A touch of Steel

Dave Woodhall talks to comedian Mark Steel.

Mark Steel is known for his left-wing outlook on life so you might expect his show Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright to be a case of attempted laughter in the face of adversity. Or maybe not.

“Comedy’s become more interesting in the way it all works. You announce these little try out gigs to work new stuff and the tickets sell out quicker than for the proper shows. Even though people know I’ll be sitting there reading bits off a sheet of paper I wrote the day before and wondering if it’s going to work out. They’re really popular; I don’t know why. It’s like going to see a band while they’re writing a song and they stop halfway through to see whether there should be a chord change.”

Maybe it’s a reaction away from the bigger venues comics play now.

“Oh yeah, they’re tiny. There’s a lovely place I do in Brighton. It’s a heavy metal pub with a room upstairs that holds about sixty, you open the door and you can hear Saxon blaring out of the jukebox. It’s always packed for these things, you can’t do anything physical because the audience is right on top. Swing your arms round and you’ll punch somebody in the face.”

“I’m not sure it’s because the venues are smaller but I think there’s an attraction from just looking at the process. I can imagine seeing McIntyre or someone trying out something he’s just written that day, I can see that would be really interesting. Just a couple of times it’s gone wrong, I’ve charged a few pounds, just enough to cover the cost of the room and people have got cross and said I should have learned the lines before the show.”

The current show’s been going for some time.

“Yes, but this tour’s different. The title’s the same but by the time it’s underway it’ll be 80% different from when it started, which is the great fun of doing stand up. If you’re a flim director you finish one thing and that’s the end of it but in stand up you think ‘I’ll keep that in, I’ll do that bit again’. Scorcese can’t do that, he can’t think about sticking fifteen minutes of Goodfellas in his next film. You can possibly get away with it if you’re say, Jasper Carrott or Billy Connolly, who can do familiar stuff because there’s a real likeability about them and good luck to them, but some comics will start off by telling jokes and you think ‘You’re horrible, mate’.”

The show touches on your private life.

“A little bit, but all stand up does that, really. Unless you’re the sort of comic who just reels off one-liners you’re going to talk about yourself. It’s a terrible affectation of comics. You talk to someone and you#re thinking ‘That could be a routine’.

“I was on the phone to a utility company the other day because they’d sent me a bill for about a thousand years water and my mate Sean Walsh was there and said ‘That’s brilliant, you’ve got to use that’ so five minutes later I was writing about it. It’s annoying that no matter what happens to you, someone will always say,’Ah well, it’s all material, isn’t it?’. If you’ve had your leg blown off it’s all material.”

Are you looking forward to playing all these new towns?

“I can’t abide the thought it it. Of course that’s not true; it’s very addictive doing stand up. Then you stop and become normal again. You have two or three months off and you’re like a normal human being then as soon as you go back out again, you remember what it’s like and your back person, the crazy person whose job it is to travel 250 miles and end up in front of hundreds of people for two hours kicks in. You get people who say ‘I’ll try a bit of stand up’ and I’ll think ‘No, you’re nowhere early insane enough’. It’s like someone saying they fancy a change of direction so they’re going to be a crack addict.”

I suppose that your audience knows what they’re going to get.

“If I thought I was going to play to an audience of committed lefties expecting a two hour diatribe I would find that immensely depressing. Most of my stuff isn’t like that – I like to speak to normal people. It’s possible to be funny and not be on the left. Sometimes TV and radio get into a pickle about that because they think they have to have balance and I wonder why. It’s a comedy show, it’s not Question Time.

“There’ll be a bit in the show about the election and you can’t not do stuff taking the piss out of Corbyn. That would be really peculiar given that by all sorts of rational analysis he didn’t exactly do as well as he might have liked.”

Mark’s playing the Old Rep, at which point a history lesson was given about the history of that building and others nearby, such as the Crown, birthplace of Black Sabbath.

“Sabbath are brilliant. If you listen to them now it sounds extraordinarily tame but I saw them when I was a kid a few times at Hammersmith Odeon and they were marvellous. They were playing up to the image and the teenage me thought this was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. It kept me going for months.”

Apart from heavy metal we do have a hard-earned repuation for being the most miserable peple on the planet so don’t do anything to ruin that.

“I did Birmingham once and ten minutes of the show revolved around what happened to the King Kong statue. The audience were shouting out their theories. Is it in Penrith or somewhere like that?”

That’s one of the great Brummieisms. It’s made out to be some big mystery and it takes about fifteen seconds googling to work it out.

“That’s why I love touring, because that could only happen in Birmingham. In Norwich, says, they wouldn’t have a clue – they’ve got a mad bloke who dangles puppets round the town square every day and everybody knows him as the puppet man. The bulk of my life for the past ten years has been going round the country finding those mad things and I love doing it.”

Mark Steel’s Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright plays the Old Rep on 23rd April. Tickets