Interviewing a famously left-wing comedian two days after an election that returned the first Conservative majority government in 18 years is not likely to be an upbeat affair.
It doesn’t begin well. “I feel utterly, utterly foul, so let’s start from there,” is Mark’s opening gambit and a question about whether he thought the election coverage was biased is given short shrift – “I think it’s fairly obvious what I’m going to say on that, that’s probably for a different interview.”
Fair enough. We’re supposed to be talking about his Radio 4 series, Mark Steel’s in Town, which he is more than happy to do. During our phone conversation, he jumps in and out of cars and hides in doorways from blustery winds in an effort to carry on chatting.
In the series he travels to various towns around the UK, does a ton of research and turns that into a one-hour stand-up show (edited to 30 minutes for radio), in which he, well, takes the mickey out of the place.
He’s been doing it for six years and the series has won multiple Sony awards, but still he worries about how the locals will react. “Every single show, I look at the script before I go on and think, I can’t possibly get away with saying this, it’s so rude about their town.”
But it seems he has hit upon a winning formula: “The ruder I am, the more they like it!”
That approach is not without its hazards. When the show went to the Isle of Man, Mark’s opening line – “It’s great to be in place that’s positive. Because you’ve had the sense to invest in the one remaining boom industry…fiddling tax” – was met by a resounding chorus of boos from the audience.
His response? “Well, I’m afraid there’s another hour of that, so you’re going to have to live with it.”
Luckily, the Manx men and women seemed happy with that. So how does Mark get away with rocking up to a place and putting on a show where he’s basically pointing a finger and saying, “Look at this place, it’s a bit weird isn’t it”?
Firstly, he arrives up to three weeks before the shows to start his research, which involves a combination of digging in the archives and talking to the locals on the streets. So by the time of the show, he’s quite a well-known face.
But also, the show mines a rich seam of the British character: self-deprecation. The ability to laugh at ourselves seems to be something that everyone enjoys doing wherever you are in the country.
And then there’s the fact that Mark does genuinely like all the places he visits, in all their glorious eccentricities and strange local customs.
“Every single place you go, you find these people who have a great passion for it and know all the history.”
For instance, you would have thought Chipping Norton, home to the Prime Minister, Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson, would be the sort of place any self-respecting one-time member of the Socialist Workers Party would avoid like the plague. But Mark wanted to do a show to prove there was life beyond the “Chipping Norton Set”:
“Most people there were perfectly decent, reasonable people. They were lovely. That was one of the most fun ones we ever did. You know, it wasn’t an audience of Jeremy Clarksons.”
In a way, that’s a sort of raison d’etre of the show – to go to places and see if the stereotypes about them are true or not. Is Chipping Norton peopled by a right-wing cabal, swimming in champagne and snorting caviar for breakfast? No.
Is Barnard Castle in Durham really so twee that its crime report is made up of one incident of someone burning litter in the woods? As a later episode this series shows, yes.
Is Glastonbury full of new age weirdness? Yes, but they’ll get more upset if you drink the wrong sort of cider than if you insult all that “pagan nonsense”.
And that’s the way Mark prefers it: “I always think places should live up to their stereotypes.”
Asked how he chooses which places to visit, he’s hard-pushed to give a precise answer – just that it’s normally a place he’s vaguely heard of and wondered what it’s like.
For the first of the new series, he’s in the Lancashire town of Fleetwood, just up the coast from Blackpool. He’d heard of it because he knew a ferry used to run from it and remembered when the football team got promoted to the Football League.
Upon visiting it, he discovered that not only was it home to Jane Couch, the first officially licensed British female boxer, but also to that famous cough remedy, Fisherman’s Friend.
“This old fella came up to us, out of nowhere, and he went, ‘In the old days, y’know, you went to t’ doctor’s, and they never give you medicine, they give you Fisherman’s Friend.’ I wonder what he’d say for Ebola? ‘Oh, you’d need two for that.’”
It’s those moments that make the show work so well. And he is lucky to have hit upon another bit of serendipity in the latest series. The day after I talked to him, he was due to travel to Paisley to record a show, where the SNP’s Mhairi Black had just been elected as supposedly the UK’s youngest MP since the 17th century.
Mark seemed delighted to be visiting what he called “the Socialist Anti-Austerity Capital of Paisley”, and by the fact that Black had lived up to the Scottish stereotype by having said about Labour councillors after the independence referendum, “It took every fibre of my being not to put the nut on ‘em”.
As it turns out, he found more important things to talk about:
I was playing pool in a pub in Paisley, when a dog climbed on the table and knocked the balls in the pockets. This is normal apparently.
— Mark Steel (@mrmarksteel) May 12, 2015
The show is really an extension of what every stand-up comedian does during a set, talk a little bit about where they are. But for Mark that turned into something else: “It’s any comedian’s favourite part of a show, but I realised I loved doing this little five or ten minutes about a town, and I was doing more and more. So then I thought, I wonder if I could just do a whole show about a town. I didn’t know if it would work.”
Six years later, the answer’s a definite yes. And Mark sums up the appeal of the show simply when he says:
“Everywhere’s so different. Everywhere’s interesting.”