I wrote this piece for The Big Issue a few months back. It isn’t up in the archive, so here it is.
I first saw Iain Lee in an Edinburgh comedy club, duetting with Mackenzie Crook on an easy listening version of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune. Not long afterwards, he won the role of host on Channel 4’s high profile comedy news series, The 11 O’Clock Show. While members of the supporting cast and writing team, including Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker, would go onto to international success, some may consider this to have been Lee’s peak, but only if you judge TV as the arbiter of success.
The spite and sneering dismissal of that show is far from Iain Lee’s voice now. (in the interest of transparency, I hold my hand up and admit to having been a writer on the show).
He was brilliantly quick-witted when most are barely able to correctly aim a toasty soldier into a boiled egg on Channel 4’s breakfast show, Rise, but since then, he has spent most of his time on talk radio. After being sacked from BBC Three Counties Radio, wrongly in my opinion, he now presents the late evening show on talkRADIO.
He is the master of offhand compassion. He doesn’t fawn or over emote, he is matter of fact in his dealings with the multitude that call his show. He demonstrates far more humanity on a daily basis than I’ve ever heard from the representative of Christian Concern who took umbrage with his accusations that she was bigoted and homophobic. This led to his sacking from BBC Three Counties.
Last week, he talked of the mental health problems he was currently battling with. There was no hand wringing and melodrama, yet he was talking about his suicidal thoughts. On the day of broadcast, his mind had gone “to the darkest places it could go”.
His interview with a Samaritans representative and a listener who found solace with them had a lightness that belied the subject matter, but never belittled the subject.
This may have been commercial radio, but it was public service broadcasting.
Iain Lee is the listener’s friend. You can hear the delight in their voices when they get to speak to him and the ease with which they feel they can discuss their life and interests.
Much of the show can also be delightfully stupid, with word games that drag on and on, and yet even the process of dragging, and the increasing pauses as the competitors vainly try to muster, answers, is enthralling.
He is able to jump back and forth from gloom to frippery with ease, reminding us that the narrative of life is filled with “clunky gear changes”
His listener’s remix of a caller saying, “they’ve cancelled Brexit”, was also one of the funniest things I heard this week.
John Cooper Clarke, sorry Dr John Cooper Clarke, has been experiencing a deserved renaissance in the last few years, and this continues with his Radio 4 show, Twisted Romance, a mix of Northern club jokes on marriage that attest to his apprenticeship at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club, and his poems, both recent and vintage. Let’s hope he is never given national treasure status, he is something far more interesting than that.
I am back at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August and then a UK tour – details HERE
And buy The Big Issue, a great campaigning paper.