Netflix have just started streaming this award-winning BBC2 comedy show, so an appropriate moment to revisit it in this column.
A few years ago a friend of mine worked on the very first series, so I went along to see a few episodes being recorded. This turned out to be a rather unique experience as the gigs were taped in a real working man’s club in Stoke Newington and the faded, retro charm of the room was not created by a BBC designer, it was the real thing.
Brutally honest, fiercely self critical and so comfortable in front of an audience, Lee can get a laugh by seemingly doing nothing. His skill with comic repetition and deconstruction are a masterclass and his throwaway asides to the television viewers – while rudely excluding the live audience – are often the best observations you’re ever likely to hear about the diverse tastes and social structure in Britain.
In the third series Lee once again takes comedy apart, kicks it around a bit, then puts it back together again. His vocabulary is exquisite, his delivery sublime. Nobody does it better. And yet his style is not to everyone’s taste and many people simply don’t get it. Yes, it’s comedy about comedy, yes it might be a little inaccessible for some, but if you take Lee’s advice and work a little harder than usual while watching his act, you will surely be rewarded.
Quotes like, “this is the sound of the middle class applauding their own guilt,” set this series apart from every other comedy show on TV. Lee’s abrasive style and deeply bitter persona have been honed over many years performing in thousands of gigs around the UK. This is a man who makes an art form that is almost infinitely hard look laughingly easy.
Chris Morris takes the role of Grand Inquisitor in series three, pumping our hero with uncompromising, Paxman-like questions while both performers do their best to keep a straight face and pretend that these savage interludes are for real. Morris is also Lee’s script editor, so its not surprising that the series maintains such a consistent level of quality and pace.
If I had any criticism at all it would be that Lee’s stand-up is so good the format doesn’t really need cutaways, and I’d personally rather see more stage time, without the interviews and film inserts. As a long-standing fan I personally don’t think either of these bolted-on elements really adds anything to the series or shows off his talents as well as when he’s simply standing alone on stage in ill-fitting jacket and rubbish haircut.