TV Review: Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, BBC2, Episode 5 – Migrants

One thing in particular intrigues me about Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. It felt as if he was doing warm-ups and works-in-progress for this series for at least a year in advance around the UK. I assumed that this was to get every phrase, every comma, every pause in the right place. And then along comes episode 5 and, unless he is pulling the wool over the liberal intelligentsia’s eyes and engages plants and stooges like a hack magician, he frequently seems to be winging it here.

The subject in this penultimate episode is Migrants, but actually this is just a peg for Lee to take potshots at rent-a-gob newspaper columnists (not like his Observer column at all...). This does feel a bit like fish-in-a-barrel time, particularly when he comes inevitably to Katie Hopkins, but when Lee is on the case you know are you are going to get an original, forensic drill-down. And also an image that will be unseeable. This time it involves a dog’s genitalia. 

In a compelling instalment it even looks as if he is developing a catchphrase. Albeit a mouthful of a catchphrase: “I can do jokes. It’s just not something that interests me.” Lee compares writing gags to working in a factory on a production line, whereas he prefers a more improvisational jazzy stance: “Miles Davis has arrived.”

But as I wrote earlier, what fascinates me here are the spontaneous moments. At one point a cameraman comes close and Lee seems to be about to do some business about them, but then misses the moment. But Lee being Lee, he talks about not doing the material for longer than the material would have lasted. And then there is some riffing about what food would be funny on what part of Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle's body. 

I can see how the Rod Liddle "with a kumquat near his foot" routine might have been developed during warm-ups, but the cameraman incident was presumably unrehearsed. The stage direction surely didn't say 'cameraman wanders close to stage' did it? And then there's a digression when he hears a glass smashing. Lee is obviously experienced enough to have material to cover these incidents, but it is interesting that after all that honing of his routines over at least a year he keeps these ad libs in the final edit. But then again, it works. If it didn't I guess it would have been cut out. Though it makes you wonder why he does so many warm-ups.

All of this is a roundabout way of underlining that this episode is essential viewing. And not just because Lee's looseness is strangely engaging. I remember Daniel Kitson years ago talking about appearing on a radio programme with Rod Liddle and being so offended by the columnist that he coined the insult “Rod off!”. Lee’s Liddle-bile is not quite as succinct, but, as you’ll see, he certainly gets the point across. And then across again. And again.

Read a review of episode 4 here

Read a review of episode 3 here

Read a review of episode 2 here

Read a review of episode 1 here

Watch Stewart Lee's BBC series here.

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