Poetry Group, 1980s
I started performing in a poetry group in the 1980s. I was astonishingly terrible and angry about everybody.
The first show I took part in was to the Dulwich Poetry Society. I think there were 12 people in the audience, and I decided they were all ridiculously posh, as I thought that about everyone. So I performed a ridiculously furious poem about being unemployed that ended with a screeching plea to violently overthrow the government.
I finished with a scowl, certain I’d changed the world. Then a lady of about seventy with a furry coat leaned over and said politely “I think you did very well to remember all the words.”
Tunnel Comedy Club, 1980s
In the 1980s I used to love The Tunnel Comedy Club, a gloomy sticky room in a pub that smelt of a nearby bitumen factory, by the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.
The South London boys in the audience loved to boo someone off. Famously there was once a comic doing a routine about Star Trek, and someone yelled ‘It’s comedy Jim, but not as we know it’.
I usually did well there, maybe they saw me as one of their own.
But one night I was a bit cocky, not sharp enough and got booed off. Lots of other comics who were there sympathised with me, but Jeremy Hardy told me ‘You completely arsed that up didn’t you?’
It’s one of the reasons we stayed the closest of friends for the next 35 years.
Trade Union Conference, 1993
In 1993 I did a show for a Trade Union conference in Bournemouth. Afterwards I was talking to someone in the audience who agreed to meet up with me the following week. We stayed together for the next
thirteen years and had a son and a daughter. The daughter has a child of her own and my son performed at the Edinburgh festival performing his own show. See how exciting Bournemouth can be if you give it a chance?
The theatre in Skipton is a cattle market. During the daytime the cows are paraded around while auctioneers yell, “Two FORTY two FORTY yer Fresian.”
In the afternoon a man hoses down the deposits the cows have left before the audience arrives for the show.
I told the audience I’d noticed the town of Keighley was nearby and asked what they thought of it. The room fell into a chilling silence and one woman called out precisely “Keighley… is a sink of evil.”
For the whole of the first half the audience called out their thoughts about Skipton, so I tried to improvise as best I could. Afterwards I wondered if it would be possible to make a series of programmes about the crazy ways of different towns, in front of people who lived there.
I mentioned this to BBC Radio comedy, and I’ve been making the shows, called Mark Steel’s in Town, since then. I owe that cattle market a little blue plaque.
During the Covid Lockdown, for reasons I don’t understand, I decided to learn French. I knew it a bit, but wanted to be capable of doing shows in French.
In 2022, I tried this for the first time, and it was one of the scariest moments of my career. There was a moment before I started when I thought ‘These aren’t words I’m about to say, they’re a series of daft noises’.
It didn’t help that one fan hadn’t understood, so after half a minute he stood up and said loudly in a very East London accent “Oi Mark, is it ALL in f******* French?”
I said it was and he went “Sorry mate” and left. Perfect for settling the nerves.
Mark Steel is touring with An Evening and A Little Bit of a Morning. Opening 15 September in Peterborough and closing in Milton Keynes on 19 November, 2023. Tickets from marksteelinfo.com.