My favourite programme on BBC Radio 4 at the moment (and at least until the new series of Brain of Britain is broadcast) is Mark Steel’s in Town. Last week he was in Berwick-upon-Tweed. This week in Holyhead, in Anglesey.
This programme is mostly a straightforward attempt to collect, magnify and exploit every atom of United Kingdom regionalism and insularity that Mark Steel can find, and he works very thoroughly and methodically. The rest of it is a dash of socialistic contempt for those in power throughout history. The size of the latter ingredient is perhaps surprisingly small considering all the time Mark Steel spent as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. The whole thing is well-written and presented with energy and flair. It is co-written by a bloke whose name I can’t remember.
There are two inter-linked reasons why I think this programme is particularly excellent.
First: as a work of whimsical journalism, it thrives on its own attention to detail. As a writer, I have an unquenchable passion for detail. I hate abstract generalisation. I hate vagueness. Steel doesn’t talk in general about the streets, bridges, shops, pubs and landmarks of the places he visits. He talks about specific, named, streets, bridges, and the rest. Audience interaction at this point is vital, with titters or oohs of recognition and premature laughter at the in-jokes that Steel then goes on to explain and debunk. The contributions from a few local worthies also come into it. These are incredibly rare in that these interviews with shop assistants, transport workers and local government officers are not trite, tedious or teeth-achingly embarrassing: for once, they actually serve a purpose – usually in making that week’s location sound even more ludicrous than it did before.
Second, this research from guide-books and speaking to local archivists and museum curators is combined with real history and real analysis. In other words, Mark Steel is succeeding where so many other comedians, and come to that, so many documentary film-makers fail. He takes the piss out of everything except the human intellect. The programme’s intellectual rigour is understated, and is all the more powerful and funny for that, but it is there, and it is without embarrassment.
As a novice listener to this programme, I cannot discern any pattern in the kind of place that Mark Steel goes to, beyond the fact that they are all in the United Kingdom and they are all quite small. Personally, I don’t see any reason why the same formula could not work in any of the major conurbations. Perhaps the producers are worried that if they held the recording in a big city, nobody would turn up because there are too many other things to do. If so, I would disagree. I think everybody wants to look into a mirror held up to him or her self. Everybody is addicted to local rivalries, and finds them capable of being raked over one more time, just to see if there are any nuggets of mistrust and resentment that had been missed before. Everybody secretly fears that his or her home is in a place that is irredeemably naff, and looked upon by outsiders as nothing more than a parade of charity shops, dodgy takeaways, and cut-price tanning salons.
My one concession to nationalism is that I still cherish the belief that this kind of comedy is only possible in the UK. If you tried the same thing in <insert name of any other sovereign state in the world – there are something like 194 of them> people would be expecting you to do something promotional, and would be offended when you didn’t. They would not be expecting you to take the piss, and certainly not as incisively and acerbically as Mark Steel does (and the other bloke – the co-writer I can’t put a name to).
If you have not tried it yet, give it a listen, and let your humour glands rejoice.
For those of you who do not enjoy the inestimable blessing of inhabiting these islands, BBC Radio 4 is available over the Internet www.bbc.co.uk/radio4 by means of the World Wide Web and a technology called ‘packet switching’ (both British inventions).