Comedian, TV presenter and late night radio host Iain Lee will be one of the star attractions at this year’s Shaftesbury Fringe.
Iain will record an episode of his ‘The Rabbit Hole’ podcast in front of a live audience at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre and he told Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred how the unscripted show can throw up surprises.
You’ll recognise Iain Lee when you see him walking down Bell Street in July. He’s been on telly for years, on programmes like Channel 4’s ‘Rise’ and their ‘11 O’Clock Show’. But Ian accepts that he’s best known for his 2017 appearance in the Australian rainforest, on ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’.
“When I came back, I was more famous than I’ve ever been in my life and that was a real shock to the system. The 11 O’Clock Show got one million viewers on a good night. ‘I’m a Celebrity’ gets up to 15 million viewers. I came back and 8, 9 and 10-year-old kids would stop me in the street and ask for a picture,” he said.
Iain came third in the viewers’ vote. He was widely praised by the press for his openness in discussing his own mental health challenges. That honesty has become a trademark of his late night show on Talk Radio, where he often shares his innermost thoughts.
He was similarly upfront and open about why he agreed to go in ‘the jungle’. “They’d asked me four or five times before,” said Iain. “I asked them if they still wanted me because I was getting divorced and I needed quite a lot of money so that I could get somewhere to live. It was a very handy cheque.”
He said that he also wanted to publicise the radio show, which he presents with Katherine Boyle. “I’m really, really proud of it, and no one at the time was listening to it. So I’m A Celebrity was a great opportunity to go in front of 12 million people and say, ‘check it out’.”
Iain said he also wanted to impress his kids, who were 6 and 8 years of age at the time. “I just thought it would be nice for them to see me getting covered in spiders and gunk and jumping out of stuff. I became a proper action hero in their eyes for a few weeks. They thought I was incredible. It’s worn off now,” he added.
Iain no longer sees himself at a TV presenter – he’s seen through the industry’s shallow nature. “Oh, it’s just soul destroying. After I’m A Celebrity, I got courted by so many production companies and TV executives, who all took me to nice restaurants. They said ‘we think we have a great show for you’ and ‘we’re going to get you back on TV’. Naively, I bought into it. I believed all of it. Of course nothing came of it,” Iain said.
“I’ve invested nearly the last twelve months raising my hopes thinking ‘this is it, I’m back’ and of course I’m not. I’m not going to say ‘never’ to TV, but I’m certainly not actively pursuing it. If someone phones up with a job that’s all ready to go and it pays okay, I’ll do it. I think I’m kind of done with TV really,” he said.
But Iain has forged friendships with some of his jungle campmates, Jennie, Shappi and Kez. And when he returned to the UK he was inundated by messages of support. “I had literally thousands of people emailing me and tweeting me with all these really kind words. It all became too much. If I’m completely honest, I found coming back overwhelming. It messed with my head and it threw me,” said Iain.
He continued, “I was really lucky I did get quite a bit of TV work for the six months afterwards. I did a lot of stuff on Good Morning Britain, which was great. It was a thrill to work with Susanna Reid and Ben Shephard. They are slick professionals and also really decent human beings.”
But the project that Iain really hoped would take off didn’t. “That really upset me. Me and Amir Khan, who was also in I’m A Celebrity, put forward this idea of going to Pakistan and filming a documentary,” said Iain. “His family are from Pakistan and I’d worked there twenty years ago. We had lots of people saying ‘this is great, this is going to happen’. And then they stopped returning my phone calls. I invested a lot of emotion and heart into that.”
Iain has worked in radio throughout his career and when I ask him how he’d describe himself he instantly replied that he is ‘a late night radio host’. Unlike TV, radio is intimate and personal. Iain occasionally has studio guests but it’s usually just him, the callers and occasional contributions from Katherine. He can’t play music.
I asked Iain whether he ever worries about how he will fill three hours of unscripted, live radio each night. “The last couple of weeks actually have been quite tough because I’ve not been feeling very well, in a mental health kind of way. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a breakdown but I got very low a couple of weeks ago and I’m trying to claw back from that. But generally, the thrill is in having an empty three hours. Very little of our show is planned. We go in, we open the phone lines, we open our mouths and we see what comes out,” Iain said.
Iain actively avoids the usual talk show topics on his show. “Everyone’s doing phone-ins about Brexit, Trump and Islamic terrorism. These things are very stressful and quite scary. They are designed to get us angry. They are generating phone calls through anger,” he said. “Our show tries to be celebratory. We try and talk about great songs, great podcasts or mental health or great acts of humanity. We try not to focus on the negative.”
Iain and Katherine’s Shaftesbury Fringe show will be similar to their Talk Radio programme. It will be broadcast live, but on Periscope and YouTube rather than DAB Radio. It will also be recorded for later on-demand listening as a podcast. And, as the show is streamed live, Iain promises interaction with the audience, both at the Arts Centre and people listening online.
“We have Skype open and people phone in. Sometimes they are rude and sometimes they’re very polite. If an audience member wants to argue with the person who has phoned-in, they are welcome to. Sometimes it gets heavy, but that’s not the intention. It’s all very spontaneous. It should be a laugh, but if someone phones up and drops something heavy on us, then we’ll run with that. It could get a little bit dark,” said Iain.
So there could be some potentially uncomfortable moments if the Skype callers bring up sensitive or difficult-to-discuss topics. “I know. It’s unusual and it’s awkward and it can be uncomfortable. And isn’t that wonderful?” said Iain.
He doesn’t shy away challenging or traumatic calls. In December Iain showed his strong communication skills and his empathetic nature when he talked to a suicidal radio show caller for thirty minutes, until emergency services found the man. Iain has been credited with saving the life of ‘Chris from Plymouth’, following his attempted overdose.
Iain presides over incredibly moving and powerful radio, so it’s easy to understand how he has created a strong connection with his listeners, many of whom travel around the country to watch the very podcast recording that’s coming to Shaftesbury. When you listen to previous episodes of ‘The Rabbit Hole’ you can sense the ease in which audience members join in with the banter. There’s no barrier. They’re chatting to a friend.
“We are very lucky in that we have a hard-core group of listeners,” said Iain. “We have got a couple of people that come to every show that we do, which is amazing. Quite often the audience will be made up of 60% of people who listen to the show on a regular basis, and the other 40% will be their partners, who maybe aren’t quite such big fans but have come along to keep their partner company.”
So expect the unexpected. The conversation could switch to a serious topic but Iain says the general vibe is one of fun. “It’s meant to be a laugh – but it might not be. There might be bits that are uncomfortable or don’t quite work. I guess it’s real life,” said Iain.
Iain can’t remember how ‘The Rabbit Hole’ name came about. “I think Katherine came up with it. It’s Alice In Wonderland. It’s psychedelic. We like to go off on tangents. And you fall down the rabbit hole and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. It’s to show that this is a kind of vaguely psychedelic, meandering mess,” he said.
Iain and Katherine have made ‘The Rabbit Hole’ recordings in major cities, like Birmingham, Brighton and Glasgow. Shaftesbury must be Iain’s smallest performance venue but he says that doesn’t matter. “Both Katherine and I are both painfully aware that everything is London-centric. Talk radio is based in London. I don’t live in London anymore, but a lot of media is in London. We are also aware that we have lots of listeners all around the world and around the country.”
Iain and Katherine have tweaked their show for Fringe. “At Shaftesbury, we’re doing a slightly shorter show. We normally do two or two and-a-half hours. I think we’re doing about an hour as part of the Fringe. If you hate it, you haven’t got wait till too long. You can walk out in the middle if you want. We’re not going to pick on somebody who wants to get up and go,” Iain assured me.
I told Iain how excited the Shaftesbury Arts Centre team was to be hosting a celebrity. He generously returned the compliment, enthusing about the friendliness of their volunteers. “Katherine and I are so thrilled to be part of this and to be playing the Arts Centre. They’ve made us feel very welcome,” he said.
So what does he want from his Shaftesbury Fringe audience? “Not to hit us,” Iain joked, and then paused to consider his further response. “Although if they hit us, it will be a reaction. Relax and go along with it, if you can.”
Iain doesn’t rush off straight after the show. “We always stick around. I know that the itinerary is tight with the next show getting in and out, but we will find somewhere after the show, maybe in the foyer, or out on the street to hang around for as long as people want to. People may want to chat or take photos. If someone is prepared to put a few quid in our pockets, then the very least I can do is shake their hand and look them in the eye and say, thanks very much.”
The Rabbit Hole is on at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 1.45pm on Saturday 6th July, 2019. Tickets are available from TicketSource.co.uk/iain-lee.