Even if Mark Steel is not exactly a household name, many people have probably seen as in recent years he has been a guest on such shows as Q.I., Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Even if you have not been subjected to him visually his gruff estuary accent is often to be heard on radio four, adding his contribution to such stalwarts of the radio world as The News Quiz and Quote/Unquote. It is the sum total of these shows that says a lot about Mark Steels place in broadcasting and entertainment a combination of the old punk attitude, socialist satire, historical studies and modern political comment combine to make him someone that seems to sit in a number categories.
From his roots as a stereotypically troubled teenager his interests in punk music, political protest and poetry, combined with expulsion from school and a desire to be heard, brought him to the world of performance first as a poet and then as a stand up comedian. After a number of years doing the comedy circuit, his big break came when he managed to secure a place writing for the Guardian, though claims that his sacking in 1999 was due to the papers realignment with Tony Blair something that as a true socialist was going to stand at odds with his own views. By now though his reputation was such that he was able to get involved in projects that took him into other areas of interest, namely The Mark Steel Lectures, a series of radio presentations that were later transcribed onto BBC 4.
But to experience Mark Steel in all his glory you have to see his live shows and this review is based on his 2006 tour, which brought together all his facets in one place. If the word comedy might suggest the sort of belly laughs that we associate with Lee Evans and Harry Hill, this is certainly not what he does, its certainly satire and very funny but does demand something of the audience. To get the most out of his show, it helps if you are slightly politically aware and have at least a passing interest in history. Thats not to say anyone without those is not going to enjoy the show but his is a humour with a certain intellect to it and if Roy Chubby Brown is your usual choice of a humorist then you should keep away. Thats not to say that Mark is in any way the elitist academic that I may have painted him, far from it. One of the attractions of his style is his accessibility. When this casually dressed, slightly build, London accented man walks onto the stage, you realise that although his is a humour that some may associate with the likes of Stephen Fry and Ben Elton, his style is akin to having a chat with a well-informed bloke in the pub. And thats the charm of it. Although his contribution to satire is well recognised, you feel that for all the academics he has rubbed shoulders with, all the TV stars and media moguls he has had to endure and all of the newspaper pundits he has worked for, this is the same Mark Steel that you would have meet working in the garage in Swanley all those years ago. You can relate to this man, he just happens to be on stage and you in the stalls, apart from that total normality is the order of the day.
His recent show was based on ideas borne out of the French Revolution. An odd theme for a comedy show it may seem, but Marks love of history and politics is always at the heart of his work and where better to start than in the bloody days of the late eighteenth century. But this is not just an informative history lesson and many tangents are explored in this two-hour show. The obvious starting point is the parallels between the political machinations of that period and modern government. But along the way we get an insight into Marks own life, from young punk activist, through to his work with the disapproving academics on his lectures. Easily moving between global issues and personal asides, its an enthralling listen and that biting satire is always bubbling under the surface. Whats appealing is the off the cuff and personal aspects to the show. Although a lot of the material is obviously scripted and well rehearsed, you get the feeling that this seems to come very natural to Mark Steel and the material changes depending on what inspirations are put in front of him. I saw him perform in Swindon and he reflected on previous shows here, talked about the history of some of the surrounding towns and linked them into the main body of the show. He even had a pop at George Galloway and his Big Brother antics, a rant triggered by the poster in the foyer advertising Galloways up coming lecture tour visiting the next night.
If you like the sort of Have I Got News For You satirical humour and have an interest in political and historical matters then Mark Steel is work catching as a live act.If only history was taught this way in schools.