John Cage meets Ant & Dec in the sitcom in my mind | Stewart Lee

Being involved in performances of Cage's piece Indeterminacy, I'm making all kinds of bizarre connections with the avant-garde genius

At the moment, I am trying to avoid thinking about John Cage. And instead, I find myself thinking about Ant & Dec. In 2009, the musicians Steve Beresford and Tania Chen asked me to supply the spoken part for a performance of Indeterminacy, by the postwar avant-garde giant John Cage. My shelves creak with music, but I didn't know any Cage, beyond Sonic Youth's interpretation of his piece Six on their Goodbye 20th Century album. As ever, I access the Temple of Culture by the tradesmen's entrance.

Highbrow musicologists would scoff at this lowbrow lead in to Cage's oeuvre. But, in her 1975 tome Sword of Wisdom, the celebrated mystic Ithell Colquhoun recalls discovering the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1923 as "a schoolgirl sitting on a lavatory-seat and leaning forward to see into the depths of an osier basket lined with newspapers", specifically an occult expose from the Daily Express. In a piece of synchronicity worthy of Cage, I discovered this while reading Sword of Wisdom on my toilet, near to which I keep all my occult books, as I find they have laxative properties.

Cage's Indeterminacy is currently available as a cardboard box of 90 cards of 90 stories of different lengths, and a leaflet of instructions: "Read the stories aloud, with or without accompaniment, paced so that each takes one minute. A stop-watch or watch with a second hand will help keep time. Read all 90 stories in order or select a smaller number, using chance procedures or not." Beresford and Chen elect to improvise on prepared pianos and found objects while I read Cage's stories in random order, and we all do our best to ignore each other, an approach that has made all the eight performances we have given in the last two years unique, though it's inappropriate to take any personal pride in this, as we are merely Cage's zombie puppets.

Indeterminacy's instructions advise reading "conversationally, naturally, and neutrally. Cage's own reading is resolutely undramatic." Early in this ongoing project (we have a three-date "tour of London" next week, for example), I resolved to find out as little about Cage as I could, so that I didn't "interpret" the stories, or do an impression of what I imagined his performance would be like. I didn't even check the pronunciations of any of the place names, people, or the many species of mushroom mentioned in the stories, assuming my ignorance exemplified Cageian chance procedure. But suddenly, like a delusional believer seeing affirming signs wherever he looks – images of Jesus on burned toast, the face of David Icke in a soiled nappy – I was encountering Cage everywhere.

When we performed in Bexhill-on-Sea, the pavilion hosted a Cage exhibition, which I walked through cowed, following Beresford's calves to the restaurant for the hearty meal he insists on consuming before so much as looking at a table of children's toys and vintage melodicas. The trombonist Alan Tomlinson, who is performing Cage's Solo for Sliding Trombone alongside us, told me Cage sought comedy brass advice from Spike Jones and His City Slickers, suggesting, if not something so common as a sense of humour, then at least a sense of the absurd. After an Indeterminacy in Bristol, the Welsh magus Carlton B Morgan told me he overheard Cage discussing garlic bread in a Pizza Hut in Huddersfield in 1989. And at a party last week, the punk film-maker Graham Bendel not only told me he had once invited Cage to dinner, but did an unsolicited impression of him, sounding like a macrobiotic Woody Allen, insisting he could only eat "beans and pulses, just beans and pulses if you don't mind, boys".

None of this was remotely helpful. Then I remembered. In 2001, I was invited by ITV to pitch Ant and Dec a sitcom idea. I suggested the pair should play bickering lighthouse keepers on a lonely rock. Each week a supply boat, rowed by Cat Deeley, would deliver a different MacGuffin, an object to drive that show's plot. But the Byker boys chose instead to pilot a remake of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, specifically the episode No Hiding Place, in which they try to avoid hearing the results of a soon to be televised football match. In the shadow of Cage, I find myself wondering if it is too late to pitch Ant and Dec a new sitcom.

In Anthony M and Declan D: New Departures, the duo play freelance interpreters of time-based art pieces, who live in a lighthouse on a lonely rock. In the pilot episode, Queer Silence, they are commissioned to perform Cage's Indeterminacy and spend the days prior to the event avoiding forming an opinion about the composer, a decision threatened by Cat Deeley, who rows around the island doing an impression of Cage through a megaphone. "Beans and pulses, just beans and pulses if you don't mind, boys."

When I sit down next to Beresford and Chen next week with my cards and my clock, I will block Bendel's Woody Allen voice, and Morgan's garlic bread, and think instead of Ant and Dec, two voids meeting in empty oblivion, bulldozers of negative space, leaving my mind clear for Indeterminacy. Eleven years later, that failed sitcom pitch belatedly has a higher purpose. But if the boys are interested, the offer remains open.

Indeterminacy is at London's Battersea Arts Centre on 23 September, Kings Place on 24 September and Café Oto on 25 September.


Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

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