Posted: Wed Aug 06, 2008 4:05 pm Post subject: Mark Steel
'Why Cracking Jokes Boosts My Huge Ego' Hannah Stephenson Finds Out What Sorts of Things Make Stand-Up Comic Mark Steel Tick August 04, 2008
Comedian and writer Mark Steel has always been a rebel - ever since he was expelled from school for constantly playing truant and, in what turned out to be the final straw, going on a cricket course without permission. But being chucked out of school was a dream come true for the Left-wing comic, whose TV and radio series include The Mark Steel Lectures and The Mark Steel Solution and who has guest-starred on shows including Have I Got News For You?, Room 101 and Radio 4's Loose Ends. "I thought, fantastic! The punishment for not coming in is that I'm not allowed to come in."
As well as being a comedian, Steel, 48, has been a political activist for much of his life. He has a great sense of injustice and rants about the scourge of big businesses, the ways in which New Labour has become more like the Conservatives and the total lunacy of the war in Iraq. He has successfully channelled all this anger into his comedy over the years, firstly on the stand-up circuit, before presenting a satirical radio show, The Mark Steel Solution, on BBC Radio 5. While he loves doing stand-up, he admits that a guest appearance on BBC's Question Time made him more nervous than any other live performance he's ever done.
"It was terrifying. It's out of my comfort zone. I'm much happier being on Have I Got News For You? and thinking, 'What is the joke here?' rather than 'How do I get across the pertinent political point of the age?'"
He came into comedy shortly after the angry young men of the late 80s who took the Comedy Store by storm - Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, among them. "Alexei Sayle's influence was enormous. He was an amazing stand- up," Steel recalls. "They were the pioneers."
He counts contemporaries like Mark Lamarr among his friends, but can't stand Ben Elton. In fact, as a guest on Paul Merton's Room 101, Steel banished Elton forever, slamming his musicals, his comedy and his books. "Every little bit of him oozes this arrogance," he said of Elton. Today, he's not changed his mind. Is it because he feels Elton has sold out and become one of the establishment he so criticised when making his name?
"I'm not a great fan of the phrase 'sell-out'," says Steel thoughtfully. "It's quite unusual for people to say, 'I've got these beliefs but I've just abandoned them because people have offered me a load of money. It's much more complex than that. I never liked Ben Elton at all. It wasn't his politics, there's just something about him that gives me the creeps."
Steel writes a column for The Independent and has also written several books, the latest of which, What's Going On?, sees him descending into a mid-life crisis in which his marriage breaks up and he begins to question the beliefs he'd held for 25 years.
"I got to a point where all the things that I thought were stable are not. I'm not on my own - a huge number of people feel there's a sense of uncertainty and confusion." The book features his views on everything from turning 40 to the NHS, cable TV, George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother and much more. While some of it is extremely funny there are some equally sad moments, like the gradual disintegration of his marriage, which begins with him sleeping on the sofa and ends in the divorce courts. "My overwhelming emotion in the courtroom was bewilderment at how this happened," he writes. "How do you end up dreading a visit from the person you used to drive all night to see briefly in the morning?"
After renting a flat for a time (another dilemma he discusses in the book), Steel has now bought himself a house and is with another partner. He says he doesn't have a particularly amicable relationship with his ex-wife, although he is careful not to criticise her, but he sees his two children, aged 12 and seven, regularly. "For half the week I'm a single parent. My son lives with me and my daughter doesn't. It's difficult for my ex-wife as well."
Steel grew up in Swanley, Kent, the son of an engineer who had served in the Navy during the Second World War. After leaving school he had a variety of jobs. Initially he was in a terrible band and later became a milkman for a time. But he knew from an early age that he wanted to make people laugh. "I think most comics are invested with an appalling ego. I have that and I really wanted to be funny. The idea of people laughing at me was a great little thrill."
He tells a different story each time a journalist asks him how he got into comedy, so we skim over that, but it's safe to say that he made his name on the stand-up circuit and has never looked back. In the autumn he'll be embarking on a 40-date regional tour to let off some steam, but he is at his best when the material is improvised, he says, which keeps him on his toes and gives him an edge.
"Some jokes can be written as you'd write an article, but it's mostly things I've just said in conversation which I can see could be quite funny. I want to get across in a stand-up way that we live in very confusing times because vast numbers of people are opposed to this idea that nothing can work unless big business is in control of it, but we don't know what to do about it."
What's Going On?, Mark Steel, Simon & Schuster, Pounds 12.99
(c) 2008 Belfast Telegraph.
I thought I had a thread about Mark Steel before, but couldn't find it.
i like mark steel, i see him in epsom he's got a website at www.marksteelinfo.com where you can get some of his lectures on aristotle, byron, chaucer, cromwell, darwin, descartes, freud and newton - the ones i've seen have been brilliant, like you said somewhere else faceless, he manages to portray the characters in a way unlike anything else - you get to know and understand them so much better. i've not checked any of his books yet though, anyone else?
Mark Steel opens Devizes Festival Lewis Cowen
4th June 2009
COMEDIAN Mark Steel got Devizes Festival off to a rollicking start on Wednesday night as he delighted a full house at the Corn Exchange. Mr Steel, best known for his appearances on Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week, has made a reputation as a left-wing comedian and someone with a great reservoir of knowledge and political nous.
That sounds a bit daunting, rather like Tommy Cooper’s rubrick that alternative comedians are an alternative to being funny. But Mr Steel is very funny indeed and a seasoned worker of audiences. He started off with the usual round of local jokes, with references to placenames like Rowde and Goatacre.
He must have been well briefed by festival organiser Ian Hopkins as he was able to wind the audience up about celebrities living close by like Robbie Williams and Madonna. But his stock in trade is political satire and he spared no political group his scathing invective - New Labour, the Tories and even the “Organised” Left. He is not known for his impersonations but he delivered convincing impressions of Tony Benn, Ian Paisley, George Galloway and cricketing guru Geoffrey Boycott.
Audience members certainly got their money’s worth with Mr Steel. He gave them almost three hours of his time and one got the impression he was only just getting started.
Three hours is some going - I'll need to go and see him live sometime.
INTERVIEW WITH MARK STEEL Salman Shaheen
22nd June 2009
There’s a bit in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where the eponymous character starts paraphrasing Moby Dick. “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!” he cries. Tracking down comedian Mark Steel can be a bit like that. Between appearances on shows like QI, Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, and his stand-up performances, including this year’s Mark Steel’s In Town broadcast on Radio 4 from the more obscure parts of Britain, it’s hardly surprising he has a somewhat hectic schedule.
But, in the wake of the disastrous European Elections, Steel was kind enough to talk to me about that perennially gloomy topic, the state of the Left today, and the few rays of light he’s seen.
Thirty years after Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the British Left is still sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre shouting “Splitters!” It’s an unfortunate pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mark Steel, who wrote in the Independent earlier this month that the Left, despite seemingly facing ideal conditions for success, “has a self-destruct button, and can’t stand being popular.” But did he have high hopes for Respect following the greatest mass movement of our time? “Respect had difficulties, but it had potential,” he says. “Whether something succeeds or not is not just a matter of whether it has a figurehead that gets on the news and so on, although that is very helpful, but it’s about getting a group of people in every area who seem to be doing things.” It seems an obvious starting point and Steel is quick to point out that it’s nothing new. “Going back to the English Civil War, that’s how agitation groups managed to get some sort of hearing. It’s not just being on the radio and saying things that people like.”
Of course, the state of the Left would be more depressing than even I imagined if the only successes it could tout were almost four centuries ago. Steel’s more recent inspirations can be found in the Scottish Socialist Party. “The SSP managed to get to a point where it could get 7% of the vote across the whole of Scotland,” he says. “That’s because Tommy Sheridan and his colleagues were known through the 90s, not just because they campaigned over the poll tax, but also when people who refused to pay had bailiffs coming round, the SSP organised people in the area to defend that person’s property.” It was a tactic, Steel argues, that was very successful both in the short-term and in the long-term. “In the short-term it meant people’s armchairs weren’t dragged out by the bailiffs. In the long-term it meant the poll tax was defeated.” Steel notes that they won themselves an immense amount of credibility over that. People trusted them. “They won an enormous amount of respect. But then they pressed the self destruct button.
But they did manage to get to that place first. And similarly, Respect did win in Bethnal Green. You can laugh at all the cat business. But it took an immense amount of organisation. George [Galloway] had won such respect because of his constant agitating over the war. But it wasn’t just that. There’s a company in Brick Lane that a lot of Bengali people put their money into and it went bankrupt, and George has campaigned over that and won concessions. It’s a combination of local everyday life things and the big issues such as the war in Iraq that made people trust him.”
In the end, though, Respect “tore itself apart in a feud about nothing that anyone can work out.” Did Steel find himself won over by Galloway’s Respect Renewal in light of his successes? “I’m not a member of Respect and I’m not going to be. But the Socialist Workers Party caused that feud. They’ve admitted as much now. In their own words, they ‘went nuclear’. They justified it as a Left-Right split. But once you end up categorising Ken Loach as a witch hunter then you’ve gone a bit haywire haven’t you?”
Following the election of two BNP members to the European Parliament, the SWP put out an open letter to the Left urging unity for the next election. It’s unusually conciliatory tone seemed to some bloggers to be a step in the right direction. “I don’t think anyone will take the blindest bit of notice,” Steel says and it’s not hard to miss the sense of bitterness in his voice now. “It’s hilarious! You can’t go round trashing everything and everybody and then… you know, it was awful, really, really awful. It was particularly awful for longstanding SWP members, because you’d think, what the hell are we doing?” Steel is a great fan of Linda Smith, the chair of Respect Renewal. He describes her as “one of the most principled trade unionists I’ve ever known, a really, really gutsy woman.” But, “because she took the George Galloway side, the SWP called her a ballot rigger and invented this entirely fictitious story that she’d rigged her election position. You can’t then a year later write a letter to her and say ‘well let’s let all that be past and let’s see if we can set up something else.’” Steel’s friends would seem to agree with him. “I’ve got a mate who says it’s like an alcoholic going back to his wife and saying ‘I’ll be different this time I promise!’”
Steel himself did not have the easiest of divorces from the SWP. It would be hard to imagine Alex Callinicos’s review of his memoir What’s Going On? being so negative if he were still a member of the party, whilst a certain capitalised colloquialism for the female anatomy has been amongst the more hateful comments he has received. “One bloke called me a TWAT and he was a twat. He wrote about a hundred comments on my website, each one managing to beat the previous ones in their incoherence and madness.” But Steel does not regret his experiences over the past decades. “If you leave something you’ve been in for a long time, most people say they don’t regret it except that they wish they’d left a couple of years earlier. It’s a bit like when your marriage breaks up. I probably should have left a bit earlier.” But, he says, “When I joined the SWP, it was young and a natural home for people who wanted to campaign over every issue. Not only that, it had the ideas.” The party’s analysis of the collapsing Soviet Union as a state capitalist society is a case in point. “It doesn’t mean that socialism is redundant, it proves that those states were not socialist in the first place, which is what we always said. If you believe that those countries were socialist, either you defend them on the ridiculous ground that these barbaric bloody places were the sort of regimes that we should aspire to recreate, or you conclude that socialism is bound to end up with people in gulags for looking at the regional politburo officer the wrong way.”
I ask Steel if there’s anywhere in the world that he does consider socialist and if there’s any country he draws encouragement from. “I think Cuba you can draw encouragement from, but I don’t think it’s socialist,” he says. “Venezuela I don’t believe is in the control of the working class, but Chavez has clearly gone out of his way to protect his working class base by using the oil money to fund projects that the ruling class hate. Henceforth three times they’ve risen up in rage, with the backing of George Bush, to try to overthrow the democratically elected government and every time he was forced back by a genuine uprising. I think anyone vaguely interested in human decency must be encouraged by that.”
Mark Steel believes that Chavez in Venezuela has done exactly the sort of thing the Left should be doing here. “I would imagine in Venezuela, lots of people would think ‘oh yeah he goes on about socialism and anti- imperialism and this, that and the other, and I sort of half follow what he’s going on about, but I tell you what, the schools are better since he was in.’ And that’s what socialists have to do. You win a hearing on the bigger issues by proving that you can handle the day to day issues.”
For Steel, this can’t be achieved by tiny parties shuffling themselves into different transient alliances. It has to be built from the bottom up with campaigners taking principled stances on the issues that matter to people. “I saw the Green Party doing that in lots of areas. There was a point when the socialist groups would do that, but the Greens have occupied that territory now.”
It’s easy for me to understand where Steel’s coming from. Although I spent a fraction of the time he did in the SWP, I am a former member of Respect who has found a new political home in the Green Party. But, I put it to Steel; can the Greens ever whip disaffected socialists like us into the kind of flag-waving fist-raising zeal of the past? “I don’t know,” he says after some thought. “There is going to be some tension between a Green Party outlook and a socialist outlook. The Greens are not based on trade unions. But there is socialist contingent in the Greens that is growing.” Steel spoke at their conference last year. “I was very impressed with them,” he says. “Caroline Lucas is a very impressive character. There are people in the Greens, Jonathon Porritt type characters, who are very much establishment people, free market, friends with Prince Charles, which doesn’t sit easy with someone on the Left. But they’ve definitely moved towards a more agitational stance and I think that socialists could certainly feel comfortable within the Greens.”
Of course the Greens, despite substantially increasing their share of the vote in the European Elections, significantly failed to increase their number of seats. Steel often jokes that he jinxes every cause he supports. But what’s really holding the Left back? “It’s not because the SWP and George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan are all bonkers. The reason that these people are to different degrees bonkers is because it has been very, very difficult to promote socialist ideas in Britain in recent times. The working class movement in this country was smashed much more seriously than anywhere else in Western Europe, by Thatcher’s laws initially, and then ideologically by Blair.”
Steel cut his political teeth in Thatcher’s Britain. But it is for Tony Blair that it seems he reserves most of his angry incredulity. “The extraordinary thing about Blair is not just that he said and did what he did, but that the bulk of the labour movement went along with it, however grudgingly. Even at the end, after Iraq, after all that had gone on, all the privatisation, all the scandals, he spoke at the TUC and apart from Bob Crow and a few people from the RMT, they just let him.” There’s a bit in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when another character, one James T. Kirk, tells a young officer: “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
On his website, Mark Steel jokes, “I’ve spoken at lots of demonstrations and union meetings and protests, and appeared at quite a few benefits, and yet capitalism still seems to rule the world.” And perhaps it’s in this that we can find our greatest inspiration in these troubling times. Throughout his career Steel has successfully used comedy as a vehicle for politics and politics as a subject for comedy. The leftists who’ve been prepared to satirise their own viewpoints have always had more resonance for me than those who are dour and right-on to the point of humourlessness. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from people like Mark Steel, is that laughing at our beliefs can stop us crying because of them.
Mark Steel: Royal Mail is to blame for our broken society (obviously) We can already see the 'modernisation' the Government wants from posties
21 October 2009
"The Post office unions can't obstruct modernisation," insists Peter Mandelson. That must be why Mandelson has the thoroughly modern job title of Lord, because he's not afraid to modernise. And no one could accuse his place of work, the House of Lords, of resisting modernisation. Every member of staff is at the cutting edge of new technology, making use of the very latest developments in ermine gowns, and overmanning is unheard of as every single Lord is essential and oozes infectious youthful hereditary energy for the benefit of Britain.
If only the Post Office unions would agree to being that modern, then their sacks would be carried by equerries, and attendance would be around 5 per cent of the workforce, who would take it in turns to stand up with a parcel, shake it for a couple of minutes, then say "Am I delivering this or receiving it, I don't recall?" and sit down again.
Presumably, what is meant by "modernise" is privatised. Then, as they're delivering your mail postmen can say "Would you like a pastry with your bills this morning? No? In that case are you aware I could also supply you with gas?" And each postman could get sponsorship, and cycle along whistling 'You can't get quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter'. Eventually they'll be properly modern, like the water companies who were fined £12m for providing a dreadful service and lying to cover it up, or the hugely popular gas companies.
We can already see the types of modernisation the Government would like to apply. For example they got rid of that antiquated system in rural areas where the elderly would queue in a ramshackle old Post Office for their pension, by shutting the things down. And in a marvellous example of joined-up government, soon the elderly won't be any worse off because their pensions will be scrapped anyway, saving them a walk, and encouraging them to modernise because it's no good wandering about being 82 in a modern environment.
So the management at Royal Mail, and the Government, want to cut jobs, freeze pay and change the working conditions for the staff, which has led to the current strikes. And that means certain papers are already exploding with stories that start "Britain's 103-year-olds are to be targeted by callous striking union members. 'Christmas cards are all I have to live for', said Ethel Dibbet from her nursing home, 'But this year I suppose I'll have to go without, what with them blooming selfish postmen with their unrealistic demands and obstinate Luddite refusal to ruddy well modernise'."
The Times had a headline telling us the strike would "Lose £100m in revenues" for the Government, which seems a lot until they explain this is because they'll have to waive the £100 fine for late tax returns, that could have been imposed on a million people. But surely The Times, and David Cameron, should be delighted about this, praising the union for helping to stamp out the red tape that holds back business.
You can see why there's such enthusiasm for taking on the post unions, because these are the people whose excess has got us into such a financial mess. Ask anyone "Whose greed caused the economic crash"? and they'll say "Investment postmen, they're the bastards." And we've all heard tales of them gloating down the sorting office, about how they'd just finished Gresham Street when they heard about the run on the futures market in Hong Kong, nipped down the stock market on their bicycle, did three dings on their bell to signal "sell" to the traders, picked up £10m and nipped back just in time to finish Parsley Avenue.
There is one other possibility, which is the Royal Mail management and the Government are trying to break the union altogether, which would explain why they've drawn up plans to impose the changes without the union's agreement, leaving the management free to impose whatever sackings or pay cuts they fancied at any time. And to be fair, you can see why the head of Royal Mail, Adam Crozier, might consider a union unnecessary, as he managed to get himself a deal worth £9m over six years without one.
It might also explain their aggressive stance, which has gone as far as cancelling their annual anti-bullying week, although one-third of staff say they've witnessed bullying managers. Or maybe Mandelson has insisted the management modernises bullying, so instead of calling staff in to be told they're slow and useless, they'll now be told they're fat ugly pigs on Twitter.
And if Royal Mail get their way, we could find the local sorting office turned into modern themed apartments, and we'll have to collect all of our parcels from a centralised modern digital automated package centre in a retail park in Bangalore.
Local colour takes Mark Steel's comedy out of routine
by Karen Price,
Feb 19 2011
Comedian Mark Steel certainly enjoys a challenge – he’s performing a different gig at every location on his tour. As he swots up on material for Cardiff, he shares some local anecdotes with Dave Freak
PERFORMING the same routine night after night must get a little boring for any entertainer. But Mark Steel doesn’t face such problems – he’s introducing new material at every one of his gigs. Despite the challenges this must bring when it comes to learning so many new anecdotes, the respected comedian, author, newspaper columnist and broadcaster is keen to shine the spotlight on each town he visits, giving his unique observations on each area. He’s currently swotting up on information about Cardiff ahead of his gig in the city’s Glee Club next month.
“I am already fairly familiar with a lot of places” he says. “I know Brains Beer, the whole development with the docks, Welsh National Opera and the Millennium Stadium, and there’s a little rhyme about Splott, so I’m not starting from nothing,” he says.
Steel is visiting more than 40 towns and cities as part of his In Town tour and at every location he will be performing some cleverly researched, site-specific material. “I did a series called Mark Steel’s In Town for Radio 4 and the idea came out of that,” he says. “The idea for the series was that instead of being in a town for half a day before a show, you’d live there for a couple of days, spend some time there, meet people, and it did seem to work – loads of people came to the shows and it won awards. So this is kind of a live version of that.”
The shows stand as a reaction against the sameness of many of our towns and cities, where high streets, shopping centres and trading estates are filled with the same brand names, and where bland call centres and dull office blocks now replace once thriving local industries. “Everywhere’s got these distinct places, these little stories, that make them unique,” he enthuses.
His head overflowing with historical facts, quirky stories and observations, Steel’s quick to recount some of his findings. “Did you know that in about 1900 in Cheltenham some bloke bought the quarry and shut all the hills and thousands of people ran up the hill and tore up the fences? The bloke who owned the quarry was also the biggest piano dealer and in protest, the head piano teacher at Cheltenham Ladies College had all the pianos wheeled into the street. ‘We shall not have these bridle paths shut off!’,” he says in the voice of a prim music teacher before recalling an observation about the needs of residents of one Northern town.
“I was in Wilmslow, up near Manchester, which is a very posh place – there’s lots of ‘new money’ there, all the footballers like Wayne Rooney and Coronation Street stars live there. The first thing I did when I got there was go to the Post Office to buy a stamp, and they have those cards up with plumber’s phone numbers and prams for sale? Well they had one that said, ‘Ring me if you need a butler’!”
One thing that has struck Steel so far is the warmth he’s found, even in the most difficult circumstances. “I’ve met people in the most appalling places. I went to one place and in the library there was a drunk using his mobile phone and the librarian gently took him outside – he didn’t even know he was in a library he was so drunk!
“And I did a show in a run-down college theatre where everything else was shut, it was awful. Someone asked what time the show was on and they said, ‘I won’t be able to come, I’ll be drunk by then!’ But the people were so warm.”
But while Steel’s keen to celebrate his host town, don’t expect him to be completely gushing. “Down Your Way, which was a series on the radio, went on for years, but it was very Middle England – ‘look as this array of crocuses’ – but this is the opposite of that, it’s more, ‘Is that the best you can do?’ I’m pretty vicious, and do say some horribly rude things about places, but it’s like being with a mate, you can be really rude. You have to have an affection for a place or the people, and I do.”
Mark Steel is at The Glee Club, Cardiff, on March 2. Tickets are available from the box office on 0871 472 0400 or online at www.glee.co.uk
They can't be disabled – they can swim Having Atos sponsor the Paralympics is like having a gay Olympics and letting the Pope sponsor them
There's a company called Atos, that you may have heard of, and the achievement it's best known for is to be despised by thousands of the disabled. Graffiti such as "Atos kills" is common on some housing estates, which must be why Atos is one of the main sponsors of the Paralympics. It makes sense, in the way that if you had a gay Olympics, you'd get it sponsored by the Pope, or you'd get an Olympics for people who idolise tall buildings automatically sponsored by al-Qa'ida.
The reason Atos is unpopular is that it receives £100m a year from the Government for assessing the claims of the disabled. The method Atos chooses is to interview each claimant, ignoring old-fashioned nonsense like medical records and asking them a series of questions such as "Do you look after your own pets?" You get points for each answer and your final score determines whether you keep your disability benefit. Because, as the old saying goes, if you can pat a hamster you can do an all night shift as a security guard.
Of the thousands who have appealed against Atos decisions, 40 per cent have been successful. This is admirable, seeing as you'd get half of them right if you decided each claim by asking them to guess which hand you were holding a peanut in. So maybe Atos should be in charge of deciding who has won each event at the Paralympics. Instead of using unreliable data such as who came first, the company can interview each athlete, declaring one the winner because, although they came seventh, they gave correct answers to the questions "Who was your favourite Doctor Who?" and "Have you ever been to Runcorn?" And commentators will have to shout, "GREAT run from the Kenyan, but answered 'Andy Pandy' when asked to name a 1980s kids' TV show so not likely to make the final".
Atos could also conduct the post-race interviews. Rather than the jaded old format of congratulating the winner, we can have an enlightening conversation led by an Atos clerk that goes, "Can you swim?" "Of course I can, I've just won the blind swimming race." "Well, if you can swim, you can't be blind, you cheat. Now apply for this job as a crane driver."
Maybe Atos will get itself in a complete philosophical tangle during the games, applauding each event, then thinking, "Hang on, they can't be disabled, they've just been playing basketball", until the entire Paralympic village is disqualified, unless one country enters a couple of dead athletes, giving them a 40 per cent chance of being accepted into the table tennis.
Protests against Atos by the disabled have been planned throughout the games, so this shows that sponsorship pays off. Before the games, few people had heard of Atos, but by the end millions will know them as the bastards who make a fortune out of ruining the lives of the disabled. They'll have brand recognition – proof that advertising works.
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