Interview with comedian Mark Steel
- Credit: Archant
Comedian Mark Steel is bringing his show, Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright, to the Cotswolds. But is it really gonna be alright? asks climate-fearful, Trump-alarmed Katie Jarvis. And does he actually mean that Every Big Thing’s NOT Gonna Be Alright?
We need clarification. And a timeframe.
“What’s it like,” I ask comedian Mark Steel, “being a comedian during Armageddon?”
I’m in two minds about this. On the minus side, it must be like being a Mr Whippy driver during the Pleistocene Epoch.
On the other hand… As Brexit deadlines loom without a child in the house washed, the Earth warms to temperatures nostalgically reminiscent of the Big Bang, and the most powerful man in the world can’t locate a decent tanning salon, perhaps a couple of one-liners will nicely straighten things out.
Ah, says Mark Steel. Actually. If there’s one good thing about national/global ‘we’re-all-going-to-die-horribly’ catastrophes – (marvellous that there is one good thing, all you pessimists out there) – it’s that you don’t have to explain them.
“You don’t have to say, ‘You know there’s this thing called Brexit?’ Everybody knows and everybody knows it’s chaos. So that’s quite good, really. If I want to do an impression of someone – not that they’re brilliant, my impressions – you don’t want three-quarters of the audience going, ‘Ehh?’”
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Indeed. If you want something far worse than Armageddon, then get this. Mark and his good mate Angela Barnes recently tried out new material in the sort of little pub where they let you try stuff out.
He did his amazing TV Geordie Shore impression for six nights in a row – “Liiike really forced sort of Geordie – I canna believe that I woke up in the morning and she was snogging Pete, lieek. One of these made-up reality things. Like The Only Way is Essex”.
And not a titter. Not a sausage!
“Nothing. My audience, they’re all too old, aren’t they? None of them have a clue what I was on about. If I do something about The Archers, they all know it.”
Tragic. Especially as it’s a pretty good Geordie accent, I reassure him. And I should know. I might not watch Geordie Shore but I was stuck on a train from Newcastle with two oil-rig workers the other day, only to learn that a) Newcastle is the best place for absolutely anything you care to name.
“They would be of that opinion, yes.”
And b) it’s OK to drink Strongbow in any quantity at 9am, as long as the train is moving.
“That’s true. On a train, it doesn’t count.
“Once, when I was about 24, I was with a mate on a little chuffy train going to Wick. It left at six in the morning and there – in the midst of the Highlands – was a bloke two seats away, sat behind a plank of wood with a load of beers and a price list. It was like one of these dreams.
“We said, ‘Are you a bar?’
“And he went, ‘Aye!’
“And I think that was possibly the happiest moment of my life.”
OK. So we’ve covered Newcastle and the Highlands.
But the question is: How can Mark Steel possibly show his face in Cirencester and Tewkesbury – where he’s performing Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright next month – when he’s said what he’s said about the Cotswolds. You know – on his Radio 4 Mark Steel’s In Town (One Man’s Tour of Modern Britain) series.
About innocently posh Chippy, for example:
• “Highest point in Oxfordshire; people go on about Tibet but Edmund Hillary never come here, did he. Never made it to the top of the Banbury Road because he didn’t have the bottle.”
Or repeating the gossip going round the Chipping Norton set:
• “I see our new postman is Salman Rushdie. And guess who I bumped into at the laundrette? Hillary Clinton!”
Has he got a flavour of Tewkesbury and Cirencester yet? Bearing in mind that Tewkesbury is mainly amphibious.
“Yeah. Tewkesbury – oh god. I was in Tewkesbury once, just after the big load of floods, and I did some joke about their houses being full of fish.”
“No. They didn’t like that.”
I love Mark Steel’s in Town. Love the depth of research he does, so that every urban quirk – the ones we think only we know about our home territory – is on display to the world. As a serial-tourer of Britain, he began to notice these idiosyncrasies wherever he went. In North Yorkshire, once, he passed a sign to Keighley. “Is that your rival town?” he asked his audience in nearby Skipton. A chilling silence descended, finally broken by a woman hissing, “Keighley – is a sink of evil”.
I love it because, beneath the concrete of every British town, lies the character the planners ruthlessly covered over. (Or, as Mark puts it, “If our town planners were put in charge of Athens, they’d knock down the Parthenon and replace it with a shopping mall called The Acropolis Centre.”)
So along he comes, with his pneumatic wit, to drill down to the individual story behind every branch of Tesco.
“Like Whitby,” he tells me, “is where Dracula was supposed to go, so it’s the heart of the Goth World. Quite regularly, these Goths will turn up and play Sisters of Mercy and My Chemical Romance.”
Whitby? Blimey. Not all fish, chips and heritage railways then.
“It’s partly fish and chips. But ask the next three people you meet what they know about Whitby and at least one will go, ‘Oh, yes – Goths! Dracula!’
“In Carlisle, we got off the train and, within five minutes, what a stink! It’s the biggest McVitie’s factory. People do a little sniff and go, ‘Ginger Nuts today’.”
So Tewkesbury? Minus the fish.
“Very beautiful. And the theatre is very lovely and old. And it’s got Eric Morecambe [who pretty much died on stage there. Literally] and all that.”
“A Roman town. And it has the largest leylandii hedge in England. What a stupid thing to be proud of! But they’re very proud of it.”
But he says it fondly. So I’ll give him that.
I am SO not qualified to play the psychologist. (Obviously, that’s not going to stop me.)
Therefore, the conundrum I’ll be addressing in this section is: What elements in your life turn you into a comedian?
The answer (according to Mark Steel) is:
Have a background so mixed up – working-class (much loved) adoptive parents in Kent; teenaged unmarried birth mother; very wealthy, ultra-right-wing-circle-mixing Egyptian father – that the only possible response is to make gentle/biting fun of the world.
Mark Steel has always known he was adopted when a days-old baby back in 1960. Always felt loved and comfortable with that. He even knew that his lovely Auntie Gwen had got talking to a 19-year-old girl of model looks, Frances, who’d moved into a flat in the same house in London. When Frances admitted she was alone and pregnant, it was Aunty Gwen who had come up with a solution: “Give the baby to my brother,” she suggested.
(“It was all done through the proper adoption agencies. It wasn’t like some sort of thing that takes place in Kazakhstan in the 1850s.”)
But that, in a nutshell, was how Doreen, a housewife, and Ernie, a door-to-door insurance collector, came to be Mark’s parents.
And for years, that information was enough. He was loved; he was part of a close family. What not to like?
But when his own son, Elliot, was born, he suddenly felt the need to find Frances.
What he discovered next is bonkers.
“It is bonkers,” he confirms.
(So bonkers, he’s used it in stand-up. And it’s now the subject of a book he’s writing: Who Do You Think I am?)
“I’ll give you the bare outline and it barely touches on the state of bonkers it is.”
He found out – over about 10 years of casual research – that Frances had met and married an Italian and moved with him to Rimini.
“But she didn’t want to know me at all or to meet me in any way.”
Goodness. That must have been tough.
“Well, it was a bit rude. A bit of a nuisance because I’d spent ages looking. But I wasn’t particularly upset by it.”
What Frances did concede for the first time, though, was the name of his natural father. And that was quite a concession, as it turns out. For his dad – an Egyptian – had, in most unlikely fashion, gone on to become a world backgammon champion, invested his money in Wall Street, and made millions.
Nor did he play backgammon just anywhere; he played it in the Clermont Club – in Mayfair – where ultra-rich gamblers, the Clermont Set, hung out: James Goldsmith, Jim Slater, Tiny Rowland, and Lord Lucan among them.
“My natural father was in the middle of that lot. Now how much he was involved in all the political stuff, I don’t know. But when you hear people say that there was a group who tried to overthrow Harold Wilson and the Labour Government, that was this lot. They were never within a million miles of doing that but that was their aim.”
Mark met up with him – this is 10 years ago now. And what’s particularly striking about the way he describes this meeting is this: it’s clearly not his father’s wealth or backgammon prowess or connections that impress him.
It’s the fact that his dad made him laugh.
“I go into this posh café where we arranged to meet in Mayfair. And he stood up and said, ‘I’ve got a lot of meetings today but this is the most awkward.’”
“Class, isn’t it.”
To say his dad was surprised to hear from him is something of an understatement.
“Because he and Frances had arranged for a Harley Street abortion – he’d given her the money. And that was the last he’d heard.
“So I said to him, ‘I’ve actually met up with her family. If you want me to try to get the money back they obviously owe you…’
“He said, ‘Ugh!’.
“I said, ‘It was a better joke than that, wasn’t it?’
“And he said, ‘Uh; maybe.’
“And I thought: This is brilliant; this is brilliant!”
A fortnight ago, Mark got another letter. “And we’re going to meet up again.
“And, on Thursday, I’m going to Rimini, where me natural mum lived for 40-something years, to meet up with a woman who was her best mate there.”
Strange mix, I observe. Working-class Frances. Super-rich dad.
“Yeah. You can see interviews where people like Goldsmith and Slater talk about how vital it is for the human race that we crush the weak; if we give in to these compassionate instincts, we are disavowing the animal drive that makes people thrive, and so on.
“Very, very unpleasant…
“But there’s no indication…” he pauses, then starts again. “He [his natural father] clearly goes along with that to a certain degree; but there’s no indication that… I don’t know.
“I think mostly he wanted to make a lot of money and have a laugh.”
What I like about Mark Steel – and what I like about his comedy, even during Armageddon – is his lack of crossness. His natural mum refused to see him. His natural dad paid for an abortion.
“But that’s not going to help me – to feel cross, I don’t think… No, it’s not even that. I don’t know why I would feel cross. He was 20 and went to a party; met this very vivacious girl of 19. They spent a weekend together and she got pregnant…
“We’ve all done worse things than that, haven’t we?”
Let’s finish on another happy note. With a return to Armageddon and some of the vital questions currently unanswered.
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in a fist-fight. Who’d win?
“Johnson. He’ll have learned the rudiments of boxing at Eton. Trump probably avoids physical fights.”
Oh yeah. Bone spurs.
“Though it depends on the rules. If it was your sort of UFC, Conor McGregor-type stuff, Trump might have more of a chance to grab him round the neck.”
OK. Next question. Is Every Little Thing Really Gonna Be Alright?
I mean, really?
Cross your heart, etc?
“To be honest, it was called that because everything was going down the toilet.”
“Because if you were in a house and it was burning down and there was four of you in the room and you were absolutely stuffed. And someone picked up a guitar and started singing Every little thing’s gonna be alright… That would be funny… Wouldn’t it?”