Mark Steel:
split the difference

The gentle mockery Mark Steel’s perfected means he can get away with joking about tax fiddles in front of a Manx audience and telling the people of Huddersfield that they’re a dour bunch

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A trip to the cinema during a recent trip to Paris made a big impression on Mark Steel.

“They were showing a Buster Keaton movie with a live pianist,” says the comedian, as he makes porridge in his kitchen at his home in London. “It was packed with families, but there wasn’t a peep out of anyone. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. With that and Tiger Woods winning the same day, I was very emotional.”

“I do a bit about my own failings, which makes me suspect it’s reasonable someone would divorce me.”

Steel is perhaps best known for his BBC Radio 4 programme, Mark Steel’s In Town, or his weekly column in the Independent. He’s made several appearances on the satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You and the not so satirical Question Time. You’ll know his tone: excited by the smallest of things, infectiously cheery and gleefully sarcastic. He’s no different in his own kitchen.

“The visit to the cinema made me feel really humble. Imagine making something that in 100 years time kids will still watch and love. People listening to my show in 100 years time will be thinking: ‘What’s he on about?’”

Then again, given the current state of our politics, it could be that as 2119 comes around, we’ll still be talking about Brexit, one of the topics that he covers in his stand-up show Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright.

“Yeah,” he laughs. “The government will be saying: ‘We’re doing this for the people who voted for Brexit, who are all now dead, and their children, who are all now dead.’”

The tour, now entering its final few weeks, started in February, and Steel is still enjoying it. “When you’re younger, you come off stage thinking: ‘Oh, that wasn’t very good.’ Comics are like that as a breed, but this tour has been brilliant fun. And stand-ups seem to be ruling the world at the moment. Literally, stand-ups are winning elections [in Ukraine].

I don’t pretend to have anything poignant or meaningful to say, or propose any solutions to what’s going on. I’m just doing jokes and lots of silly voices but there you are. I have people coming up to me and saying: ‘It was lovely to be able to laugh about all of this, because it’s been getting me down.’ And maybe it’s the comic’s way of looking at it, because…”

It’s so ridiculous?

“Yes, that’s exactly the right word. Ridiculous. I mean it’s brilliant, isn’t it? You know the government have got this extension for Brexit until 31 October? They are like students who say: ‘I’ve got this essay to hand in tomorrow morning at 10 and it’s 10,000 words long!’ And you go: ‘When did they give you that to do?’ And they say: ‘Two years ago in June but I’m only just getting started!’ That’s like Brexit. They’ve got this extension and they are going to go ‘That’s all right then’ and then they will get to 30 October and go ‘We haven’t done it!’”

Aside from Brexit, Steel’s new show touches on some pretty personal issues, namely his wife of 11 years divorcing him and his obsession with sport. “In divorce there’s this mediation to sort out all the finances. Well, you can imagine I enjoyed every minute of that. It was one of the most boring hours of my life. It was like being back at school.

“I also do a bit about my own failings that I’ve been told about, which makes me suspect it’s perfectly reasonable that someone would want to divorce me.”

Steel, 58, has never been scared to explore his personal life through his work. In his show Who Do You Think I Am, he charted his search for and discovery of his birth parents. Steel was adopted 10 days after he was born, a fact that people often assume he must find “upsetting”, he says, but in fact he finds “fascinating and funny”.

It seems hard to ignore the connection in the new show between the personal and the political: the divorce, and Britain’s messy separation from the EU, which started with the 2016 referendum.

Steel concedes there is a parallel, though he’s not sure that many people who come to see the show get the connection, which he says is okay, “because what you mostly want people to do is laugh when you do a silly face”.

But he notes anger’s role in both relationships and politics. “If you look at the words someone says in the middle of a breakdown, when you’re screaming at each other that that’s not where the ironing board goes, well, that’s clearly not what that argument is about. And clearly Brexit is not about backstops and things like that – it’s about wider things, it’s about our world view, what kind of Britain we should be.

“There was a quote on a radio phone-in. This bloke was saying we can go off and do trade with other places and the presenter says ‘Where do you mean?’ and this bloke says ‘All the places we used to run, because we used to run three thirds of the world!’

Steel laughs at the memory. “I actually really liked him,” he says, revealing one of his defining abilities as a performer – his capacity to appreciate anyone even if he doesn’t agree with them.

“When people are angry, they shout things but it doesn’t mean they believe exactly words they are saying, like three thirds of the world or whatever.

“In the show I’m not trying to berate anybody. There are bits that I think if you voted leave you would be… like I say how the angry people are the ones who won the referendum. They are the ones who go ‘It’s not fair! We set everything on fire and now it’s on fire!’ I suppose if you voted leave that make might make you cross, but it doesn’t seem to.”

In Mark Steel’s In Town, which has had nine seasons, Steel, who grew up in Swanley, Kent, visits a town, thoroughly researching the place and getting to know its people before delivering a stage show to an audience of locals where he gently, and sometimes not so gently, ribs them about their history, customs and characters. He tells the people of Carlisle that their city smells of biscuits and mocks the dour disposition of Huddersfield folk while doing a dreadful approximation of a Yorkshire accent. How does he get away with it?

“Once you really like something, people can see that in your eyes, and so you are able to be rude about it and make jokes. I would get into trouble if I went to a place that I didn’t like. I wouldn’t be able to do it. That’s my fear.”

That nearly happened, although he won’t say where. “There was one programme that I didn’t really like, because I didn’t really warm to the place. I cycled over there early one morning and the first three people I met were horrible. Someone nearly knocked me off my bike and screamed at me, but then I met loads of really nice people and it was fine.”

The show has taken Steel to all corners of the UK and beyond, revealing the eccentricities that exist in every town. “Everywhere is so brilliantly different. I was up in Bedford the other day and there’s this cult there, the Panacea Society, who studied the Book of Genesis and believed without a doubt that the Garden of Eden was in Bedford. They bought this property in 1912 or something, and as the property values went up, they became really wealthy. The founder believed that if she went more than 77 steps from the Garden of Eden, as she thought it was, the devil would get her. So she couldn’t even get up to the shops and she had to get her followers to go for her. It’s absolutely brilliant! They have bought a house for when Jesus comes back and it’s still there to this day, ready for Jesus.”

Does he ever get a bad reception to one of his jokes about a place?

“Sometimes yes, but it’s not the ones you predict. I did a show in Derry and there if you do anything about the Troubles, no matter how dark, people think it’s hilarious. It’s like they make jokes about it all the time. But when we did Corby, I thought we have to do a joke about the steel strikes in 1980, but I couldn’t get anyone to talk about it – it was very uneasy.”

He only learnt later just what an impact the subsequent closure of the steelworks had. “People told me all kinds of dark things, about people killing themselves and stuff. I felt a bit bad really – I should have judged that better. But you just can’t know.”

And then there was the time that he was in the Isle of Man and praised the town for still making money in a recession – by “fiddling tax”. That elicited nervous laughter and boos.
“I said: ‘Well, we’ve got a problem because I’ve got another hour of this.’ And that got a laugh, but for a second there I was worried.”

The people Steel upsets most these days are on Twitter, it seems, where he’s prolific. His jokes about the chaotic state of the world sometimes draw criticism.

“You get people on the left who message me saying: ‘It’s all very well making fun of it, Mark, but don’t forget this is really serious and the implications for people.’ And I think, fuck off. Of course that’s true but fuck off. You have to make jokes about serious things. Of course you do. What else are you going to joke about? What noise bees make when they fly backwards?”

Steel’s relationship with the left is complicated. He’s well known for being on the left himself, but when he appeared in Big Issue North in 2008, he was talking about another divorce, this time from the Socialist Workers Party, which he’d left after being a member of 30 years. At the time, he talked about the difficulty of getting the message about socialism out there to young people. “Tell them that the Labour Party used to be socialist,” he said then, “and they look at you as if you’ve just told them that the Church of England used to be an aquarium.” What a difference a decade makes.

He says now: “The strange thing is, socialist ideas have become mainstream, even if Corbyn goes in and out of favour, and he’s a target for certain sections of the media. There are things that Labour are saying now, like how we should stop sending arms to Saudi Arabia, which would have been extraordinary 10 years ago. And that’s how change happens – when what was once radical is seen as mainstream.

“The trouble is, the other side have done the same – the Farages and the Rees-Mogg people. They come out with statements that also would have seemed extraordinary 10 years ago and now they seem to be mainstream. And the people in the middle who are saying ‘let’s just be nice and keep things as they are’ – those people are losing ground. And that’s happening everywhere, not just in Britain. Like in the US, there’s that brilliant Ocasio-Cortez woman and Bernie Sanders and Trump.”

Steel’s tour ends in a couple of weeks, and while he has a few interesting projects in the pipeline, including the possibility of a book based on Who Do You Think I Am, he’s looking forward to some downtime in the summer. Aside from spending time with his new partner, and his son and daughter, he’ll be indulging in his obsession with sport. He’s got tickets to some of the Women’s World Cup games, he’s hoping to get to Wimbledon and then there’s the Cricket World Cup too. Does his new partner enjoy sport as much as he does? “No,” he laughs. “But she’s very tolerant.”

Mark Steel appears at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool (29 May), Cast, Doncaster (30 May) and Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton (31 May). Episodes of Mark Steel’s In Town are on BBC Sounds

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