Mark Steel is in danger of becoming a national treasure. The Kent comedian, who built a career with an idiosyncratic brand of observational socialist humour, has of late become Britain’s undisputed chief topographical wit - a kind of domestic Michael Palin, with a keen eye for provincial quirks and regional curiosities. His ‘In Town’ tours have become a staple on BBC Radio 4, commanding a cult following since they were first broadcast in 2009.
It was with the recent European election results in mind that on Thursday night he arrived in the town of Deal, on the East Kent coast. This is deep UKIP territory - indeed, Nigel Farage is widely tipped to stand in Thanet, in the northeast tip of the county, at the next General Election.
Striding on to the stage of the Astor Theatre in a purple felt jacket (UKIP colours, surely?) with his trademark boyish grin and Legoman haircut, Steel proclaimed how glad he was to be in a place where you could see France on a clear day. Surely this made everyone immensely proud to feel European? Referring sarcastically to this ‘sprawling metropolis’ with a ‘funny pier with nothing at the end of it’, he noted how the local tourist board called the place ‘thriving’. Cue a photo he had taken of the high street that afternoon, completely deserted, save for five pigeons. ‘See? Plenty enough room for Bulgarians!’
He needn’t have worried about audience reaction. Deal’s Guardian-reading, Radio 4-listening populace was out in force. Indeed, they remonstrated with him about accusations of voting UKIP. ‘That wasn’t us!’, they heckled. ‘That was people up in Thanet!’ But it was a mixed audience all the same; I knew at least two UKIP voters there.
Steel’s rhetoric is unashamedly socialist - he railed at bankers and the tabloids blaming the poor for their own predicament, and mocked Farage’s unease about hearing foreign languages: ‘it’s like being afraid of buttons or clams… especially when your wife’s German’. But Steel has none of the smug sanctimoniousness found in so many celebrity left-wing comedians. His cheerful demeanour and disarming manner are the source of his broad appeal.