow, is he tempted to comment on Scotland's position now that we know the election results? 'If something local fits into the show without derailing it and pops up naturally, yes. Before Brexit I hoped Scotland would stay in the UK. I would be much less happy to be British if I didn't feel Scotland was part of that Britishness: I have underserved sentimental attachments to my Scottish ancestry and for a brief period I mistakenly thought I was the rightful heir to the title of Marquess of Tweeddale, due to some misinformation on my adoption paperwork. The happiest I have ever been was in Orkney, and doing the Edinburgh Fringe totally changed my life.'
Besides his stand-up, Lee is a huge champion of the musical underground. He's written music reviews for The Sunday Times, did a live Q&A in 2019 about his music and fiction favourites for The Quietus, contributed a chapter on The Fall for The Wire Primers: A Guide to Modern Music and played a key role in the comeback of folk legend Shirley Collins. What's next? 'I'm contributing to a live piece by the brilliant medieval, minimalist improviser/composer Laura Cannell in the summer and I'm helping Michael Cumming [Brass Eye and Toast of London director] make a film about Birmingham post-punk band The Nightingales. Hopefully it will avoid the usual rockumentary clichés.'
Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado, King's Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 26 Mar, and touring.