04 Jun 2014
basac's picture

Since I started writing these pieces a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about the kind of role models you should be looking to if you want a career in comedy as a writer, or performer, or both. Whichever you wish to be, there's one person who stands out, and whose 30 plus years in the business continue to be an inspiration and education. If you want to know how to 'do' comedy well, then it’s time you started paying serious attention to Mark Steel.

Mark has been writing and performing comedy since the early 1980s and there's never been a time since when he hasn't been out there - whether as a newspaper columnist (and he must have written thousands of them over the years), a live performer, on TV and of course Radio 4.

Mark Steel is, directly or indirectly, the answer to several questions, such as 'is it possible to make a living at comedy while retaining your integrity?', 'can you combine politics and comedy, and be political without ramming it down people's throats?', 'Who is the hardest-working writer/comedian/broadcaster in comedy?'...

...and finally 'is it possible to be the hardest working writer/comedian/broadcaster in the country and still have a life outside of comedy?' For me one of the great things about Mark is that he still sounds fresh and optimistic after all this time, and I think that's because he has always kept a part of himself tuned in to the world away from comedy. Mark is perfectly sociable and engaging offstage, but as far as I know he doesn’t spend too much time fretting over who else has been asked to do which panel show, or why he hasn’t been given another TV series since 'The Mark Steel Lectures', which despite late scheduling on BBC2 and no publicity still achieved a BAFTA nomination in 2006.

Mark is one of the most talented performers I've seen but a quick glance at his CV doesn't tell you a fraction of it. On top of his well-known skills Mark is a great comic actor, having performed with as diverse a group as Jasper Carrott, Spike Milligan and Robert Powell, among others.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that in order to get on in comedy you have to follow Mark’s viewpoint, or indeed talk about politics. Mark's left-wing point of view has always been important but his material is universal - there was nothing in his comic routines 25 years ago that would sound out of place on a show like 'Live At The Apollo'.

Like many talented writer-performers, Mark generates a huge amount of work but he’s not afraid to enlist the services of talented comedy writers. Pete Sinclair has worked with Mark for many years, adding extra polish to what are already essentially nearly completed scripts.

So why isn’t Mark one of the biggest stars in British comedy today? It's a question I've been asking getting on for 30 years now. I must have performed dozens of gigs with Mark in the 1980s and 90s, and I believed then that he would be the first comedian from our gang to find serious mainstream success.

It must be quite galling for stand-ups like Mark to see the steady stream of genial but vacuous twentysomething superstars selling out 12 nights at Hammersmith, rather how the football superstars of the 70s must feel watching today's millionaire mediocrities, from behind the bars of the pubs they run in retirement.

Mark has made dozens of radio programmes - he's had four different series, and all have been successful and popular on their own terms. Every show is packed with jokes, facts, more jokes and several laugh-out-loud moments. Mark works painstakingly on researching every episode, but he never loses sight of his main job, which is to make audiences laugh.

'The Mark Steel Lectures' and 'The Mark Steel Solution' addressed the kind of subjects most comedians avoid - the French Revolution, the English Civil War, the influence of religion on political systems. I often feel I owe Mark a personal thanks for proving that history can be made to be funny - I've tackled a number of seemingly difficult topics in the 'Horrible Histories' songs such as Darwin's theory of evolution and Britain's industrial revolution, aware that Mark has already proved these are not subjects beyond the comic remit.

I've written before about John Dowie, my favourite comedian, who never achieved the success he deserved as a stand-up partly because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was already established as a performer before the Comedy Store opened in 1979, if he had chosen to be a part of that scene he would definitely have been a star.

But Mark suffered no such difficulties. The only problem Mark has ever had with timing is when the promoter asks 'can you keep it to a tight 20 minutes please Mark?' Mark was successful at all the right times: he was regularly storming The Comedy Store around the same time as Jo Brand, Harry Enfield and Paul Merton: he was making successful radio shows at the same time as Stewart Lee and Harry Hill, and he is always guaranteed to bring something extra to panel shows like 'Have I Got News For You'.

So why am I able to mention him in the same paragraph as all those people, and yet be aware that he is not as well-known as they are?

First, it's worth pointing out that Mark is extremely well known to radio fans. Radio 4 remains the home of some of the most successful comedy in any form, and when it comes to audience size can leave its brasher and louder TV brother far behind. 'Mark Steel's In Town' regularly achieves audiences around the 1.6 million mark. It's not always easy to compare radio and TV, but right now Ricky Gervais would be very happy if 'Derek' was achieving anything like those figures.

Also, Mark has, you may have noticed, always been distrustful of authority. This of itself wouldn't have been enough to curtail a career - indeed, to say you trusted authority back in the 1980s would have been a suicidal career move. But Mark's distrust went deeper. He's older and mellower now, but I think he may have had the attitude in his 20s that anyone wearing a suit or working in TV was not to be trusted.

I wondered if one of the reasons Mark is not such a big star is to do with class. While it's possible for there to be more than one sketch show on TV featuring three or four middle class youths who went to university, there does appear to be some kind of snobbery that suggests as long as there is one working-class South Londoner appearing regularly on TV (Paul Merton), there can't be room for another.

Another reason might be that the BBC would probably be very cautious about giving a TV series to a known left-winger. The 'Daily Mail' would not have to root very far to find things he has said that they might disagree with - I may be wrong but I've got a feeling Mark might even have occasionally been a little bit rude about Margaret Thatcher.

Then again Mark probably enjoys the benefits of being such a huge radio star - his popularity increases and his live tours play to larger audiences, but I’m guessing he also manages to walk around without being recognised and hassled every five minutes.

What then, can you take from Mark's example? The answer is, curiosity. Mark never stops asking questions about who we are and why the world is like it is. He goes everywhere in search of answers, not just books and newspapers (although he happens to be fantastically well-read) but to everyone and everything around him - and he comes up with funny answers. And that’s what we should all be striving to do, regardless of our political persuasion.