Mark Steel interview

Comedian Mark Steel talks about his latest radio venture, his reality show dreams with Anne Widdecombe, and what he’s up to next…

Mr Mark Steel

You might know Mark Steel through his books, through The Mark Steel Lectures, or through his appearances on the likes of Have I Got News For You. But make sure you check out too one of Britain’s finest stand-up comedians, as he travels through six towns in the UK, and makes up specific gigs about them for his new radio show, Mark Steel’s In Town. Here, he talks to us about the show, and about his secret wish to go ice dancing with Anne Widdecombe…

About the show… I love the idea of going into random towns and making up a gig about them, not least because I live in a place called Halesowen, which is about ten minutes from Walsall, one of the places you’ve played.

Oh, right!

How do you go about picking the places where you’ve been playing? Are there specific criteria you’re looking for, with the towns that you picked outside of them not being well known?

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Not really. It’s sort of… I think in one sense, the idea of it is you could do just about anywhere. I mean that is the sort of idea – that everywhere has got enough things – a history and character – not matter how sort of miserably homogenised and pedestrianised it might look, there’s enough things going on that are funny , I think, everywhere. I didn’t really have time to write a Walsall one very much at all – a week-and-a-half, or something. I had a terrible panic because I went out there to look round the place. It was 10 days before the recording and I hadn’t got a clue. I hadn’t even started researching it, let alone writing it. There’s a couple of people, ‘Hey Mark, we’re coming to your show next week.’ I thought, oh my God! What do you mean you’re coming to the show? I haven’t even started writing stuff yet!

Yeah, that really panicked me. But there was enough stuff, you know, within that time, there was enough to, I think, in the end, you know, we somehow cut it down from an hour to half an hour. You know, I’d be happy if a lot of more of that when in…

And that’s Walsall, so, you wouldn’t think it would have that much going on, but there’s loads.

It’s the place everyone seems to drive through to get to Ikea.

Well, yeah, there is that because it’s up by the bloody motorways there, isn’t it?

That’s right.

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I got a laugh with that – I said there’s not a single place in Walsall from which you can’t see a motorway. I bet if you asked someone where the toilet is, they go, ‘You need the M5 to Junction 90.’

There’s a horrible ugliness about the place but it’s all these sort of interesting things, though. I don’t think there’s anywhere that’d be undoable. It’s a bit like the Who Do You Think You Are thing – about anyone. You look into their history.

I did hear a story that show, actually. Charles Kennedy – they wanted to do Charles Kennedy and then they looked into it and they just said, ‘No, sorry. You’re just too boring.’ So, that’s really lovely. Your grandad was a crofter and his dad was a crofter and crofter and crofter for 200 years. So, we’re not going to do you, I’m afraid.

They’ll go for Lembit Öpik instead. That’s who they want.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

It sounds like you’ve pretty much just opened an A to Z and just stuck pins in it then.

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Well, sort of. You know part of the… One of the restrictions we’ve got is that the budget for radio we’ve got going is so unbelievably, comically tiny, that we couldn’t go to Scotland because the fare is too much.  It’s like some student fanzine. ‘Mum, can I borrow some money because I want to go to Scotland.’

So, I’m hoping, if we do another series, because I’d love to go to the Shetlands. I’d be really excited at going to the Shetlands. Because it’s just like a fascinating place to be at the moment. Or even one of these sort of weird places in Cornwall. But that was too far as well.

Was it really?

Yeah.

I’d have driven you. I’ll save you a few quid.

[Laughs] But then oh yeah we’ll have to stay overnight and have a night. Oh God, it’s the bloody BBC at the moment. Some of the things that you get restricted on, it’s unbelievable. It’s like when someone writes an article about ‘Here are some of the things that we weren’t allowed to say in the 1920s radio’ or something. It’s almost like that.

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No, it drives you mad – some of the things I’ve been told that we’re not allowed to say are just unbelievable.

Can you give us an example?

Oh, God, no. I’m gonna get in trouble now!

With your show, I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Because what must be really interesting is going before a local audience and talking about local material. I’d imagine on one hand you get a really appreciative audience for that, but one the other, that must be like just playing to a room of experts.

Yeah. Well, it is a little bit. I think the thing is it’s getting – it’s like the Walsall hippo. Did you know about the Walsall hippo?

Yeah. I read that in The Independent piece you wrote.

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Did you know about it beforehand?

No. I had no idea.

Oh, right, yeah. Because the thing is it’s sort of getting a sense of what everybody knows about, really. And so everyone I spoke to, including other people, said to me, when I said I was doing the program in Walsall, and someone would say, “Oh, I’ll have a chat to my mate who comes from Walsall.” And they… every person would then come back and say, “Oh, my mate from Walsall, the first thing he said is you’ve got to do something about the hippo.” So, it’s fairly obvious that the hippo was quite central to the whole town.

And then, I went up there, and I put it in the article. And I did think, ‘Wow. This hippo. I can’t wait to see this hippo.’ And it just.. it’s just like a bench. Not even as big as a bench. It’s a little bit of concrete in the precinct. So, I could do loads of stuff about the hippo. I was fairly certain they’re all going to get that.

Sometimes you get it wrong. I did… maybe we should put this bit out in a way because it shows you can get it wrong. They’ve got these famous illuminations. And they’ve been going on since 1951. And this year they cancelled because there’s not enough money in the current climate, and all that sort of thing. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s outrageous.’

So, I sort of had a bit in the script where I was gonna get the audience to all – sort of- scream at the Town Hall and the Council for cancelling the illumination stuff. I just assumed there was outrage about this. And about half of them sort of went meh, and I said ‘That’s not really enthusiastic. We’re not gonna get ‘em back like that.’ And then a bloke went, “Well, they’re shit. That’s why. We don’t want them.”

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I said, ‘Well, you don’t agree with that, do you?’ And the people went “Yeah, we do, really.” It was sort of split about 50-50. And then someone went, “If you’d seen them. Mark, then you’d know why we don’t mind if they’re cancelled.”

So, I thought, ‘Well, there you go. I’ve completely misjudged that.’

Was that the kind of heckle interaction that you would get across the six gigs that you did?

No, not really. We’ve still got two of them to go yet. But, yeah, pretty much. I sort of do want it to be like that, really. Where people are calling stuff out. Skipton, the one that went out yesterday, they were lovely there. And I wonder if it’s because they’re sort of outgoing, North Yorkshire, sort of farmer-y people. There’s all that, ‘We say what we think up ‘ere’ And they do as well. They’re a feisty crowd. If you get something wrong: “You’re talking shite there, lad.” There was a bit of that, but they were great fun.

You chose places that you can do the accent for!

[Laughs] Well, no. There was Boston in Lincolnshire, and that was bloody hard! It’s like a sort of East Anglia, but it’s much quicker than that. And it’s just got a little bit of north in it every now and again. So, I didn’t quite get on top of that. Sort of half did it, it was alright. As long as you don’t end up like Jim Davidson trying to Jamaican and the equivalent of that sort of rubbish, but, yeah, it was great fun. The Skipton one, I loved that.

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You get talking to people and some of them are just genuinely funny. We had a guy in Boston who was a rapper – the local rapper I managed to find and he come along. My regret, actually, is because I said to him – he was a quite smart and well-groomed lad, really, didn’t look much of a rapper – so I said, ‘Oh, did you come along with your posse and that? Do you have a load of blokes in dark sunglasses following you around going “Chill out. Luminous in the house, init”?’ And he said, “No. Not really.”

And then I found out later he did have a sort of posse with him. That he had come along with his mum and his dad. [laughs] What a fantastic entourage to have when you’re a rapper. I didn’t know that when I was talking to him. He was a lovely lad, though.

How much work did you have to put into the preparation?

Well, you have to do enough to sort of know what you’re talking about. I don’t know if that comes across with you here. I’m sort of sat here, just before you rang, reading a book about the 1831 uprising in Merthyr Tydfil which is sort of a big thing, big insurrection and stuff. I think they will all know about that. That’s quite a famous thing there. So, I’ll read that, have a little think about it, then I’ll go down there for a couple of days.

The idea is, in a way – for years I’ve thought this thing, and I think a quite a lot of comics are like this – you go to a town and the most fun that you have, really, is the stuff you do about that town. The bits and pieces, I usually spend a bit of time writing two or three jokes about the place at the beginning. But, it’s not just that.

It’s the sort of thing that pops up in the show, and then you start talking that town or whatever. And you think, ‘Yeah, that’s the brilliant thing about this stand-up, is you can do stuff that’s immediate.’ If you was to do that as a play or a book or something, it’s just never that immediate, obviously. And I thought, ‘I wonder if you could just write a whole show about one town and do it for that place?’ It’d be great fun in a way.

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What I genuinely don’t know is what that’s like for other people listening to a load of stuff about Walsall. Will they think, ‘Well, why the bollocks should I care about this place?’ I dunno, but there we are.

You said it’s a radio project and you’re working on a radio budget, but do you not think comedy is – comedy on television tends to be centred around panel shows with perhaps the exception of Live At The Apollo. I presume radio’s just a more welcoming home for something like this.

Yeah. I think we could do it on telly. I did go and do a series of the [Mark Steel] Lectures on the telly. I remember… there was a bit of me that thought, ‘Oh, well, the lectures work for radio so why can’t we just do it like that on the telly? I would just stand in front of an audience, and then we just film it.’

Luckily, wiser voices said, no, that’s rubbish. We’ve got to start all over and think how we’d do it as a television show. It’s like, if a book becomes a film, the film isn’t just a bloke reading the book out, is it? So, you’ve got to change what you do according to the thing you’re doing it on. So, I think this could be done on the telly. I don’t know how we’d do it or what have you. I really don’t. But, we’d find a way of doing, I think.

You wouldn’t be able to go past the M25 then on the budget then, I wouldn’t have thought.

You know, these days, that’s right: “We think it’s a great idea. And we’ve come up with these places you can do it: Lewisham, Pickford, Blackheath”… You see, the production company is based in Southeast London… They say, “We’ve got some money for the religious budget, so the religious programming is doing its… maybe you could sort of team up with Ann Widdecombee and…”

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I’d watch you do that. I’d watch you do a gig with Ann Widdecombee. That would be television gold. I’ll start an appeal. I’ll put the first tenner towards the budget. Get Jimmy Carr in it for her as well.

[Laughs] Don’t suggest it. It will happen.

That will be great. In fact, they’ll do it as a reality show, where we can vote the person to go on the stage with you. I’m still voting Widdecombee.

Yeah. Yeah. Alright. That’d be alright. And we have to do a double act.

Yeah. That’ll be great. And you have to do a song at the end, as well.

Yeah, okay. Or Dancing On Ice, you can be my partner.

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[Laughs]

I was gonna ask you what you ideal reality show would be, but you’ve just answered it now, so I’m not going to ask.

[Laughs]

Moving on slightly! I don’t know whether you caught the Jon Stewart demolition of Jim Cramer on The Daily Show in the US?

I read about it. It sounds fantastic.

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It was quite scary, in that it took a comedian – appreciating that sells Jon Stewart short a little – to actually take this figure to task and ask the questions that the mainstream news media just wouldn’t do.

I think comedy, in some ways, developed that role over the last five, ten years and, obviously, you, on this side of the channel, have been pretty much at the forefront of that. Do you feel a kind of responsibility for comedians to do that now?

Well, not necessarily. I think it’s a sort of sign of our trade which I think it’s what he said… because he plays it down, doesn’t he? Like, ‘I’m just doing what I do,’ but, really, the others – the rest of the media – ought to be chasing this sort of stuff up. I think, especially at the moment, there’s such outrage about the bankers and stuff.

I saw Al Murray on the television talking about when he does a show. You know, you just mention ‘bankers’, it’s just complete – I think ‘incendiary’ was the word he used. And I think there is that going on.

The media people, they seem to be – they’re so sort of safe, most of the proper journalists, and they all know each other. It’s a bit like the sort of journalists with politicians – a bit like sort of show biz-y celebrity types are. They’ll sort of gently take the mickey, but they’re all friends, really. And they go, ‘Oh, it’s such a wonderful time working with you,’ and all that sort of thing. The journalists are like that. They sort of poke at the politicians but, really they get on with them and they admire them.

If you get up and say, ‘This is a fucking disgrace,’ it’s ‘There’s no need to speak the Junior Minister like that.’ Therefore I think the comics probably are more in touch, really. You just get to know it.

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With the early 80s it was Thatcher all the time. And I know from that time, you were in a minority. You couldn’t go out to a mainstream audience and yell about politicians. You could do, but… you couldn’t get a mainstream audience to be on your side. You can now. And I think it’s been like that for a while. Not only with the Iraq war. You just take it as read that people though that was a stupid idea. Not everyone did. But the people who agreed with it kept quiet, you know. Because they felt embarrassed about things like that. I think it’s like that.

It’s certainly like that now over the bankers and stuff. It’s not like in the 80s when people said ‘I’m bloody unemployed, it’s the fault of the union’. ‘It’s their own fault. They should get on a bike and go to work’. It’s not like that now. It’s completely different.

To answer your question, I think comics have become aware that you can go out to a mainstream audience and say what, ten years ago, would have been a ridiculously radical, left wing, minority viewpoint. And now most people will cheer you.

Notwithstanding that you can get things wrong – like the illuminations, but I would think that’s the same in America as well. That he can sort of sit there and slag off this bloke and say you’re a crook more or less and he’s in chime with a huge chunk of the population.

The idea that Obama could be elected four years ago would have been inconceivable. The bloke comes out and says, ‘We’re gonna raise taxes for the rich and I’m proud to have never supported the Iraq war’. But, add that he’s black on top of that – and he get elected. It’s just a big change, I think, that’s happened.

With The Cramer interview, it was refreshing. You thought, ‘Someone there actually gives a shit.’

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Yeah. I think with my own thing, in a way, I almost feel a bit guilty, because there’re other people who have put themselves much more… for a campaigner, if you like. I sort of think of myself as a comic, really. I don’t think there’s anything particularly incendiary about this programme I’m doing, for example. I mean most of it’s the jokes.

But then there’s people like Mark Thomas. Rory Bremner, as well, I think. He was followed by people who wanted arguments about whatever issue was going on at the time – privatisation, or whatever. They’d watch his programme and get all these facts and figures. I always sort of shy away from that a little bit. I don’t really want to go on and start telling people, you know, what percentage of GDP has been spent on something or other.

I think Mark Thomas, especially, has become one of the most consistent campaigners in the country, really.

I’ve just bought his Coca-Cola book [Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola] .

Yeah. Yeah. I’ve only just started reading that, myself. It looks terrific.

With regards to your writing: we’ve followed your books. We’ve followed your columns. I’m curious – have you ever considered writing fiction?

Ooh. That’s a good question. Yeah, I’ve considered it. I think that it’s a whole new set of rules and it’s all a bit hard, really. I mean, [the] last book, I wondered if it – I’m still not entirely sure whether it might have been better if it was done as fiction. I don’t know. It’s a whole ‘nother new thing to learn, isn’t it? It’s a bit like – I don’t know – you think ‘You know what? I sort of think I want to take up squash.’ That’s a whole new thing. I think I feel like that. ‘Oh, no. Not another thing I’m gonna realise I’m shit at.’ So, I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. People do, don’t they?

Yeah. It’s another one of those avenues where well-written fiction is very good at addressing fairly weighty topics. Sometimes even better than non-fiction…

Yeah. Of course. That’s true about all sorts of periods. If you want to really know about the thing. Yeah, a novel will probably tell you about 19th century France than some academic bloody thing that you get for 65 quid up some university publishing place.

We were trying to come up with what would be the most unlikely job for you on television, that we’d most like to see you do. We think you’d be the ideal host for the National Lottery?

Oh, yeah!

Would you ever consider putting your name forward for that? We think you’d take about ten minutes off the show straight away.

[Laughs] It’s a long time since I’ve seen it. They sort of combined it with a quiz the last time I was watching it. I used to watch with my son. Is it the same one where they’d have a thing where there was 100 people…

That’s it…

And they all had to get…yeah.

Oh, and the last time I watched it – must have been about a year ago – this bloke’s hair was all sticking up and he was sort of like [had his] head back and gazing into space and me and my son were going, ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! There’ll be a dead bloke that’ll win it.’  My son, that was about a year ago, so he was eleven at the time, was doing a comedy riff about the dead bloke winning and I found that quite entertaining, to be honest.

We’re going to suggest you to the BBC.

Yeah, that’d be good. I think there is a thing with any comic – and I think this is something that’s a strain for anybody’s whose got an image of being a bit radical or anti-establishment – is that there is a bit of you that wants to present Celebrity Come Dancing or the National Lottery.

It’d be brilliant. None of the faffing round with the taking ages to get the numbers out. ‘There’re the numbers. Right. Now let’s tell some jokes.’

I’d go for it. Yeah. I’d go for that.

At the very least, you should be voice of the balls.

You could, every week, say something like ‘Of course if this was a half decent society, all the money raised for the lottery would go to the bleeding… would be raised by taxes on the rich. And this is just a tax on the bloody poor. Another way of doing it would be the poorer you are the more you pay. What a bloody disgrace. That won’t be happening after the revolution; the rich will be forced to go into the lottery and they won’t be allowed to win any of the prizes. Anyway, the next number’s 26’. There you go.

[Laughs]

See, I think you’re ideal. Absolutely ideal.

You’re, presumably still finishing off the What’s Going On tour at the moment. Could I ask what other stuff you’re up to?

I’ve got another load of gigs that I have to do and then this radio series, which I’m still doing. Because we’ve only done four of them. I’m in – sort of – maximum panic with that, really. I have two more to do.

Then I think we’re going to do another series of that, sort of quite soon. So, I shall stick with that. I don’t know after that. Someone mentioned another book, I dunno. It seems to go, you know. I’m lucky, really. I’ve got enough things, shows and that.

Well, many congratulations on the show! And Mark Steel, thank you very much…

Mark Steel’s In Town is on Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 6.30pm. You can listen to the latest episode here.

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