Ever listened to Radio 4’s Mark Steel’s in Town? It comes highly recommended, following the stand-up comic, author, columnist and esteemed travel broadcaster around the UK, talking about often less celebrated areas.
He’s far from patronising too, funny but never pigeon-holing, respectful but never sucking up to his hosts. More to the point, he’s bang on the money in the way that perhaps only an outsider can interpret that bigger picture.
This week alone offered a perfect illustration of what Mark gets up to, in the space of four nights visiting Sudbury in Suffolk, Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire, Millom, Cumbria, then on my own doorstep at the Chorley Little Theatre in Lancashire.
Factor in the fact that he starts and finishes in his native South London, and we’re talking about around 800 miles all in. But he loves it.
“You get into a rhythm. It’s okay, and I quite like a drive after a show, choosing my records to play, then heading off to the next place.
“I like to get to a place early too, to get some kind of sense of where I am. This isn’t really a show I can do by turning up half an hour before.”
So might this all work towards another radio series of Mark Steel’s in Town?
“Yeah, they’ve put me down for two more, so this is looking like a lifetime sentence. Funny thing is that usually when you’ve done a show, and done about 100 dates, you get fed up. But it doesn’t really happen with this. It keeps changing.
“Last weekend I was in Coalville, Leicestershire, a very, very working class town, with the winding wheel of the pit right in the middle of the town.
“The next night I was in Saffron Walden, which couldn’t be any more different. Now, if this was a play, you’d say this was too obvious, but as I arrived at the town hall, where I was doing the show, the Conservative Party turned up and set up a stall, giving out leaflets.
“Now they wouldn’t have done that in Coalville. And I just love the fact that every night is so different.”
Isn’t that a bit of a cliché though? As a writer who comes from Guildford, a town always written off as stockbroker belt Tory heartland, but is anything but a Conservative. Besides, Mark’s from Swanley, Kent – where the elected MP is Sevenoaks’ Michael Fallon. Hardly a socialist stronghold.
“Well, that’s true. I don’t think these places are quite as one-dimensional as they’re made out to be. Coalville will have a posh bit, and Saffron Walden will have a working class bit.
“It’s similar with my show in Sudbury. I was on the internet reading up on this quaint little market town, and someone said in a discussion, ‘I’m thinking of moving to Sudbury – is it a good idea?’ Someone replied, ‘Well, it is a lovely place, but whatever you do, don’t move into the Great Cornard area. That’s got a terrible reputation.” And you just think, ‘Really? That’s Harlem, is it?’
So what’s Mark learned about Chorley ahead of his trip to the Lancashire market town?
“For a number of reasons, Chorley shouldn’t be as hard to research as some of the places I visit. First off, my missus comes from Horwich, so I spent a huge amount of time there a while back and know Chorley a bit, not least through cycling over there a few times.
“I did Chorley before with a different show, although I can’t remember what material I did. So I’ve started completely from scratch this time.
“I’m reading A History of Chorley by a bloke called Jim Heyes. In fact, I reckon that once I’ve finished this I will quite possibly be the only person in the world to have read this book twice!”
I noticed that Mark was offering advice on Chorley to another performer appearing at the Little Theatre recently, Robin Ince, mentioning the Mormon temple.
“Yes, I thought that was quite amusing, given his reputation of being not all that welcome to irrational ideology.”
I’m sure Mark will go down well in Chorley, and will certainly hope for a better reception than he got at Greenwich’s Tunnel Club during his formative stand-up days, involving rowdy Millwall fans. Is that still his waking nightmare?
“Oh dear. Well, it wasn’t a nightmare, because they were fun days, but I was driving past a couple of days ago, and gave a little thought to that experience.
“It was an amazing place. You once heard all the old comics talk about the Glasgow Empire, like Jimmy Edwards or Mike and Bernie Winters, as this notorious venue.
“But I can’t imagine that was any worse than the Tunnel Club. They would just routinely bottle acts.”
Mark’s been doing stand-up for 30 years now. Does he recall clearly those first appearances?
“Well, there were a few first nights, because you ease yourself into it all. The thing is that my son’s doing it now (Elliot Steel), and he’s pretty decent too. So it’s like going through all those days again really.
“In some ways it’s harder, in others it’s easier. They’re not clueless like we were. He started just under a year ago and is already averaging two or three gigs a week.
“When I started I probably averaged one a week, because there weren’t the venues to do, particularly outside London.
“It’s a much more vibrant scene, and he’s part of a little community of comics. That was the case for me, but back then there were about a dozen of us across the whole of London. Now there seem to be thousands.
“It’s much less likely to be mental these days, as people know what they’re doing. When I started, someone would book you, you’d arrive, and no one would really know what comedy was.
“The audience might be mad, the acts might be mad, there might be bands playing in the next room so the audience couldn’t hear you, and maybe a fight going on too – all manner of ridiculous things.
“That became the norm, but you’d all have a laugh about it after. But now you’re more likely to be able to turn up and find it’s all properly organised.”
How does Elliott Steel’s act differ from his dad’s?
“Completely different. It’s all about being 16 and 17. I don’t think I’d get away with that.”
While it’s early days for his son, Mark remains busy between the gig circuit and TV and radio shows, his newspaper columns, and books – having published five so far.
In fact, a performer who felt out of his depth in the early days on Radio 4 and producing copy for The Guardian (and now The Independent) seems quite at home now. Almost a pillar of the establishment, dare I say it.
Even so, some will only really know him for his TV panel show appearances.
“I don’t tend to do too many of those now. Maybe Have I Got News for You once a year. That’s a fun thing to do, and although it’s a little competitive, it’s not about screaming and putting down the person sat next to you, like with some shows.”
Left-wing politics has always featured prominently with Mark, as readers of the excellent Reasons to be Cheerful will know.
He also wrote about past French politics, 1789 and all that, in Vive La Revolution, another literary success.
His own world view is well known to those who have read his work. So with the passing of Tony Benn this year, are there still politicians out there he respects?
“Oh yeah, all sorts of people. There’s a lad I know, Owen Jones, who’s like a young Tony Benn really, and has his energy as well.
“But I was talking about this the other day. Right into his 70s, even into his 80s, Tony Benn would be doing six things a day, which put me completely in the shade.”
With his next assignment closing in, Mark tries his best – politely – to get me off the line, adding: “I’m going to have to go now, because I’ve got a big pile of stuff to do.”
But he soon feels he’s short-changed me, and gets back to this weekend’s trip to the Red Rose county.
“We can but hope with Chorley. I did actually go to see Chorley FC play Bradford Park Avenue last time I was there. But they lost 1-0 and I think as a result something bad happened.
“I think they went down around then, but did I see they won a match recently about 12-1? I’m not proud of knowing this, but I think it was Droylsden.”
“If I could delete all this bollocks in my head, all these ridiculously pointless facts, I reckon there are about four languages I could have learned, instead of things like remembering every semi-finalist of the World Snooker Championship since 1977.
“Anyway, sadly, from a comic’s point of view it’s not as funny as it would have been if they’d have lost 13-1.”
Mark’s a big sport fan, and regularly watches Crystal Palace FC and Kent CCC.
Did he enjoy Palace’s first season back in the Premier League?
“Magnificent. The best ever!”
And now summer’s on the mind, what are Kent’s chances this season?
As it turned out, they lost another wicket on the same score, but survived to at least make it to double figures in their first innings, and reached the final day at Bristol before Gloucestershire secured a pretty conclusive 291-run victory.
So how do Kent’s cricketers’ chances weigh up against England’s footballers in Brazil at the World Cup?
“I think the chances for England are marginally better than Kent coming top of the Second Division. But that’s not a comment on any hope I have for England.”
And what can the dithering punters expect if they turn up on Dole Lane in Chorley to see him this weekend?
“Well, we don’t know until we get there. That’s the brilliant thing about stand-up, and particularly with this show format. Let’s just see what’s in this book that I’ve already read.”
Mark’s Chorley Little Theatre May 24 show was a sell-out, but for details of where else to find his show in the coming weeks, and all the latest from the Steel camp, head to his official website here.
This is a version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature written for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on May 22, 2014. For the original’s on-line version, head here.