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Mark Steel Comic and Columnist Gets Optimistic

We spoke to comedian and all round lovely person Mark Steel ahead of his new show's arrival at Chesterfield's Pomegranate Theatre.

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Photo by Idil Sukan

Mark Steel is a lovely person and a sharp comedian with many accolades. His columns in The Guardian and The Independent crack me up while ruthlessly and cathartically dismantling current affairs.

Most people know him from his Mark Steel’s in Town series on Radio 4, where he visits a town, gets to know it and then does a stand up show there that evening. I’m always amazed at how well he seems to not only get to know a place, but also share his delight with strangers listening in from elsewhere.

Although Mark doesn’t tend to do big cities on that programme, we start off chatting a bit about London, where Mark’s from.

I hear that London is a series of villages, even though it feels like one huge place to me.

I’m Crystal Palace. It is like a little village. It’s got its own world, its own culture.

That’s what I find doing the ‘In Town’ shows. The sense of community is as strong now as it ever has been, because there’s such an identification with the area. The fact that people move around much more has probably even strengthened that in a way, because quite often the people that show me and Carl (my producer) around, they’ll be the people that have moved in there. And they love it. And they’ll moan about it and take the piss out of it, but there’s such a pride and such enthusiasm for all the little quirks of a place.

Have you got a favourite quirk from a place you’ve been?

So many. Just from the last series, Hastings. They call people who come from London, who sell up and move down there, ‘F.I.L.T.H’. That stands for ‘Failed In London, Try Hastings’. Then 1066 – because of the Battle of Hastings – every single shop, company: 1066 Jazz Club, 1066 Waxing for Men, 1066 Vets. There’s a builder’s called William the Concreter.

Do you know that in Chesterfield, where you’re visiting during this tour, there’s a place called Clowne? I just laughed for days imagining Clowne College has just [sings circus music] for every lesson. There’s the Clowne Post Office and Clowne Library…

Where you’d open a book up and a load of water would squirt out. Oh, Clowne Cars! There must be Clowne Cars. It rolls up and the doors all fall off.

But you can fit loads of people in the taxi so you only ever need to order one.

Oh, I want to go to Clowne.

Have you got any delights from the show that you can tease us with?

Basically I’m sort of trying to be optimistic. It’s called Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright. I’ve got to now come up with why everything’s gonna be alright. It forces me to be cheerful.

People get so dragged into the details of whatever parliamentary nonsense is going on in the news with Brexit. I think that people forget the much wider picture, that there is a general distaste and opposition for all the greed and that that’s gone on for the last 30 or 40 years. The human spirit is still very much with us.

You seem to be able to convey this spirit of civic pride without whipping it up into terrifying nationalism. When you go to places you do this thing where you assimilate, but not in a ‘lose your own identity’ kind of way. You’re still very you.

Well, mostly I just let a place sort of be what it is. I get to a place and quite often you’ll get someone who’s agreed to show you round. If it’s a local historian they say, ‘You must see this church and the angle of the wall there and that was rebuilt after the Great Flood…’ and I have to stop them and say, ‘This is all going in one ear and out the other, mate. Let’s just walk round for a day and see who we bump into.’

Like in Hull, they’ve been City of Culture. There was just such an enthusiasm for that from people. There’s a great love of this old bit of corrugated iron by the old docks where someone wrote ‘Dead Bod’, which is ‘Dead Bird’ in a Hull accent. Underneath there’s a little cartoon of a dead bird. And everyone knows this area as Dead Bod. Then that area’s been redeveloped a couple of years ago and everyone was like, ‘What’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen to the Dead Bod?’ So now it’s in the museum there. I think it’s just really brilliant. Community is what binds everyone in an area together.

Have you got advice about being proud of where you come from without being a wanker?

You have to love all the little bits about your place that make it shit. Which I suppose is a bit like what you have to do with yourself.

Like football fans, you know. I think football fans actually have a great sense of camaraderie, even though by definition they’re in competition. I support Crystal Palace and if I meet someone who supports Portsmouth, we talk about the misery of following your football team.

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Other than live shows, what is your favourite medium to do things in? You’ve done radio, television, podcasts, journalism, books…

I think having a mix is really important. I think all comics are sort of really drawn to the stand up. The live show – that really is what you are. I actually loved doing the television series and I hope to do another one one day if they ever ask me. There’s a million things you’ve got to think of – what’s going on in the background, what costumes, what set – and I love all that. It’s a mix. I wouldn’t want to just do one thing. I love doing the radio series.

Could you choose one if you had to?

I suppose it would be the live shows really and that’s because of the artistic reasons. All comics are mentally deranged sociopaths and there’s something about going in front of loads of people. All the reasons someone would be loath to do it, those are all the reasons we have to do it.

You seem very well adjusted for someone who’s got that desire. Any other comedians you’ve seen recently whom you’d recommend?

I saw Jen Brister a little while ago and I thought she was really, really brilliant.

Yeah, she’s great. Okay, we’re getting to the end here. Do you have anything that you want to say that you’ve not said yet?

Just to some of the younger comics – I think it’s brilliant and it’s better than we did – but one thing I find a bit odd is they take themselves seriously. I’ve read interviews and they say, ‘What I’m doing is trying to break down boundaries and it’s important to use comedy to break down barriers.’ What about telling a joke, you miserable arse? Is there any room for a joke in there, perhaps?

‘Millennial comedians are too serious, says Mark Steel, curmudgeon.’ I like it.

Come on, [Scottish comic] Eddie Large used to do impressions of all the cats in Top Cat! […] I don’t remember him going, ‘I’m really breaking down boundaries between humans and cartoon cats.’

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Mark Steel's new comedy show, Every Little Thing's Gonna Be Alright, comes to the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield on Sunday 28 April.

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