Stewart Lee grew up in Solihull and discovered his love for comedy in the theatres, halls and clubs of Birmingham. David Johns caught up with the man dubbed ‘the greatest living stand-up’ as his long-awaited new show hits the Hippodrome
If you’re lucky enough to be in the audience of the man who The Times calls “the world’s greatest living stand-up” on Sunday 13 February, you might just be in for a sweet surprise! Solihull’s finest, Stewart Lee, is making his long-awaited appearance at the Hippodrome after delays and postponements due to Covid, and he says he is tempted to shower the audience with confectionery. “Thoroughly sterilised, of course!” he adds.
Crazy? Maybe! But Stewart is looking forward to returning to the place where, as a kid, he watched panto and enjoyed all the wacky treats that come the audience’s way from some of theatre’s most colourful characters. (Mind you, we’re pretty sure that the idea of lobbing a pick ’n’ mix of Quality Street, Heroes, Celebrations or whatever into the stalls was said with tongue firmly in cheek!)
What is certain is that Stewart’s Snowflake/Tornado show, delayed from last year, will delight fans and bring back memories of early years in Brum when his love of both music and comedy were formed. “The first music I ever saw was all in Birmingham, obviously,” said Stewart.
WOMBLES OF BINGLEY HALL
“I saw the Wombles live at Bingley Hall in about 1973, which was where Symphony Hall is now, and it turns out years later that inside the suits were some pretty amazing musicians – Chris Spedding for Colosseum and the Sex Pistols, Clem Cattini from the Tornados, Robin Le Mesurier, and the bassist from Lou Reed’s first solo album. The first gig I ever went to under my own steam was Madness at the same venue in 1981, which was brilliant, although when I met Chas Smash from Madness he said all he could remember was loads of Nazi skinheads Sieg Heiling! Strange times to be a teenager.”
The comedian, writer and director, who was one half of the radio duo Lee and Herring, alongside Richard Herring in the mid-90s, says he first knew he wanted to be a comedian after seeing Ted Chippington, an early anti-comedian, at the old Powerhouse in Hurst Street. “He made me think stand-up could be whatever you wanted it to be and I would never have thought I could do it if I hadn’t seen him.” He added: “I also saw lots of pantomimes as a kid with my gran in Birmingham and was lucky enough to catch the final outings of lots of old music hall and variety stars doing their bits in pantos – the Crazy Gang, and Jimmy Jewell’s stooge Eli Woods. I even saw Max Wall doing Krapp’s Last Tape at the Mac.
“Most of the comedy I saw was opening for bands, as the early alternative comics did in those days –Phil Jupitas supporting Billy Bragg, and Peter Richardson from the Comic Strip opening for Brum legends Dexys Midnight Runners at the Hippodrome. Dexys just get better with age and I am going to see them in 2022, 40 years and one day after I first saw them. It was very brave in those days for a Brum band to so conspicuously own its Irish connections.”
TURNING THE TABLES
Stewart went on: “A big thing for me was somehow seeing a performance artist called Anthony Howell at the Art Gallery in about 1984. He moved furniture around for an hour, first with the lights on, and then in the dark. I started off thinking it was stupid and by the end thought it was brilliant. I think it was a big influence on my own work to this day. It was called Table Moves. Maybe one day I will get fit enough to move furniture and ask him if I can revive it!”
Stewart says his love of theatre beyond comedy also came as a teenager “taking the X50 bus to Stratford-upon-Avon for the £5 standing seats and seeing loads of Shakespeare that really inspired me”. And an interest in art was born from seeing Nicholas Monro’s statue of King Kong in Manzoni Gardens – both of which are gone now. He says: “I wrote a film about the statue and Birmingham punk band the Nightingales, called King Rocker, which is out on DVD soon. I liked Trewin Copplestone’s relief bull sculptures on the old Bullring but I think they are now lost too. And the Ansells sign in Digbeth that filled up with illuminated beer. Now I realise Birmingham is full of amazing public art – the Edward Burne-Jones stained glass windows in the cathedral for example. I don’t think I really appreciated the city properly when it was my home.”
Like all of us, Covid has proved a huge challenge to Stewart and his comedian wife, Bridget Christie with his scheduled 2019/2020 tour on hold for two years. “I lived off savings, now disappearing,” he says. “Hopefully it will all be up and running in 2022. We were lucky. We had a home and weren’t in immediate jeopardy. I did the home-schooling in the first half of lockdown and Bridget actually achieved a lot with various writing jobs she has never had time to finish properly before.
“But although we were all physically ok, lockdown, for everyone I think, exposes a lot of mental fissures that none of us have properly made sense of yet. And I think everyone is dangerously disillusioned with the government, even people that voted for them.”
Stewart has a reputation for going into areas which can be challenging and controversial but he makes no apologies. Asked if it is important that any of his projects make a statement of some kind, he says: “Increasingly, yes, as it seems an incredible privilege to be allowed to talk, against the odds, and I am increasingly aware that people do find a degree of comfort in the work, although I understand that sounds like a messianic delusion.
“Lots of comedians can’t afford to ‘say’ anything and the current culture secretary Nadine Dorries has made explicit her opposition to comedy that comments on politics. It would be problematic for someone’s career to say liberal things in the current climate. I have huge admiration for a lot of young online comics – Rosie Holt, Alasdair Beckett-King – who do liberal political stuff even though currently it represents a mild form of career suicide.”
REDUCED TO TEARS
So, what makes Stewart laugh and who are his personal heroes? “The comedians that can reduce me to tears are Northern Ireland’s Kevin MacAleer, Harry Hill and unsung genius Simon Munnery, but Daniel Kitson, Nish Kumar and my wife Bridget also switch my brain on and make me laugh,” he says.
And what gives him the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction – comedy, writing, music? “Stand-up comedy is the best,” he says. “Something where there is the least amount of other people to deal with, where you can make changes in the moment in a reactive way, where the transactional relationship with the audience seems honest and immediate and uncontrived, and where the rewards are instant. But who knew that basing your career on people coming to a room would end up being so difficult!”