Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator | Radio review by Steve Bennett © BBC
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Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator

Radio review by Steve Bennett

To research this Radio 4 essay about the role of the unreliable narrator, Stewart Lee spent almost three weeks with the Inrravat people of northern Canada, who believe in a trickster god whose stories cannot be trusted.

What did he learn about this ancient culture? Well, almost nothing in a literal sense as all their stories – as you might expect – are based on lies and exaggeration. But instead he garnered what filmmaker Werner Herzog called the ‘ecstatic truth’ that goes beyond literal reality to give a bigger picture.

Lee starts his quest by considering the unreliable narrators in art, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Bob Dylan’s alter-egos, with comedian Nish Kumar explaining how they  allowed the hallowed songwriter to explore experiences that are not his own.

The unreliable narrator is, of course at the heart of stand-up and Russell Kane - who won the Edinburgh comedy award for a show based on a pretence, and its puncturing – observes that comedy is the willing engagement of ‘pseudo truths’:  ‘The audience laugh because they’re coming along for the  false persona game,’ he says. ‘They buy in, that’s what they’re paying for.’

It becomes apparent fairly quickly in this engaging hour-long show that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator,

as every story is told through eyes with a prejudicial perspective. Even the act of forming stories is an artifice, meaning there’s no such thing as a purely objective documentarian, as filmmaker Ben Rivers attests.

The basis for this thought-provoking documentary is a persona interest, too – and Lee evokes all manner of erudite references, but always in an accessible and engrossing way. And of course, as a comic who likes to draw attention to the artifices in his work, he employs a few of his own flourishes of narrative trickery.

Unreliable Narrator also makes a crucial wider point about how stories shape our wider conscience – starting from how  Geoffrey of Monmouth popularised the Arthurian legend in the 12th Century as political propaganda, forming a fake notion of Englishness to rally the populus.

It is a manipulation not unknown to today’s political class, of course. Boris Johnson made his name from peddling a false narrative about Brussels eurocrats in his time as a Daily Telegraph journalist, but tales of bendy bananas and the like caught the imagination of the public. He has maintained an arms-length relationship with the truth ever since, preferring to peddle a more woolly big-picture narrative untroubled by inconvenient facts.

Chris Morris pops up to warn of the real, appalling  consequences of surrendering to what he calls the ‘junk machine’ of modern discourse, driven by the reinforcement of gut feelings.

For, as Lee concludes with the aid of a political analyst, people don’t really care if politicians are lying, as long as the story resonates. A culture war is an easier narrative to grasp than macroeconomic policies that funnel funds to the mega-rich at the expense of the poor.

In short, we like a good story that feels right and makes sense of our existing worldview. Like the fact there is no such thing as the Inrravat people - I made it up from an anagram of ‘narrative’ – but it sounds like just the sort of thing Lee would do.


And kudos, too, to whoever picked the picture above to represent the show on the BBC website. It’s not Lee, but his near-lookalike, the former Word presenter Terry Christian.

• Archive on 4 - Stewart Lee: Unreliable Narrator is now available on BBC Sounds.

Review date: 13 Jun 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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