Comedy’s man of steel

Mark Steel's sharp and self-deprecatory humour shines through in his new laugh-out-loud radio show.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It’s often said that the devil has all the best tunes. I also think the devil has all the best jokes.

Right-wing people are good at satire – from Jonathan Swift to Michael Wharton and Craig Brown – but they are not very good at jokes or stand-up comedy. Sure, there is the odd exception, like the fiercely reactionary and brilliantly dark Frankie Boyle, but when you think of reactionary right-wing comedians the names Bernard Manning, Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and Jim Davidson spring to mind. Oh dear. On the other hand, your lefty jokers include Alexei Sayle, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel, who are all infinitely superior.

Mark Steel (1), like Jeremy Hardy, is an unreconstructed socialist, and he claims to have been fired from his post as columnist in the Guardian over his hatred of New Labour and Tony Blair. For this he should be commended. But he should be admired not for his politics, but in spite of his politics. He may go on and on about capitalists being evil, the working class being wonderful and saintly, and, even more inexplicably, Crystal Palace actually being a good football team, but he is nonetheless hilarious. If right-wing comedians are revolting but right, left-wing comedians are romantic but wrong.

Steel can currently be heard on BBC Radio 4 in the Mark Steel’s in Town show (2), in which he visits various provincial venues in the UK to deliver a stand-up routine based loosely on the history of the place, predictably replete with tales of working-class heroism. For this he can be forgiven. The last episode of the series was on last night and I do hope the BBC will have the nous to re-commission Steel in some capacity.

Mark Steel is appealing because he is earnest and self-deprecatory at the same time. This is a hard art to master. Some left-wing comedians are just too earnest, like Michael Moore, Mark Thomas or Ben Elton (in his 1980s days), which makes them come across as preachy and tiresome, while other comedians are just always putting themselves down, which leaves you with the suspicion that they are mere cynics who don’t have any convictions at all. Think Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Frank Skinner, Jasper Carrot and so many others.

But Mark Steel can be sincere and laugh at himself simultaneously. His 2001 semi-autobiographical history of the far left in Britain, Reasons to be Cheerful, is an engaging and often touching tale (3). Ever since Monty Python did their ‘People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front’ skit in The Life of Brian back in 1979 (4), it’s been a tough call to emulate that satire on the fissiparous nature of the far left. But Steel does so with pathos and bathos. But you never get the impression that he mocks the far left just for cheap laughs. He merely realises that human beings, of whatever political persuasion, are flawed, and that the more ideologically driven they are, the more flawed they can become.

This theme was continued in his take on the French Revolution, in the 2003 book Vive La Revolution (5), which, as you’d expect, explained how the ancien régime and Louis XVI and Marie Antionette were all horrible exploiters of the working class. But it also told us that the earnest revolutionaries, philosophers, agitators and pamphleteers responsible for 1789 were often chancers and bullshitters. Steel describes the arrest of Jean-Paul Marat (the revolutionary whose death was immortalised by a Jacques-Louis David painting (6)). Although he was apprehended by 300 guards in 1790, Marat claimed he was actually arrested by 12,000 officers. As Steel continues: ‘Even in my home town of Swanley, I never heard a pub regular claim, “So the Ol’ Bill have come for me, I’ve turned round, there’s only 12,000 of ’em, ain’t there?”’

This shows that for all his persistent posturing as the voice of the people, Mark Steel does actually communicate with them. The above quote proves that he does understand pub language, and all the oceans of crap that are emitted in such establishments night after night. I was gladdened to hear him receive rapturous applause, in the Mark Steel’s in Town show from Walsall two weeks ago, for exposing the conceit that confusing Walsall with Warsaw is amusing. I must admit that I found it funny back in 1994, at a Brentford v Walsall game, hearing a fellow fan shout ‘Fuck off back to Poland!’ But in hindsight I appreciate that this was not an original joke. Walsall fans must be like people who have a weird name: everyone makes a joke about them, thinking they are the first person ever to do so. And I have read reports of Mark Steel going to Crystal Palace games up north, which proves that he is not one of these fake politicians or writers who pretends to like football – or has Arctic Monkeys on his iPod.

I can appreciate Marxists who come from Swanley in Kent. And I can appreciate Jeremy Hardy, whose anti-establishment views were most likely shaped by growing up near the garrison town of Aldershot in Hampshire, where the squaddies are famously moronic and thuggish. I also respect an unreconstructed Marxist, who will be familiar to readers of spiked, recalling his days growing up in Woking in Surrey. He explained how Woking was just awful, and I suspect the same can be said for Swanley and Aldershot and basically anywhere in the London commuter belt. Trust me – Kent, Sussex and Surrey are cultural deserts. (And, no, Brighton is not cultured. Being gay does not automatically make you sophisticated. It just means you’re gay.) No wonder these places turned these disgruntled youths into communists.

What I can’t abide are socialists, or people who campaign for ‘social justice’, who hail from rich backgrounds, or who were raised in nice places. You know who I’m talking about. Just type ‘Vanessa Redgrave’, ‘Jane Fonda’ or ‘Bono’ into Google and you’ll find the relevant articles about their egotism and lack of principles – and in St Bono’s case, tax avoidance in his native Ireland.

I don’t agree with the politics of lefties from the shires. But I do trust them, because I think their sincerity is borne of experience. In an age of cynicism it’s nice to see, and to hear, people with convictions. And they do bring laughter to my life. But am I laughing with them, or at them?

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist. He will be taking off his weekly television review duties to investigate the mysterious world of radio at the end of every month.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See Mark Steel’s website.

(2) View the Mark Steel’s in Town show on BBC iplayer.

(3) Reasons to be Cheerful, by Mark Steel, Scribner, 2002

(4) Watch The People’s Front on YouTube.

(5) Vive La Revolution, by Mark Steel, Scribner, 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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