Stewart Lee Chats to Ian Rankin at Edinburgh International Book Festival

20 August 2016

“THERE’S BEEN A TUSSLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE FRINGE”

STEWART LEE ON EDINBURGH’S COMEDY CULTURE AND HIS DUAL LIVES AS STAND-UP AND NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST

A feisty chat between Ian Rankin and Stewart Lee at Edinburgh International Book Festival saw the blockbuster crime novelist and revered comic trade insults, anecdotes and peculiar allegations about George Osborne and stationery items.

Lee’s new book Content Provider brings together prose pieces he has written for newspapers over the years – as well as some of the more insane reader comments he’s retrieved from that swamp “below the line”. So strange are some of the responses, Lee said, that the act of newspaper writing has become akin to a collaborative performance. “I started to think of the columnist as a sort of character,” he said, “somebody who pretends to know a bit more than he does. And then afterwards you get the public wilfully misunderstanding. It unfolds like real-time improv.”

Rankin suspected Lee of writing some of the weirder remarks himself. “I don’t have multiple identities to troll myself,” Lee insisted. Can we really trust the word of a man, however, who freely admits to having lifted blocks of text from other writers, altered one noun throughout and published the results under his own byline? “I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that,” he said, “but no-one’s ever stopped me. I don’t know what you have to do to get sued.” As for George Osborne, Lee insists that he was once told such a scandalous anecdote about George Osborne and some pencils that he keeps trying to track it down online. “So now it’s a search item on Google… because of me. There is a rumour. But I started it.”

Lee could presumably choose to perform his Fringe show at one of the Edinburgh’s more vast and glitzy venues. Instead he picks the cosier environs of The Stand. “The size of your audience hasn’t changed,” teased Rankin. But Lee declared The Stand “one of the best rooms in the country”. The venue is a survivor, he said, of “a battle that’s been lost – a tussle for the soul of the Fringe.” He praised Stand impresario turned SNP MP Tommy Sheppard for resisting the cutthroat model of the commercial comedy venues, and using profits from bigger shows to fund smaller ones. “It’s a socialist model - and I’m a champagne socialist.”

Also performing at the Stand is Lee’s wife and fellow comedian Bridget Christie, for whom he also had affectionate words. “If I wasn’t married to Bridget Christie, she would be one of my favourite comedians, and I would be trying to marry her,” he said. “It’s less awkward than if she was terrible.” While the couple might garner material from their real life together – “A lot of what she finds funny is ridiculous things that have happened to me; any pain that I endure” – they have not yet created a show together. One may evolve one day, Lee said, about their honeymoon, which they spent on Shetland - in December. “We didn’t realise how little there was there,” marvelled Lee, “or how dark it would be.” Shetlanders, prepare to feel indignant, but beware: any online trolling of Stewart Lee will only feed his future act.

 

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