Mark Steel talks before his Aldershot showBy James Rampton
February 09, 2011
Mark Steel got the inspiration for his latest tour from a gig he did in Penzance recently. The comic, justly regarded as one of the finest stand-ups currently at work, takes up the story.
“When I went to Penzance, a couple of people had told me before the gig, ‘Round here, we don’t like St Ives – it’s a bit posh up there.’ So on stage that night I asked, ‘Is St Ives really that posh?’ and a woman piped up, ‘Oh yes, they’ve even got their own dentist.’ What a fantastic definition of posh! ‘Ooo, it’s like Monaco in St Ives with all their dentists. If we want to deal with our teeth, we have to tie one end of a rope to the ferry as it leaves for the Scilly Isles, attach the other end to our rotten tooth and pull it out that way!’
“I got loads out of that. It made me think. I extracted all that material from simply coming to the town on the afternoon of the gig. Imagine how much more I could get if I came two or three weeks before. I thought, ‘I may be mad, but I’m going to try to do ten minutes about the history of every town I play’.”
And so Mark Steel’s in Town was born. In this coruscating show, he creates material that illuminates the quirkiness of every town he visits. He points up the uniqueness of every place – and local audiences lap it up. It’s an inspired idea, which has already been a huge hit over two series on Radio 4.
And now Mark is taking the show on the road. He is dedicated to doing a routine about the history of every town at which the tour calls. He freely admits that it is a decision he may live to regret!
All the same, he can’t wait to come to your town and shed light on its more unusual aspects.
“There is no thrill like it,” enthuses Mark, whose radio comedy has won him both Sony and Writers Guild Awards. “What is brilliant about stand-up is that it’s so instantaneous. It’s the opposite of a play which has to be exactly the same every night.
Mark, who has written several acclaimed books, including Reasons to Be Cheerful and What’s Going On?, is an enthralling presence - both on and off stage. Spending a couple of hours with him over a cup of tea in the run-up to the tour is an extremely rewarding experience – I can’t remember the last time I laughed so wholeheartedly and so consistently over a 120-minute period. So as you can see, you have a rare treat awaiting you when Mark Steel’s in Town near you very soon.
The stand-up, who is a regular on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You and Radio 4’s News Quiz, makes a great effort to tailor his material very specifically to the town he is playing. “You can’t just come on and say, ‘There’s a lot of traffic here – isn’t the one-way system terrible?’,” observes Mark. “You need to do weeks of research beforehand, and spend days there prior to thegig. You need to get a feel for what people talk about in that town.”
The comic, who has also fronted the Bafta-nominated Mark Steel Lectures for BBC2, goes on to give a marvellous example of a particular moment that caught fire in a particular town. “I was in the North Yorkshire farming town of Skipton recently and that was brilliant,” Mark beams at the memory.
“I happened to wonder out loud if the neighbouring town of Keighley was Skipton’s big local rival.
“The moment I said that, the room suddenly went absolutely cold. I could hear people muttering, ‘He’s mentioned Keighley’.
By ESP, one woman was elected the spokesperson for the entire audience and she called out with calm menace, ‘Keighley is... a sink of evil’. What was terrific about that moment is that you wouldn’t get it anywhere else in the world.”
Mark, who also writes a popular weekly column for The Independent, clearly had a whale of a time in Skipton. “The venue I was playing at is a cattle market by day, and the smell of cow deposit still hangs in the air by night. On the morning of the gig, I went there to watch a bloke auctioning 250 of the best Friesians. I was able to bring that into the show that evening.
“You go backstage there and it’s an NFU office. Instead of pictures of Richard Stilgoe and Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear on the walls, there are big photos of farmers with their prize-winning cattle.
“They could never put on a panto there because if the poor blokes in the cow costume took one wrong turning, they’d be in the abattoir. ‘Let me out! I’m Keith Chegwin! They all say that. Now get in the mincer’.”
During a recent tour round the country, Mark also delighted in discovering “The Walsall Hippo” when he was in that Midlands town. “I imagined a great big bronze of a hippo in mid-yawn. But in actual fact, it’s just a concrete block in a hippo-ish shape about the size of a kitchen table. As a local landmark, it’s unbelievable, but it’s theirs.
“Everything else in the town is soulless and identical and imposed on them.
“Someone beyond the people of Walsall has decided, ‘We’ll have the flyover here, the Clinton cards shop there and the Vodaphone shop there.’
“At least they have some control over the hippo. When I announced on stage, ‘I have to say, The Walsall Hippo is pathetic – I thought it was a bin,’ everyone in the 1,000-seater venue booed. People in Walsall love that hippo, and that’s great.”
The marvellous distinctiveness of towns such as Penzance, Skipton and Walsall forms the central plank of Mark’s show.
“The main theme is the idea that every town is being made identical and being turned into a soulless corporate place with no human contact. The world is being taken over by call centres and giant supermarkets.
“I love the quirks of towns that keep them distinct. They stand against what’s being put in place in the modern world. I don’t want to sound pompous, but every town centre now looks the same wherever you go in the country. Everything is centrally controlled. Quirkiness fights against that.”
Mark carries on that, “Near where I live in south London, there is a local independent bookshop. Its books are more expensive than they are at the supermarket, but it’s always packed because it’s an essential part of the local community. Those sort of quirky places are a vital element in the resistance against homogeneity. OK, it’s not Che Guevara running around the Cuban hills, but it’s still tremendous resistance.”
Never more a minute away from the next joke, Mark adds: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Che never actually went to his local independent bookshop and bought all his books at Waterstone’s in Havana, got his cigars at Tesco and went to Berets R Us?”
Another aspect of the bland-isation of this country that gets Mark’s goat is the dominance of call centres.
“It really upsets me that you have to wait three hours before your call gets answered,” the comedian fumes. “I also hate the fact that they play you this music which is supposed to be soothing. But it has the opposite effect on me, I can tell you!
“I can’t hear the Nick Cave or the Miles Davis record I’ve got on at home because it’s being drowned out by Celine Dion from the call centre. And I dare not move my ear away from the phone for a second because there is a one in a million chance that I’ll miss them actually answering!”
As you can tell, Mark is a truly compelling comedian. With typical self-deprecation, though, he laughs that it takes a slightly unbalanced personality to want to be a comic in the first place. “You have to understand that being a stand-up is basically a mental illness,” he grins.
“Who else would have an ego so distorted that he would be impelled to do such a stupid thing? It can only really be driven by vanity and ego.
“You can’t pretend there is anything honourable about it. When someone says to me, ‘I’m writing a book about corruption in the Mexican government,’ I think, ‘What a fantastically worthwhile thing to do, but I could never do that. You’re going to spend two years writing a book that a small number of people will read, but will make a huge impact.
“It’s an amazing thing to do, but I’m going to do it!’”
A pause, before Mark’s face breaks into a broad grin once more. “Given all that, I still get the most fantastic buzz from performing stand-up.”
And we still get the most fantastic buzz from watching him do it!
Tickets are priced at £15 / Friends £13 and are available from the box office on 01252 329155 or via www.princeshall.com.