Stewart Lee to present Radio 4 documentary on unreliable narration

Thursday 3rd June 2021, 8:42am by Jay Richardson

Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee, or perhaps the character of "Stewart Lee", is to present a Radio 4 documentary on the literary device of the unreliable narrator.

Airing on the 12th of June as part of the channel's Archive On 4 strand, the comic will draw upon his "lifetime of professional untruths" to consider the disorienting and apparently all-encompassing question of why, if we appreciate truth, objectivity and authenticity so much, do we also love the distortions of almost all narrative art?

From the British Library to the middle of a Victorian graveyard, in novels and poems, documentaries, the songs of Bob Dylan and stand-up comedy, Lee will pick through the archives and encounters a host of "more or less reliable voices", including "Mediaevalist Dr Hetta Howes, writer and critic Jennifer Hodgson, political commentator Nesrine Malik, poets Emily Berry and Rob Auton, filmmaker Ben Rivers, Dylanologist Nish Kumar, comedian Russell Kane and one or two devious special guests.

"Does the basic human desire to tell stories mean that none of us are ever really telling the truth? What happens when the idea of manipulating the narrative leaves the world of entertainment and enters the world of politics?"

Accusing culture secretary Oliver Dowden of cultural ignorance and of not appreciating art for art's sake in a column for the Observer on Sunday, Lee recounted how, in the course of making Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator, he visited the British Library to peruse an original manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, "an incredible and unearned privilege that somehow landed in my unworthy lap as a result of more than three decades of making sarcastic jokes about politicians, road signs and rap singers.

"Monmouth appears to have edited and rewritten history so it supported the values and imperial ambitions of the Henry I administration" he explained.

Having criticised Dowden's suggestion that Channel 4 could be privatised as early as 2024 in a select committee meeting last month, in which the culture secretary cited the growing competition from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime as an argument for making its programming more commercially viable, Lee pointed out that unreliable as he unquestionably was, Monmouth was largely responsible for popularising the mythologies of King Arthur and Merlin.

"These implausible tales nonetheless provide a poetic 'ecstatic truth' rather than a literal 'accountant's truth'", he suggested, "a distinction Dowden will understand if he is as familiar, as a culture secretary should be, with Werner Herzog as he is with Andrew Lloyd Webber."

Stewart Lee

Meanwhile, Lee has revealed that he once asked to play fellow comedian Alan Davies, or at least audition for a loosely autobiographical sitcom that the QI star wrote when they were both starting out on the stand-up circuit in the early nineties.

"About 30 years ago, I got going on the circuit quite quickly, I won Hackney Empire New Act of the Year in 1990, so I was sort of known more than somebody who had been going a year normally would be" Lee told video podcaster Ginger Beard Mark in January, whilst doing publicity for his and Michael Cumming's King Rocker documentary about The Nightingales.

"Alan Davies wrote a sitcom ... he may not even know this, I'm sure someone else would have told him ... he wrote a sitcom, Alan Davies, about a comedian called Alan, who lived in a house and was doing his gigs and whatever."

Apparently the commissioners at the unspecified channel "liked the sitcom, but didn't feel that Alan Davies was well known or talented enough to play this Alan character. So it was sent out and I was asked to audition for the role of Alan Davies in the Alan Davies, Seinfeld-type sitcom.

"And I went, 'well, we can't possibly do that because it's someone that you know' ... it's really weird to think that four years later there was Jonathan Creek and he was a Saturday teatime, big dependable BBC star."

Lee also revealed recently that he turned down the chance to make his film acting debut in Creation Stories, the biopic of record label boss Alan McGee released in March.

"I was offered the part of a heavy-set, bearded man, who comes into a meeting, takes down another man's trousers, has sex with him and then goes out" Lee told food journalist Jay Rayner on his Out To Lunch podcast.

"And I thought, if I'd done loads of films right, and I'd done that part, it might be alright. But if you've only ever done one film and that's the only part you've done, it looks a bit mad."

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