Have a chat with stand-up comic Mark Steel and it won’t be long before cricket, football or politics come up in conversation. And in my case all three, with geography and history thrown in.
The 57-year-old Kentish comedian, broadcaster, writer and political activist was at home in South London when I called, or ‘Crystal Palace, as ever’, as he put it. But he’s back on tour now. Does he, like Brighton fan Attila the Stockbroker, try to fit gigs around fixtures for his beloved football team?
“Well, every now and again one pops up on a midweek night in the Premier League, shifted for Phantasmagoric Tuesday, or something.”
We’re quickly off on a tangent, on to the subject of my own team, Woking, Mark becoming the interviewer, asking where we are in the league and all manner of questions, not least how tough it is at present for those teams without the ready finance to compete against so many ex-Football League sides trying to get back there. Yet, I tell him, I’d prefer that than having to deal with the prospect of some fly-by-night financial backer coming in, bankrupting the club then buggering off, potentially losing a club’s community-like vibe.
He understands that logic and starts talking about the up-and-down fortunes in recent seasons of everyone from Truro City to Wigan Athletic, and we eventually get back to our main subject, not least talk of how his BBC Radio 4 show, Mark Steel’s in Town – eight series into a run that started in 2009 – gives him an insight into pride of place issues.
“Doing my In Town series, I very much get a sense of that faux-nostalgic belief that community is something we had in the ‘60s and has now gone. But that over-plays what it was like then, and under-plays what it’s like now. I don’t think that series would work if there wasn’t a strong sense of community in all these towns … whatever that means.
“I suppose it’s about whether people in a town can all identify with the same thing and feel a sense of belonging to their one place, if I was to be like some twaddly academic about it. But some nights I can say something about a place, and everyone will tell you they know that person, that place, that accent, that something.”
Before we spoke, I revisited that hit series’ spin-off book, and the opening chapter about his 2010 visit to Penzance, Cornwall, reminding him how a woman in the audience had an interesting definition of the word ‘posh’, telling him of nearby resort St Ives, where, ‘It’s posh alright, they’ve got a dentist!’
“Oh God, yeah. That was brilliant. I remember that very well.”
I’m guessing moments like that must make live gigs unpredictable and fun to do, making up for the longer journeys.
“Well, Carl (Cooper), my producer, is really enthusiastic, and we’ll fetch up at a place and excitedly wonder what’s going to happen. It’s like a little adventure every time. We’ve already worked out six places for the next series. And at some point I’ll get round to writing it – God knows when!”
Anywhere in the North West on that list?
“Erm … well, I’ve already done Wigan, Birkenhead, Stockport, Wilmslow … oh, and Fleetwood.”
Ah, the ancestral home of the throat lozenge.
“Yeah, brilliant. We actually had a tour of the Fisherman’s Friend factory.”
Excellent. I can see you in your white coat and hygienic hairnet now.
“Yeah, I was in the white coat when we got shown around. Of course, the perfect joke was that the woman who was supposed to be showing us round hadn’t come in because she had a cold.”
Splendid. On your Twitter profile page, there’s a picture of you at The Garlic Farm. That’s on the Isle of Wight, isn’t it?
“Yeah, we were playing Ventnor that day, just after Edinburgh.”
You’re clearly still putting in the miles, and on this tour started (last weekend) in land-locked Loughborough, Leicestershire, before a trek to the South coast the following night to play Poole, Dorset.
“God knows where we’re going. To be honest with you, I don’t look until three days before. Otherwise you’d just go mad. When I was doing a live version for the In Town series, I had to pay more attention, because I was doing loads of stuff about each town, having to look about three weeks in advance, get a book off the internet about each place.”
Seeing as you return to Chorley Little Theatre next month (Wednesday, March 21st, 01257 264362), last time we spoke, four years ago, you said you must be the only outsider who’s read Jim Heyes’ A History of Chorley twice.
“Yeah, I must be … I can’t remember any of it, though.”
So might he have to read it a third time, I asked him. He wasn’t to be drawn on that though.
“Mmm … it’s lovely though, isn’t it, the Little Theatre.”
It is indeed, and then in mid-May, you’re in East Lancashire, at Darwen’s Library Theatre, which I’m led to believe is already sold out.
“Oh right, is it? Great!”
And there’s another visit to my patch two days later, to the Lancaster Grand Theatre (Thursday, May 17th, 01524 64695).
“Yeah, that’s great, that theatre. In fact, there are two lovely theatres in Lancaster, with the Dukes as well. And I’ve a lovely little story about that for the show.”
Sounds intriguing. Now I’m not expecting a succinct answer here, but – stirring the hornet’s nest – I ask Mark how the hell we ended up with Donald Trump winning the US election and what’s going on with all this Brexit nonsense. Every day seems to bring another political embarrassment.
“Well, I just think they’re all so funny, these people at the moment, the way things are at the moment. Every week they seem to oblige by doing something. Like that Presidents’ Club thing, where they all start saying how appalling it was, and how they had no idea. At the same time they’re saying that, they suggest the women going along would surely know what was going on there.
“So, the women who’d never been before must have known what to expect, but the blokes who were there couldn’t possibly have known what was going on, even though it was them doing it? You’re supposed to be appalled by these things, but I find it all quite funny, really.”
It’s certainly a rich area for comedy, but maybe too rich at times – unbelievable at times.
“On the other hand, think back to a year ago, it’s an extraordinary transformation in British society. I don’t know if it’s a British thing or a human thing, but we almost love being miserable, thinking everything’s shit and that nothing ever changes, when there’s just about been the biggest change in British society since the end of the Second World War this last year.
“Someone for whom it was deemed impossible for him to be even vaguely near elected – because he was scruffy and didn’t sing the national anthem and had links to the IRA and all these things – to have got that close, is absolutely astonishing.
“It reminds me of when I’m down the Palace and Zaha beats four players then doesn’t quite get a cross in, and people come away saying, ‘Ah, he wasn’t that good that day’. You’ve got to forget that! We’re not meant to have players like that. It’s extraordinary that we’ve got one of the best players in the country, and every week he bamboozles people. You just get used to it.
“It’s a bit like that with the idea that the Tories are bumbling. It’s staggering. They’re completely fucked. I think it’s hilarious, from a pure comedy point of view … never mind the politics.
“Every day, they’re just funny! Just watching them is funny, stumbling about, turning up in Brussels, having brought the wrong papers, or Ian Duncan Smith more or less telling you not to take any notice of their latest report, because they’re always wrong. It’s kind of, ‘Don’t listen to us, we’re idiots’.”
And yet, according to the title of your new show, ‘Every Thing’s Gonna Be Alright.’
“I think so, yeah.”
Does this new-found philosophy involve some kind of Bob Marley-esque connection with Jah?
“Yeah, very much a Bob Marley-esque connection with Jah! Actually, I do most of the show in Rastafarian, if people can follow that. I had a Rastafarian character I did, and it went down really well in London and Birmingham, but elsewhere people would look at me, completely bemused.”
At this point we got on to a mutual respect for Lincolnshire-based Brummie performance poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mark telling me a funny tale his fellow political activist and author related to him about Communards keyboard player turned celebrity clergyman Richard Coles’ spell with the church in nearby Boston (his first ecclesiastical role was as a curate at St Botolph’s, better known as ‘Boston Stump’). I’ll not repeat it here, but ask him at a show. It’s a winning anecdote.
As well as his radio show, his books (also including Reasons To Be Cheerful and What’s Going On) and his tours, there was the BAFTA-nominated Mark Steel Lectures for BBC2. He’s also a regular on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You and Radio 4’s Newsquiz, has appeared on BBC2’s QI and Room 101 and writes a weekly column for The Independent, winning Columnist of the Year at 2015’s Press Awards.
His most recent TV appearance saw him through to the final of BBC1’s Pointless quiz, alongside fellow comic Marcus Brigstocke on a celebrity special, just missing out on a jackpot. Keen cricket fan Mark was desperately unlucky with his answers – asked to name three batsmen who had scored more than 5,000 runs for Australia, his choices scoring 1, 1 and 2.
“That’s why it’s such a brilliant game though – it’s not enough to know the answer. You’ve got to get the answer no one else knows! I was thinking, ‘Who’s going to know these?’ I chose Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor and Justin Langer. I even thought Matthew Hayden was too obvious. But Taylor scored two and the others one. There must have been one Australian person on the survey. And if I ever catch the bastard …”
A while back I was talking to fellow recent Pointless winner Robin Ince (alongside TV historian Kate Williams) and another of Mark’s friends from the comedy circuit, Phill Jupitus, both of whom have also put in the comedy circuit miles over the years. Does he get to meet any of his colleagues on the road? I imagine they’re more often than not booked into hotel rooms in different towns.
“That’s one of the reasons I love the Edinburgh Festival – then you get to see other comics, at last. You go months without seeing them. I don’t think I’ve seen Phill since August.”
Finally, it’s been getting on for 36 years since his stand-up debut, and Mark mentions on his website, ‘I’ve spoken at lots of demonstrations and union meetings and protests, and appeared at quite a few benefits, and yet capitalism still seems to rule the world. Maybe I’m a jinx.’ I put this quote to him, and he laughed, then proclaimed, “Yeah … things are funny though, aren’t they.”
For the previous Mark Steel feature/interview on these pages, from May 2014, head here.
This interview also included Mark and I talking about his love of The Clash, the inspirational Rock Against Racism movement, and his own story from the night Mick Jones joined Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in November 2012, in what turned out to be Strummer’s final London gig. But for all that, you’ll have to wait for The Dead Straight Guide to The Clash, due to be published by Red Planet this coming Spring.
In the meantime, Mark Steel’s tour continues this weekend, including February and March dates at: Saturday February 17 – Hertford Theatre (01992 531500), Monday February 19th – Newcastle-under-Lyme New Vic Theatre (01782 717962), Thursday February 22nd – Chesham Elgiva (01494 582900), Friday February 23rd (Newbury Corn Exchange (0845 5218 218), Saturday February 24th – Bangor Pontio (01248 382828), Sunday February 25th – Kettering Lighthouse Theatre (01536 414141), Thursday March 1st – Swindon Wyvern Theatre (01793 524481), Friday March 2nd – Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419), Thursday March 8th – Andover The Lights (01264 368368), Saturday March 10th – Oxford Playhouse (01865 305305), Thursday March 15th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex (01284 758000), Friday March 16th – Westcliff-on-Sea Palace Theatre (01702 351135), Sunday March 18th – Southampton NST Campus (023 8067 1771), Wednesday March 21st – Chorley Little Theatre (01257 264362), Thursday March 22nd – Glasgow Citizens Theatre (0141 429 0022), Friday March 23rd – Stockton ARC (01642 525199), Wednesday March 28th – Northampton Royal & Derngate (01604 624811), Thursday March 29th – Dorchester Arts / Corn Exchange (01305 266 926).