It's already hard to believe Comedy Vehicle ever existed at all | Stewart Lee on his final series

It's already hard to believe Comedy Vehicle ever existed at all

Stewart Lee on his final series

The DVD of the fourth and final series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is out today (Buy here). Chortle will be running a raft of exclusive content to mark the release, including descriptions of each episode in his own words and a competition to win copies. We start with the DVD sleeve notes, written by Lee himself:

I began work on the six half hours of the fourth series of Comedy Vehicle in the Summer of 2014, with an August run in the cellar of Edinburgh’s iconic Stand comedy club. 

Then I performed and reworked the material almost nightly, in different permutations, at various stages of evolution, in long London theatre runs, on tour nationally, and in the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, for the following 18 months or so, until the series was recorded in December 2015.

Series 4 was the hardest series to write. Series 3 and 4 had been commissioned back-to-back. The BBC’s reluctance to re-commission the massively acclaimed, inexpensive, multiple-award winning show after Series 1, and then again after Series 2, made long-term personal and career planning difficult; but at least it meant I toured regular full-length story-shows in the interims while the channel made up its mind, developing new techniques and angles.  

But Series 4 came hard off the back of Series 3 and, I’ll concede, represents the Comedy Vehicle, in its original format, being driven, perhaps deliberately, off a cliff. How much weight could I load on ‘the TV character of Stewart Lee’ before he finally broke?

Another problem was the sheer unpredictability of local and global news during the period I was assembling the material.  Personalities that were big news in 2014 were utterly forgotten by 2015; whole political schools of thought rose and fell; random terrorist acts cast appalling shadows over material that would otherwise have been innocuous.  And the acclaim loaded onto me meant that, like it or not, I was a kind of authority figure with a degree of status, who would have to work even harder to undermine himself, to engage in the struggle to retain dignity that rests at the core of all comedy.

On the road, I ran in some of the strangest material I had ever written in front of the largest audiences I had ever played to. It’s a numbers game. The point at which an audience of 2,500 tips over the edge into collective hysteria, at some absurd device, is much lower than the point at which a room of 120 does the same.  I don’t know if, this time, the large theatres I was playing prepared me for the little room I was to record in.

Ludicrous, borderline surrealist exercises that rocked vast halls were harder to swing at the tiny Mildmay Club, and my own popularity meant the audiences for the tapings were now visibly compromised by noticeably unconvinced spouses, dragged along against their will, and pockets of bewildered TV executives on free passes, there because they thought they should be.  The extended absurdism of episode 5, The Migrant Crisis, was rarely less than joyous live, but was an extremely tense experience in the recording process.

By the time the series was over, every single executive at the BBC involved in its development and commissioning a decade earlier had left or changed jobs, perhaps made anxious as the government speedily and deliberately asset-stripped the institution, or perhaps trying to get away from me.  There was no-one left at the top of the tree who profited personally from Comedy Vehicle’s acclaim, and as remakes of classic 1970s sitcoms lurched into life all around me, the writing was on the wall. 

Even those who loved the show seemed caught up in events beyond their control. One executive’s final set of advisory edit notes were sent from the back of a taxi, after watching the show in fragments on an iPhone, days before resigning, the BBC comedy department’s morale and confidence seeping away under the lash of the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

For a proposed Series 5, I went into a meeting with a man I had never met before and suggested shooting the series over four nights in the sort of larger theatre I now get to perform in, the character’s comic tragedy now the fact that he is forced to accept a level of popularity he thinks must mean he is rubbish, as anything with that level of appeal is usually shit. 

In early 2016, there were rumbles about making a version of the programme with the BBC’s own in-house studios, and selling it on to the Netflix-style content carriers that already host my live shows, and the BBC series that I have bought back from the channel and sold on. 

But then, in the dying days Whittingdale’s Culture Secretary tenure, there seemed to be some sort of governmental rethink about whether the BBC was even allowed to enter the competitive content provision market.  And because I write all the material myself, the kind of long-term breathing space I require to generate it between series apparently became harder for the heads of comedy to justify.

Comedy Vehicle Then that Brexit summer settled like a toxic cloud. Pretty swiftly the world moved on, and it’s already hard to believe that Comedy Vehicle ever existed at all, clearly informed, as it was, by a set of liberal values that now seem all but obsolete.

I’m proud of every one of the 24 episodes, the progress the team made between the first and last series (under producer Richard Webb and director Tim Kirkby) is visibly astounding, and the final episode of the fourth series is probably my favourite of the lot.

Peace! I’m outta here!! You shoulda killed me last year!!!

Stewart Lee, writer/clown, Edinburgh, 2016

• Tomorrow: Exclusive episodes note not included with the DVD. 

Published: 10 Oct 2016

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