Mark Steel: the music-hall socialist
There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned about this left-wing funnyman.
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.
He certainly has a common touch. His fury at corporations is informed by a perception that not only do they trample on the common man but they also seek to ‘strip the world of humanity’ through mechanisation and rationalisation. He is exasperated at the bewildering amount of options at Subway, or trying to get through to energy company complaints departments (‘If my house burnt down, I’d rather live in rubble than try to call the insurance company’).
He is a grumpy, almost fogeyish, everyman, and his most hilarious invective is reserved for 20-year-olds who save for their pensions. ‘What kind of 20-year-old saves for his pension? Can you imagine being asked “All right blood, you coming out to the club?” “No, I’m saving for my pension so I can have an extra pint of bitter at Wetherspoon’s when I’m 73”. I mean for fuck’s sake why don’t you fucking fuck off and go and jump in the sea?’
Steel often blends his undiminished socialism with reflections on the areas he’s visiting. He noted how Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, was from up the road in Sandwich. ‘Paine said a hereditary peer made as much sense as a hereditary mathematician.’ However, when Steel explained that his own son has become a stand-up comic, an audience member piped up: ‘A hereditary comedian!’ Touché. Elsewhere, we were reminded how Charles Hawtrey, who settled in Deal and was widely hated for his drunken antics, used to sign autographs for strangers and then rip them up. Steel also read out tweets, including one stating that Julius Caesar first landed in Deal because ‘the locals in Dover were too hard’ (the tweet, pleasingly, was mine).
The only bum note of the night was a sour joke about Thatcher’s corpse; the subject material was too obvious and the spiteful tone out of kilter with Steel’s affable on-stage persona. Steel is too smart for that.
Indeed, he said he was aware of the perils of being ‘too liberal’. For instance, he’s exasperated with the morality police on Twitter. ‘Watching Trainspotting with my son. He’s four on Monday’ and ‘Going to a wedding. Have to buy something related to cotton. Might get a slave’ – those are two recent tweets of his that generated howls of outrage online, he tells us. As he concluded: ‘You can’t take everything literally or you can’t say anything.’
There is something old-fashioned about Mark Steel, what with his affection for rusty northern towns and unglamorous places like Didcot and Walsall. His ear for regional accents and his willingness to mimic Jamaicans and Indians, as well as Welsh, Irish and Lancastrians, seems to belong to the music-hall era. But his act is better for it. He is a brilliant mimic and fantasist as well as being an astute topographer, describing Kent, ‘the garden of England’, with its strange mixture of pretty villages and derelict towns, as like a nice ‘garden in which you find an upturned pram’. Of his native Swanley, he explained that going to a pub and announcing you’re from out of town would be cheaper than getting a ‘one-way ticket to Switzerland’. ‘Mark Steel’s Britain’ would make for a terrific book.
Towards the end, while he lauded our progressive, modern attitudes to gay marriage, he made it clear in a decidedly non-metropolitan manner that homosexuality was not his kind of thing. ‘If someone shoved a willy in my face, why would I do anything to make it bigger?’ And as he parted with a poem lampooning Farage, I couldn’t help reflecting that Steel’s appeal derives from the same source as the UKIP leader’s: he’s also the kind of ordinary bloke you’d just like to have a pint with.
Patrick West is a columnist for spiked.