Comedian Stewart Lee tells MARC EVANS about why Brexit voters might not like his new show, his sense of gratitude to his old Oxford college, and why fans of Lee & Herring should look forward to the 2050s

IT'S 30 years since he was a student in the city, but Oxford is still very much home territory for Stewart Lee.

Lee, whose comedy divides audiences like few others, is reigniting his love affair with the Dreaming Spires when he plays a week of his latest show, Content Provider, at the Playhouse – the theatre where he just happens to be a patron.

The author and columnist, who helped create the award-winning – and controversial – Jerry Springer The Opera, is famous for his comedic attacks on right-wing politicians and commentators. The likes of Paul Nuttall of UKIP (or 'the UKIPs', as Lee refers to them), Katie Hopkins, Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn have all been savaged by him. So Remain-voting, Trump-opposing Oxford should be his sort of place.

But does he ever worry that he's preaching to the converted?

"I hope so," he says. "I hope I am preaching to the converted, well not preaching to them, but having a laugh with them.

"I don't really want people that voted to leave Europe or support Trump to come and see me, as they will probably slow the show down and not get the jokes, and be confused by its reliance on understanding of facts, and its assumption of shared positive human values. Obviously you can't stop them coming, and if they do come they may enjoy it if they concentrate and quell the burning rage that dwells within them, but I think at the moment one of the purposes of this current show is to bring a bit of fun and comfort to nice people who have taken a hammering because of their beliefs these last few months. Other comedy shows are available."

So many comedians are doing Question Time these days. Has he ever been tempted?

"I have been offered it twice. I didn't do it," he says. "I'm not a professional politician. I don't have the time or the inclination to know about the relevant subjects one should know about in the appropriate depth before going on Question Time.

"Some comedians – Shappi Khorsandi for example – have been very good on QT, but on the whole – think we tend to let the side down and I don't want to be part of the problem that makes liberal values look like they belong to confused well-meaning media celebrities."

Lee was last in Oxford a year ago, performing segments from the fourth – and final – series of his BBC shows Comedy Vehicle. How does he feel about the Beeb's decision not to commission a fifth series?

"Absolutely fine," he says. "They have had big cuts from the Tories, 20 per cent in the comedy department, and so things had to go. Why not the work of someone who has had four successful series and was established? Give some kid a break.

"On a purely selfish level, my material is worth much more to me financially toured live for two years than sold to telly, and as I get older and weaker as a self-employed dad of two little kids, and me with no pension, I could do with working the live market a bit more thoroughly, as it pays better than TV, while the interest is there."

Born in Shropshire, but raised near Birmingham, has his West Midlands background had an influence on Lee's comedy?

"It is hard to sound pretentious in a Birmingham accent," he admits. "Mine comes and goes depending on what I am trying to say.

"Birmingham has never been cool. You're in a more powerful position as an outsider in comedy, I think."

Lee was an English student at St Edmund Hall from 1986-1989, and he'll be paying his former college a visit while he's in town.

"I am now, undeservedly, an Honorary Fellow of SEH, which means I am allowed to tether a young pig on Magdalen Bridge, but only on Michaelmas Day.

"For the first 20 or so years after I left college I felt a bit intimidated by the memories. The three years I was in Oxford burned so brightly and vividly in the memory that it was sometimes hard to come back. Nothing ever seemed quite as sharp. I feel like I can taste the October air of Queens Lane 1986, and feel a breeze blowing over a backstreet meadow in summer off Iffley Road, whenever I want, in a moment of self-willed time-travel.

"In my little student room overlooking the high street at St Edmund Hall, surrounded by books I was getting a government grant to read, and talking to loads of clever women about them, I was as utterly happy as I ever was in my life, and nothing since ever seemed quite as complete," he adds.

"I stood in my old room last September. I was almost physically sick with an overwhelming sense of sheer joy at the memory of the past. I have a sense of impossible gratitude to the place. I don't fully understand the circumstances that positioned me there. My whole life has been a string of lucky flukes.

"My wife [fellow comedian Bridget Christie] came to SEH once and just couldn't believe that I had been allowed to study there. I think I felt a bit like a cuckoo in the nest, maybe. I feel like I have to do my absolute best, maybe, to justify the trust shown in me, and the opportunity I was given.

"But now I have a really good relationship with my actual adult life, my career, and the family I belatedly spawned, and with St Edmund Hall itself, and I have done a few events with English students there. At one or two key times in my adult life the college seemed to call out to me and help me, in mysterious ways, as if it were some kind of sentient entity. I am aware I am probably projecting on to it, in the absence of a belief in God!

"I am supposed to be doing something at SEH in the week of the Playhouse shows. Arts subjects seem to be under threat as the values of the enlightenment disappear into the distance and we enter a new anti-intellectual, philistine dark age in Europe and America, so it's good to support young people who might want to read a poem or two. I'd like to see the jazz cellar again at the Oxford Union, where a load of us did student comedy in the 80s, but the Oxford Union feels a bit like enemy territory somehow. I can't really explain what I mean. It's a long time ago. Feelings get muddled up. Everyone wore black. No-one had a mobile phone. Culture was in flux, in a good way."

Lee's comedy collaborator Armando Iannucci was made Oxford University’s Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media a few years ago. As such a student of stand-up – Lee is constantly dissecting and analysing comedy in his act – would a 'professor of comedy role' interest him if it ever came up?

"I think Armando is probably better suited to this than me," he admits. "A drama professor at Kingston once described me to my face as 'all practice and no theory'."

Finally, how many times a week do people tell him he's 'asking for the moon on a stick'?

"For readers who won't know what you're on about, this was a line in a sketch on a show I did 22 years ago on BBC2 called Fist of Fun," he says.

"People don't say it to me very often now. Maybe about three times a year. Which is fine. All that stuff is two decades ago now, but some of it was good, I think, especially the first series of Fist of Fun. I don't really like the second series much now.

"I should have quit the double act after series one probably. I'm very grateful to people who remembered it and liked it at the time and come and see me now, and so is Richard Herring who I did it with. I learned a lot from him about how to work, so I wouldn't undo the past. We have a vague plan to do a reunion in our 80s."

  • Stewart Lee's Content Provider is at the Oxford Playhouse from Monday to Saturday. Go to