Interview: Mark Steel

Interview: Jared Wilson
Illustrations: Adam Poole
Monday 01 February 2010
reading time: min, words

"I think what’s really lacking in society at the moment is organisation to protest. There are still people who feel resentment - but there’s no sense of strategy or organisation"


Whether he’s presenting bizarre solutions to social problems on Five Live’s The Mark Steel Solution, casting an eye over historical figures for The Mark Steel Lectures on BBC 2, writing for the Independent, churning out an alternative history of the Labour Party or presenting one-off stand-up diatribes about the city he’s in, Mark Steel is always enlightening and always entertaining...

When you last played Nottingham, the crowd berated you for not knowing that we’d burnt down our own castle in protest against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to the Reform Act of 1832...
I remember that with great affection. It was a Sunday night and the gig was packed. It was also the night that Lewis Hamilton won the world motor racing championship. I don’t know about ‘berating’ but it was great fun. I think I said something like, “You started off brilliantly in the 1300s with your Robin Hood but from there on you went all downhill. You had the castle where the royalists launched the civil war and then you were terrible in the miners’ strike.” Then someone shouted out about the burning down of the castle. What a truly excellent thing for people to heckle about at a comedy gig!

We wanted to ask you about the miners’ strike. At football matches against Yorkshire teams, we always get called ‘scabs’...
Really? That’s something, isn’t it? Well, if Gillingham play at Crystal Palace they get “you all live in a caravan and you’re all a bunch of pikeys” and all that sort of thing. It’s just that a
place gets labelled with the easiest possible stereotype. When Manchester City came down to Nottingham the week after Harold Shipman was convicted, they all started singing “Did a doctor kill your Gran?” The sheer ability to sink to those sorts of depths I thought was genius.

Do you think we let the country down during the miners’ strike?
Well, that’s a complicated question. The strike started in South Yorkshire and the pickets were bringing people out from other areas. I think the pickets were having some effect at that time in Nottingham, but there was a massive police presence which had a real impact on the ability of anyone to try and bring the Nottingham miners out. In the seventies there were local wage agreements that had been accepted by the Union. Nottingham miners were able to produce more coal - even though it was worse quality - and therefore they were actually paid more than others. So they got got a sense of feeling better off and not being a part of the Union as much. I think those wage bridges undermined the sense of collectivism throughout the NUM. Bloody hell - I’m going back to things I’ve not really thought about for twenty years here...

Last year you did Mark Steel is in Town, with a whole set about the place you were performing. Seems quite a challenge...
I think most comics like to do something about the town in their sets because it shows that you’re thorough and interested. But obviously I took this idea a lot further than most. I have to do it all again now, as we have a new series in the pipeline. The first one is in Dartford, in Kent. Funnily enough, it’s harder to get started with those sorts of places but the really nondescript places are, in some way, the fun ones because they’re more challenging and satisfying. You think there’s nothing interesting about a place, but then you scratch around and realise there is.

How do you research all the places?
I go to the town and have a wander about. Then I get any books that have been written about the place. It’s amazing how every single town has a local historian who, for absolutely no benefit to themselves, has spent three years of their life writing up something like The History of Railways in Didcott. They are magnificently tedious! I read one book about the history of a signal box in Kent - a whole book about just one signal box! I had to buy that because you think that this bloke’s going to be quite jokey about it, but he’s not. It really is just the history of this signal box and nothing interesting happens at all. Anyway, I do a bit of that and then spend a couple of days looking at the internet and look at all the news stories. Then I go back there again for another visit. But there are loads of things about every town that are quite distinct, really.

When can we expect the new series?
I think it starts in April - I hope it’s not earlier than that because I’ve got to write the bloody thing! It’ll be on Radio 4 again - I’d love it to be on telly but that depends on the telly people letting me. It’s going to be on some download system or something, not the ‘listen again’, but something where you can actually download it.

So are we going to get a Tory government after the next election?
It looks like it, doesn’t it? I sort of still hope that Labour do manage to win, but the real motor of change is from below. I think what’s really lacking in society at the moment is organisation to protest. There are still a great many people who feel some sort of resentment about the way that society is run - as the Facebook Rage Against The Machine campaign proved.  I wouldn’t exaggerate it - it’s just a song - but there’s no sense of strategy or organisation with the people who are angry about the people that run society, so nothing much happens. It will all start to come together when people become more than a disparate group of annoyed people and start to become a unified group that can discuss strategies and so on. Then the world can start to change, in some way or another, at least.

You did a lecture on our very own Lord Byron. What are your favourite things about him?
Just his utter zest for life. His was a life of someone who just thought that every aspect should be up to the maximum. No matter what it was: if he was going to have a love affair, it was going to be the most emotional love affair ever. If he was going to have a one-night stand, it was going to be the most traumatic, ridiculous, eventful one-night stand. His was just the most astonishing life and embodied passion. If he’d been around now he would have backed Rage Against The Machine for Christmas number one, too...

Mark Steel website

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