Tag Archives: identity

The writer behind Stuart Leigh – the world’s No 1 Stewart Lee tribute act

Stewart Lee wins a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Yesterday, I had a meal with comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly in Soho. He sniffled. I coughed. We both had colds.

Last week, I saw an invitation-only try-out of Mark’s hour-long show Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which he is in the process of writing.

He first tried it out in Claire Dowie’s Living Room Theatre then, a few days later, at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club – the performance I saw.

“What you saw last week,” Mark told me yesterday, “was a rough version of one of several series of texts. I’ve got nearly four hours to choose from. It was maybe 30% different from the first performance at Claire Dowie’s – and I performed it differently.”

Mark’s brief description of Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act is:

An all-night garage. 

A man attempts to make a purchase.

What could go wrong?

The monologue is delivered by a character who thinks of himself as The World’s No 1 Stewart Lee Tribute Act and who interacts with the man behind the counter, through the glass, at the garage.

“How did you describe the show to Stewart Lee?” I asked Mark.

“I haven’t particularly,” he replied. “I invited him to the gigs and he said he was worried, if he came, that people might be looking at him to see his reaction rather than looking at the piece. And he did not want to be seen as, in any way, approving or colluding because it would look wrong for both of us – he would look smug and it would undermine the idea of me as an outsider. I offered to send him a script – either a rough script or the finished script. He decided not to read it because, if there was anything in it he didn’t like or which would upset him, he would rather not know.”

The next try-out (possibly in July) may open with Vivienne Soan playing avant-garde saxophone in the style of Evan Parker, whom Stewart Lee likes: “There’s room in my piece to have a busker in the garage forecourt,” says Mark.

“My intention is to move it into a much more performance art type of thing. I’m probably going to make it a bit more poetic, with internal rhyming. Obviously, comics have scripts, but it’s disguised text; it’s written to be spoken as conversational monologue. I am going to make no attempt at all to disguise the fact my script is textual; I would highlight the fact it is.

“The next stage will probably involve an environmental soundtrack of late-night garage sounds treated to make them sound a bit dreamy and trippy – not intrusive, but they’d be there – probably some live music, a lot of visuals and the text broken up and done in a quite substantially different way. And the stage set will probably be projected – it’s a photograph of me at a garage in a hoodie with my back to the camera walking into a circle of light.

“I’m playing with the idea of having a disguised series of foot pedals linked to the microphone with different effects on and I can press the pedals. But I have to decide how funny I want it to be because I don’t think anyone’s ever performed treated voice comedy. And there’s a good reason for that. If you concentrate on jokes, you want the voice to be clear and audible. So the idea of doing jokes with echo and reverb is a bit alien.”

Reaction to the two try-outs has been varied, Mark tells me.

“There are a handful of people who think it’s absolutely brilliant. And there are a handful of people who absolutely hate it. I mean really really dislike it.

“My old double-act partner Paul Brightwell loathes it. We used to perform as Cheap and Nasty – I was Mr Nasty.

“Paul tends not to like anything I do and then gradually warms to it, though not always. He is one of two or three people who think it’s a complete waste of time in every sense, that there’s nothing happening, there’s nothing of interest, there’s a passable impression of Stewart Lee’s style, there are a few jokes about comedy which are amusing but there’s no substance to it, there’s nothing happening… What point is it I am trying to make? Why don’t I just fuck off? That kind of stuff.

“I’m quite happy that some people hate it, as long as some people really like it. Those people who said it was really boring said so in terms that implied they were really infuriated by it, which is quite good.

“Other people have actually got it, though one person who saw the show actually asked me: Why do you hate Stewart Lee? – I said: No! No! He’s a friend!

“When you perform, obviously, people assume the character speaks for you, which is not the case at all. My piece doesn’t have to be about Stewart Lee. It could be about a tribute act for a fictional act. It’s about identity, about someone who is alienated struggling to find some sense of identity and a way in the world. But it’s also about what, to me, is the nightmare of post-modernism, which I think we’ve already entered. It is very difficult to find an argument that galvanises any more, because everything is immediately presented with its opposite or is presented with a counter argument. It’s very, very difficult to find arguments out of any situation and everything repeats so, in a way, Stewart Lee is the comic de nos jours. Stewart Lee’s act is very, very useful.

“It seems to me it’s also about the solipsism of digital culture. I refer to the Chortle comedy website. The important bit about the Chortle reference is the line …and, through the medium of ill-informed comedy criticism, I have managed to gather together a network of like-minded individuals in low-paid jobs at all-night garages the length and breadth of Britain.

“That, to me, is the important image, because it is just true. Everywhere around Britain, there are these people on low-paid jobs, really bored out of their minds in all-night garages. The all-night garage is the symbol of a certain type of labour, a certain type of situation. To me, it just spells alienation in all sorts of ways. You are stuck behind this glass, often in a very small space, and the only people you talk to are very often stoned or drunk.”

“Watching your play,” I told Mark. “was very odd. I somehow lost all my critical faculties. I was listening to the writing and watching the delivery, which so mesmerised me I ended up having no opinion on what I was actually watching except that it was very densely and well written.”

“Well,” said Mark, “I know what I want the effect on the audience to be. I want it to be quite hypnotic and dreamlike and for the audience to enter a sort-of trance-like state. That again is why using Stewart Lee’s act is quite good, because he does all that repetition stuff anyway… So feeling ‘mesmerised’ is good.

“One thing I accidentally missed out when I performed it last week – and it really needs to be in – is that, at one point, the character says to the guy in the garage who is going to be his manager, So you see what I’m offering is an overview of Stewart Lee’s style done in the style of Stewart Lee and then there’s talk about the existentialism involved in it. Then he says: I’m not suffering from an identity crisis, I’m suffering from a lack of bookings.

“That’s kind of the heart of it.

“The idea for that line was lifted from a TV programme about a guy who has that collecting mania where you can’t throw anything out and he’s taken it to the most amazing extent imaginable. He inherited quite a large house and every single room is piled up to the lintels. He was actually having to crawl on top to get in. They brought in this psychiatrist to help him and you could see this psychiatrist gradually having to admit defeat. It was utterly dysfunctional. And eventually the guy tells the psychiatrist: My problem is not psychological. my problem is a lack of storage space.

“To me that was a moment of comedy and tragedy simultaneously. That’s one of the things that’s going on in my piece.”

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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