Classic Interview: Mark Steel, 2006

Mark Steel

Mark Steel is currently on tour with his "In Town" show in which he researches the area he is performing in and makes the show specific to that place. The veteran comic has recently been keen to do more than mere off-the-peg stand-up. Here is an interview from The Times in 2006 when he was working local references to the French Revolution into his touring set. Details of his current tour here. The latest series of the radio version of Mark Steel's In Town is on Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 6.30pm.

Mark Steel cannot resist a protest. Sipping on a frothy coffee in a French café in his Crystal Palace neighbourhood of South London, he recalls how he was co-opted into opposing a local traffic system. The seasoned wordsmith quickly came up with a slogan, “One Way, No Way”. But the organisers blew it by having their demonstration at 8am on a Monday morning. “You don’t have to be a military strategist to know that you aren’t going to get that many people that early in the day.”

The 44-year-old stand-up stalwart chuckles at the memory. In 25 years of comedy and campaigning he has seen people power ebb and flow — as has his popularity. In recent years, however, his profile has scaled new heights. He is a frequent guest on Have I Got News For You and a third series of the Bafta-nominated The Mark Steel Lectures is about to start on BBC Four.

On television, Steel adopts the persona of the People’s AJP Taylor. In each witty, informed, snappily edited edition he explores a historical figure, from Descartes to Guevara and finishing with Harriet Tubman.

Come again? “I know she sounds like someone who worked in a canteen — ‘In 1927 Harriet Tubman developed a new way of cooking Cornish pasties’ — but in America she is very famous. She was a slave who escaped and went back to free more slaves. Abraham Lincoln was so impressed he made her a gunboat commander during the Civil War. The trouble was that she suffered from narcolepsy and would doze off unexpectedly.”

Steel is clearly partial to complex characters. He even has a soft spot for George Galloway: “I know him and was riveted to Big Brother.You can just imagine a programme like mine on him in a hundred years — ‘protested against the Iraq War, left Labour Party, spoke at the Senate, went on Celebrity Big Brother . . .’ All that stuff about calling Preston a ‘lying plutocrat’. Stalin was a lying plutocrat, not the lead singer of the Ordinary Boys.”

He finds it hard to condemn Galloway for his rampant egomania as it is probably something he has a bit of himself: “I don’t think you can be a comedian without being an egomaniac,” he says. “You do it because you want to make a difference. I’d rather have one person come up to me and say they found my programme on Chaucer funny than a hundred come up to me and vaguely say ‘Haven’t I seen you on telly?’ ” The TV series coincides with a national stand-up tour, based on his let-them-eat-cake-inspired book Vive La Révolution. It sounds heavy but Steel, who was expelled from school at 15 for going on a cricket course, believes that the public has an untapped appetite for ideas if they are presented in an accessible fashion. In the same way that he is attempting to demystify intellectual ideas on BBC Four, so he is retaining the common touch onstage.

“In each place I play I’m planning to find a reference to the French Revolution.” When challenged he can’t quite come up with one for Crystal Palace but he does chip in with two more recent Gallic links: “When Émile Zola went into exile after the Dreyfus affair he lived above the flower shop next door to this café. He also kept a room nearby in the Queen’s Hotel because he brought his mistress with him.

“How French is that? And of course Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick happened at Selhurst Park.”

The lack of formal education has not held Steel back. He has penned columns for upmarket newspapers as well as working as a milkman. He must be one of the few scribes who has been sacked from bothThe Guardian and Express Dairies, although the circumstances differed. “The Guardian got rid of me in the Waldorf Hotel, while the manager of Express Dairies told me behind the milk floats.”

Faced with the choice, Steel would sacrifice the books and TV before giving up his stand-up work, which is good news because he remains one of the sharpest satirists around. Even though he refuses to use the “S” word. “A satirist is someone about 60 who writes whimsical columns and makes jokes about Harold Macmillan.

“I talk about what’s going on in the world, which at the moment seems to be the annihilation of the planet. Anything can be said in a funny way and I’d rather do it onstage than in Hyde Park holding a can of Special Brew.”

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