Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Mark Steel

I'M just about to start interviewing Mark Steel when he stops me mid sentence with shout of "Oh no!". It seems tiles have fallen off his roof during the night leaving a gaping hole and he's only just realised.
Apologising profusely he dashes off. Ten minutes later though we are back on the phone and he assures me someone "who knows what they are doing" will be dispatched up a ladder to check the damage shortly.
"It's a disaster," Mark laughs loudly. "There's a massive big hole as though the Luftwaffe has been round! I'm absolutely useless at anything practical but this looks a bit serious."
Holes in the roof aside Mark is on good form and once he gets chatting there's no stopping him.
The 53-year-old award-winning comedian, writer, columnist and radio presenter is at his home in Crystal Palace for a few days before he resumes a tour of the UK with his hit show Mark Steel's in Town.
Based on his hugely successful Radio 4 series of the same name, said show sees Mark travel the length and breadth of the country chatting to his audience about the place he's visiting with a selection facts, humorous or otherwise about local notable people, landmarks and customs.
It also features anecdotes, historical information and Mark's own observations, delivered in his trademark affable and easy going manner.
And he insists rather than poking fun, it's a chance for him to have a "bit of banter" with the audience and shed light on and celebrate the town's more unusual and eccentric aspects and local idiosyncrasies.
"The idea is that I have to find out as much as I can about the place and talk about what I've discovered," he explains.
"It could be unusual, historical, but generally funny things. I love the quirkiness of each town I visit and the fact people are proud of their heritage. It's fantastic there are all these differences and we should celebrate that."
The tour will take him to Blackheath Halls on Saturday, February 15 and he says he's looking forward to it, not least because it's an area he knows a bit about already.
"I found out quite a few gems the last time I was in Blackheath including the fact it was the rallying point for Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt of 1381," he says.
"But I'm desperately trying to write some new material - or rather I was until I realised the roof had a hole in it," he jokes.
He says it has been a fascinating journey in more ways than one. Information comes from a variety of sources and he clearly takes the research seriously. Indeed he revels in the oddities he discovers.
"My house is stuffed with books like The Pavements of Kettering, The History of the Lamp Post and the Engine Shed in Walsall," he laughs.
"That really was about one engine shed. It got redecorated in 1927 or something and a bit of wood fell off in 1931 and then it got bombed in the war. It's all just fantastic stuff!
"One of my favourites is a book called The Railway Comes to Didcot which professes to be a history of the town's railway. But the opening line is a classic and says 'this is in no way a history of the railway of Didcot'. Priceless," he chuckles.
So what has he found out about Blackheath I ask.
"I'm not going to be short of material," he chuckles. "I know it reasonably well as I live just down the road and I've probably got a book about it somewhere."
"The nature of Blackheath is that it's very villagey. In a way it's not really London so there's that element.
"I read that years ago there were people doing singing workshops where expectant mothers learned how to sing to their unborn child. You can't sing just anything to your unborn child," he says in mock horror.
And don't be surprised if he takes to Twitter to ask his more than 83,000 followers to impart some nuggets about Blackheath.
"Forums and Twitter are great for information," he says aimiably. "The thing about Twitter is that you never know what people will say. I do get some brilliant replies and sometimes 20 or 30 people might mention the same thing.
"One I got last time I was in Blackheath was that Cafe Rouge wasn't so much a restaurant as a crèche where two-year-olds have already learned how to order," he chuckles at the memory.
Other things he says he may touch on will include poking fun at the establishment, something for which he is perhaps best known.
"Politics is becoming quite polarised again," he sighs. "The Tories clearly think the way to get re-elected is to repeat two messages - that we blame people on welfare and immigrants.
"I think young people are just bemused by that attitude especially in big towns and cities where they will have friends from all over the world so they don't buy that.
"But the government is doing things that are as unpalatable as Thatcher did."
He cites proposals to downgrade Lewisham Hospital as an example.
"It was an appalling decision," he says. "But the campaign against their proposals was brilliant.
"However, I got spotted on one of the marches just as I was passing Millwall's bus and was asked to have my picture taken on it with [club mascot] Zampa the lion - I was wearing my Crystal Palace scarf at the time so was slightly uneasy!" he laughs.
But he acknowledges the comedic landscape has changed since he came to the fore in the 1980s.
"In the late 1970s if you went to a comedy show there would be one comic on and then a juggler and then someone doing poems about feminism and then it would end up with a magician which was quite normal.
"At the Comedy Store in the 1980s if you did 20 minutes slagging off the government you wouldn't survive it. I was much less strident then than now. If you do your own show you can say what you like."
Which brings us neatly back to Blackheath.
"We've had the Olympics come to this part of London, it's where the Marathon starts and then there's football," he says.
"So there will be loads to talk about."

Mark Steel is at Blackheath Halls on Saturday, February 15. Tickets cost £16. Call the box office on 020 8305 9300.

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