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Looking for the Mischief

Mark Steel

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Sam Bennett
Looking for the Mischief Mark Steel Thoughtful Image
© Idil Sukan

Mark Steel talks rabbits, dry cleaning, Jeremy Hardy and lying boybands with Sam Bennett

I tell Mark Steel that OXsylva is for the 55+ age group. “What age group?” I tell him again. “Oh no, is that who I do interviews for now? I’m sure you’re playing a very important role but how does that make me feel?” I go on to advise him, should I miss anything with my questions, to just shout out and I’ll see whatever it may be is included. He remarks that given our readership, the whole interview will have to be shouted. “I’m coming to do a show! A SHOW!” he hollers about Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright, which he’ll bring to Bracknell in April. “You’ll be back home early,” he assures. “Wrap up warm.”

His weekend “was fucking awful” due to the death of his best friend and comedian Jeremy Hardy, who died of cancer on 1 February. “Jeremy wasn’t the best known comic,” he says, “but the people who knew him absolutely adored him. He made a huge impact and I think there are probably much better-known people who have much less of an impact – not that it’s a competition.”

He paid tribute to his friend online, receiving “a really sweet message” on Twitter from a Conservative councillor saying they didn’t agree with Hardy’s politics but liked his shows, and that they also enjoyed his own Radio 4 programme, Mark Steel’s in Town. Another user responded negatively to the councillor’s missive, telling them in essence to shut up, that the likes of Hardy and Steel don’t like them. This was the one person Steel actually responded to, questioning whether they win many people round with such an approach. The Conservative was “showing a bit of humanity”, he reasons. “Maybe that’s me getting old, getting within the demographic of your magazine. I’m going to have some breakfast and then sit in this café for about three hours, like the old people who go into libraries just so they can keep warm, which I’m sure you’ll have a feature on – do you have reviews of libraries?”

I’m also an enjoyer of Mark Steel’s in Town, for which the stand-up visits various places and gigs about their histories, quirks and characters. He’s been doing it for ten years and it’s harder to write now, though I thought he might have found a formula that made it easier. “No, the minute you find a formula you're in trouble.” As he’s come to learn more about what works and what doesn’t comically over the years, penning an episode takes longer. However, it’s better now for that than it once was, “and Carl [Cooper, producer] is such a natural comic himself – we spend ages on it.”

Has anyone ever been upset by what he’s said about their hometown? In Dorset’s Isle of Portland, “they’ve got this very strange custom where they won’t say the word ‘rabbit’ because it’s a really offensive swear word. They hate rabbits – true.” This custom is so embedded in the town that when Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit came out, the word was omitted from the posters advertising it there. In researching for the show, he interviewed a historian who told him where the ‘rabbit’ hatred might have stemmed from, “but none of the reasons really held up.” He went ahead and used the word as the final one in the show. “Most people thought it was funny but a couple of people threw coins at me, really meaning it – brilliant. I suppose it would be quite a science fiction story, wouldn’t it? That once you decided a certain word is loathsome, then if everyone agrees on that, it is loathsome.”

His son Elliot is also a stand-up, beginning in the profession just before he turned 17, having grown up surrounded by comics. “Jeremy Hardy would be so utterly appalling, say the most extraordinarily awful things. He was around that from a young age and just learnt that mischief is funny. I was out for a drink with a comic who lives near me last night. They were saying it’s not just that if you’re a comic you don’t have to grow up; you’re not allowed to grow up. You’ve got to be completely looking for the mischief all the time.” Once a year he is required to meet with his accountant, something he can’t bear. “He's asking all these questions about dry cleaning bills; I'm like, ‘I don't fucking know.’” He remembers the accountant pointing a finger and telling him to give him more dry cleaning receipts because they’re tax-deductible. “I started laughing, life can't be about dry cleaning receipts – I suppose someone has to do it.”

The title of his aforementioned current tour was decided on some time ago. As the UK’s become more and more confused, has it become more difficult to believe that every little thing is going to be alright? “Yes. I don’t want to be like a politician and skirt round it. Clearly everything isn’t going to be alright.” That said, “We will carry on and all the human spirit and resistance to injustice will carry on. This is not the end of history as some people predict.” He is a remainer, but disagrees “with the sneering at people who voted leave, calling them all idiots. Apart from anything else, if you want a second referendum, that does mean you’re going to have to win some people round, and you’re not going to win them round by calling them all morons. And also the hard nationalist, lunatic, right-wing Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson sort of people haven’t really been able to mobilise any forces that can turn the country in the direction they’d favour – Trump direction. They’ve been flushed out, I think.”

He supposes he could have done a show with the same title when he started out as a stand-up in the 80s. “I felt it then as well really. I never thought, ‘Oh, Margaret Thatcher is the end of all common human decency, we’re all going to die.’” There were those who would refer to the Iron Lady as a fascist, he says, but people weren’t being rounded up and placed in kennels. “Let’s get things in perspective.”

Decades on, he reckons Brexit isn’t of the utmost importance to most people, suggesting perhaps ten percent of the population are furious we’re leaving and ten percent are angrily anti-Europe. Then there are 70 or 80 percent in the middle who have a view, but won’t go out marching about it, getting into “angry exchanges” and setting fire to things. His wife Natasha is “very upset” about Brexit. “I don’t disagree with her, we talk about the reasoning behind it, but I think I’m just less pessimistic.” This is just as well, he says, given the name of his tour.

Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be Alright is about more than our leaving the EU. “It’s mostly a personal thing. We all have all sorts of personal things that go wrong. We’re all a marvellous mix of emotions; that is life, and that’s brilliant, and it’s funny.” He links this to the “brilliant form of music” that is the blues, which admits life isn’t all rosy “but we get through it and come out the other end. Something like that is much more cheery than some boyband song saying everything’s lovely – that’s a lie.” At the other end of the spectrum is “someone going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s pouring with rain. And this has gone wrong, and that’s gone wrong, and all our dreams went down the toilet. But there’s all these other brilliant things as well.’ Most human beings,” he states, “are trying their best to be decent. If they do something awful it’s not because they’re awful, it’s just because we all fuck up. I think there’s something very, very reassuring and optimistic about that.”

Mark Steel plays South Hill Park, Bracknell, 5 April, 8pm

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