Interview: Mark Steel

Mark Steel has had a long relationship with Norwich and Norfolk. He is currently back In Town with the tour that takes his Radio 4 show one step further. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH reports.

Mark Steel knew he was taking a risk when he decided to dedicate part of his show to talking about the place he is visiting – but so far his tour has been a roaring success.

Mark Steel's In Town has seen the comedian travel the length and breadth of the UK, performing material that sheds light on the more unusual and interesting aspects of every town and city he visits.

The suggestion is that not only will each show to be unique but it will be far more relevant – and therefore enjoyable – to those watching.

'The idea of the show is that we talk about the differences between these places and their little quirks,' he explained.

'So in Norwich, there will be the obvious things to talk about probably – mustard, Delia Smith and Carrow Road but then there might be other things such as the fact it has particularly high levels of people who go out and get drunk on a Friday night and in the 1800s it had a radical society that supported the French revolution.'

The danger, of course, is that he risks offending the audience. But he doesn't set out to do that. The idea is to have some fun and to generate a bit of banter.

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'I love Norwich. It is a delightful place. I don't want to come here and cause the United Nations to have to meet or for NATO to be called out,' he joked. 'In fact, when I was in Edinburgh last night someone in the audience shouted out: 'Why are you doing two nights in Norwich and only one in Edinburgh?''

And he added: 'The last time I was in Norwich I was determined not to do any of the stereotypical jokes about it being so rural up in Norfolk – and then when I turned up there were Morris dancers in the foyer of the theatre!'

The other problem is that with 44 different places on the tour, it was impossible to write all the material in advance. Therefore, as well as expecting to have to improvise on stage every night, he is also having to write as he travels.

'I do ask people to make suggestions to me via Twitter – and people are welcome to do that with Norwich too. It does add to the fun. I might get 200 people coming up with ideas and that can be quite exciting,' he said.

'In Edinburgh, for example, someone told me there was a shop that sold darts and televisions. That ended up generating a lot of reaction from the crowd – one man shouted out that it had stopped selling tellies now and others said they hadn't known that!'

In Merthyr Tydfil, he told a story about a theatre manager, who, when asked what time the show started, replied: 'Oh that's a shame. I won't be able to come to that as I'll be drunk by then' and in Dorset he mentioned the Isle of Portland, where schoolchildren were given detention for saying 'rabbit' as the word is considered unlucky.

'I have visited the new money Cheshire town of Wilmslow, residence of the Rooneys and assorted footballers, where a card in the Post Office window, that you might expect to say 'Pram for Sale', said 'Ring me if you need a butler,' he added.

He went on: 'It is great because these things end up generating some daft conversations with the audience and I am in no doubt that we will have a bit of that in Norwich too.'

The internet has been a superb research tool for him during this tour, he admitted, a way of finding out the more unusual aspects of a town or city.

'I don't think it beats reading books about the places and actually getting out there and wandering around though,' he added. 'I know Norwich very well but will still walk about a bit before the first show there. It always helps.'

Mark started out as a comic back in 1982. Known for his socialist views, he has presented the Mark Steel Solution on Radios 4 and 5, the BAFTA nominated Mark Steel Lectures for BBC2 and the Mark Steel Lectures and the award-winning Mark Steel's in Town for Radio 4.

He is a regular on BBC One's Have I Got News For You and Radio 4's Newsquiz. He's written several acclaimed books, including Reasons To Be Cheerful and What's Going On, and he pens a weekly column for The Independent.

From the tour, there will be another book, already half-written, he explained. Then he plans to hit the road to record a new series of Mark Steel's in Town, to be broadcast on Radio 4 in the autumn.

'I am really pushing to come to Diss to do a show for that,' he stressed. 'I think it's a great place. I once performed there and they had a string quartet on before me. When I saw that, I did start to worry but it turned out to be one of the best nights ever.'

And he added: 'I do like the idea of doing these smaller places. Perhaps after that I will try to include places like Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Bungay. I think that could be fun.'

n Mark Steel is performing at the Norwich Playhouse tonight, �15 (�13 cons), 01603 598598,