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Lee Ridley: As Lost Voice Guy, Being A Voice For The Disabled Would Be Ironic

February 25, 2019

In April 2015, Lee Ridley wrote an email to his parents and sister. “Hi family, I’m just emailing you all to let you know that I plan to hand my notice in at the council in the next week or so,” he began. That’s Sunderland council, where Ridley worked.

It hadn’t been an easy decision, and he knew his family would worry about him: Ridley was giving up a good job with a salary, security and pension for a career with none of those things. But he’d been struggling to do both, hadn’t been doing either well, and it hadn’t been good for his health.

Mostly, though, he felt he had reached a crossroads. If he didn’t follow his dream, he would regret it for the rest of his life. “I hope you all at least understand my reasoning,” he wrote. “I owe everything I have achieved so far to all of you. When it comes down to it, I just want to do the best that I can and make you proud of me. Love you lots, Lee xxx.”

Ridley was quitting the council for comedy – writing and performing, which he does under the stage name Lost Voice Guy. Ridley has cerebral palsy and can’t speak. He uses the automated voice on his iPad – think self-service checkout, cashier No 4 please, Stephen Hawking … it plays a big part in his act.

Three years after that email, Ridley was on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, playing to a packed house and a TV audience of millions. And the winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2018 (not to mention £250,000) is … Lost Voice Guy.

Next stop, last December, was the London Palladium for the Royal Variety Show, another packed house. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and millions watching at home. The decision to quit the council wasn’t looking like such a bad one.

What has he done with the money, I ask him. I’m interviewing him in the upstairs bar area of the Stand comedy club in central Newcastle, where he has performed many times. He arrived in a taxi from the north of the city, where he lives on his own. A carer comes in a couple of times a day to help out with stuff.

“I’ve still got most of it, but I treated my family and friends to a few things, and I’ve bought a few things myself,” he says. “My biggest purchase has been my MacBook, and I’m taking my family on holiday this year.”

They’re going to Yorkshire. Yorkshire? That’s only down the road. “Because my niece is still young. We haven’t had a family holiday since I was about 17.” Ridley is now 38.

So he didn’t buy a new voice, less robotic, with more realistic intonation and the stress on the right words? There must be better ones now. “I’m still trying to blag that one but it’s pretty expensive, trying to play the disability card and get it cheap.” But, he says, this one makes his material funnier. “I’m so used to this voice now, it’s almost part of me.”

I quickly get used to it. And to the pauses, which can be quite long, but it’s a nice way of conversing, measured and thoughtful. I find I use the gaps to think about what he has just said, about what I’m going to ask next. We start off opposite each other across a table, but I move round so I can see what he’s writing. He types using just the index finger of his left hand, ignoring the suggestions that pop up when the iPad knows – or thinks it knows – what Ridley is saying. It distracts him, he says. His right side is “pretty useless”, and the cerebral palsy also affects his walk, which is unsteady. “I’m shit in Edinburgh, with its hills,” he says. Edinburgh is not a good place for a standup comedian to be shit.

People assume Ridley is a geordie: he is actually from Consett in County Durham, but he’s bored of explaining where Consett is. He came to school in Newcastle, the Percy Hedley school for children with additional needs. “I think it helped being around other disabled children and realising I wasn’t alone,” he says.

Was he always funny? “I liked to be the joker, definitely. I was always being told off for not being serious. And my laugh is really loud, so I couldn’t get away with much.”

He has a loud laugh? I didn’t know. But he doesn’t do it to order; he has to be made to laugh for it to work. I emailed a few questions over beforehand to speed up the process. But, sitting down with Ridley, they seem like boring, obvious questions, and I want to ask him other stuff. Yup, my fears aren’t unfounded. Everyone asks what Simon Cowell is like, even Prince Harry did. Answer: a pussycat, once you get to know him.

Do people assume he knows a lot about black holes, and is it OK to ask that? Everyone does, taxi drivers especially, “because they think it’s hilarious. But I don’t know about the black holes and I’m not as clever as Stephen Hawking because I wouldn’t talk shit for a living if I was,” he says.

Actually Hawking was – indirectly – a tiny bit responsible for Ridley’s journey to standup. Ridley went to a Ross Noble gig where the comedian did a Stephen Hawking impression. Later, at the stage door, Ridley challenged Noble to a Hawking-off – who could do the best impression. It got him thinking about things: jokes, comedy, those kinds of things.

Ridley is a fan of Noble, for his quick wit and randomness. And of The League of Gentlemen for their darkness. Did Britain’s Got Talent viewers see a light version of Ridley’s comedy? “A very light version,” he says. “I’m usually a lot darker and I enjoy that more. But I think it’s important to have material suitable for all kinds of people.”

He tells me about a game he played in his last show called Play Your Crips Right that might not have made it on to primetime TV. “The audience had to guess which disabled person had the highest Personal Independence Payment Score” — in other words, who might get the most in benefits.

A lot of Ridley’s material centres on disability, and on the voice. “That’s what I have most experience of; I’ve got 38 years’ worth of material about my disability, so I’d be silly not to use it,” he says. “I think humour definitely helped me cope with everything when I was growing up, and it still helps today. If I didn’t laugh about my situation, I’d most definitely cry.”

Winning Britain’s Got Talent has massively changed Ridley’s life. He’s busier than ever, and has just set off on a 10-week tour. “One of the best things to happen since I won is that people are engaging with me a lot more than they would have in the past. For the first time, they seem comfortable talking to a disabled person.”

And what does he think his victory will have meant for other disabled performers? “Obviously I can’t speak for every disabled person,” he says. “In fact it would be quite ironic if I was the voice of the disabled. But from the feedback I’ve had from other disabled performers and people, I do think my success has given them the confidence to follow their dreams a bit.”

He is not comfortable with the I word, though: “I don’t feel like, or see myself as an inspiration, no,” he says. “I’m just a guy getting up on stage and dicking around for an hour. I never started to do standup comedy to change people’s attitudes or anything, it was just because I enjoyed it.”

Ridley’s last Edinburgh show was about that. “It was called Inspirational Porn because that’s what it is. It’s the rest of society getting off on seeing disabled people achieve something and making themselves feel good. We seem to be putting disabled people into two groups, the super crips and the feeble crips. And that’s a dangerous game to play, because it suggests to the rest of society that some disabled people aren’t as worthy of attention and support as others.”

He is very much including the government in this. “Our government has a very weird relationship with disabled people. We are either seen as superhuman or as some sort of burden. We are encouraged to go out and do our best to succeed, on the one hand, while the other hand takes away the ability for us to live independently at all.”

I should say that we didn’t cover all this ground in 90 minutes or so in the Stand Club. Some of it he has already written, for my pre-cooked questions, then just pressed the button. And we had a couple of email exchanges afterwards. Our time together was over ridiculously quickly.

We did manage to talk about football (he supports the Magpies, in spite of being from the wrong side of the Tyne). And relationships: he’s not in one at the moment. “I always seem to fuck them up. I have a habit of overthinking and worry about things for no reason, for example I always worry what people think about my disability and I worry if I’m good enough for them.”

Haven’t there been loads of offers now that he is rich and famous? “Not from anyone sane.”

The iPad is interesting. A page of labelled squares, “Intros”, “saw me on BGT” … and they all lead to other pages and other squares: “Jay-Z”, “disabled card”, “government hunger games”. Ridley can steer his show, navigating through about five hours of material.

Isn’t it frustrating, not being able to be more spontaneous? “It’s really annoying at times when I think of something onstage but can’t really do anything about it, but the worst is when I’m out with my mates and think of something funny, but the moment has passed before I have a chance to type it.” He is working on ways to be more interactive in his shows.

Does he ever hit the wrong button? “I did say fuck in front of the mayor of Sunderland once.”

It’s funny hearing “fuck” in a posh, robotic voice (because I’m basically a child). But Ridley goes along with my puerilism. We type in the C-word … OK, I do: I’ve stolen his voice. “Now I sound like you,” I type. Was that a laugh? Not loud, more like a little chuckle. I’m taking it, though, putting it on a T-shirt: I Made Lost Voice Guy Laugh.

Lost Voice Guy is currently touring Britain. His book, I’m Only In It for the Parking, is published by Transworld

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