BN1 talks to Mark Steel about Stand Up For Refugees

We’ve done the introductions and platitudes. Mark Steel is soon headed to Brighton’s Caroline Of Brunswick for a test run of some fresh material. Already he’s indulging in one of the most British of pastimes – worrying about the weather. “It’s boiling hot, who on Earth is going to sit in a gloomy room, with a threadbare carpet, and drink from a plastic glass, to listen to me reading stuff which is ill-thought out gibberish?” he ventures. “But it is a great venue. People there tend to go along with the conceit. It’s quite exciting, that process. When you get a new bit that works it’s so exciting.” The next time he comes to the city it’s going to be an entirely different affair though.


Steel’s joining the Brighton leg of the Stand Up For Refugees tour. Winding its way around the country this week, this comedy roadshow aims to raise money for Help Refugees, and raise a few giggles in the process. Performing alongside Shappi Khorsandi and Dara O’Briain at Brighton Dome’s concert hall on Wed 21 June, it promises to be a very special show. “All we can hope it achieves is that people come along and it’s a fun night. That’s your starting point. Anything more than that and you’re exaggerating your own importance if you’re a comic.” He pauses for a second. “I’m actually hoping it transforms the global situation, leads to the demise of Donald Trump and ushers in a new era of harmony and peace. But, you know, we might have to adjust our positions a bit.” The biggest grassroots distributor of aid to those in Europe and the Middle East currently affected by the global migrant crisis, Help Refugees, calls for fair treatment towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Currently the charity operates over twenty camps in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a situation which shows no sign of evaporating soon. There have been different waves of refugees through the ages, and each have brought their own individuality to add into the rich mixture of British identity. But right now, a very vocal group of our population are questioning if there is any more room on this isle for those escaping war and persecution. “Everybody thinks it’s marvellous when you hear about Jewish people fleeing here in the 1930s. But when somebody flees something equally barbaric now, then it’s: ‘Oh them coming over here – they’re the problem…” An estimated 60 million people throughout the world have been forced to flee their homes in recent years. This has created more than 15 million refugees worldwide, with developing (and almost universally poorer) countries disproportionately hosting over 80 per cent of these people. Across Europe, Germany France, Hungary, Italy, Greece and Austria receive significantly move applications from those seeking refuge than Britain. An estimated 117,234 refugees live in the UK, which is a paltry 0.18 per cent of our 64.1 million total population.

We’re speaking only 45 hours after an atrocity in Manchester has claimed 22 lives. Committed by the son of a Libyan immigrant, the darker corners of social media are aflame with hate for those considered ‘not British’. I ask if the event would adversely affect public opinion on those seeking refuge here. “I don’t know. My opinion is meaningless… but I doubt it. After the underground was blown up by these lunatics, did it really shift attitudes?” He says comedians are not people who analyse these things excessively, otherwise “you’d go a bit round the bend.” Right now, he’s working to raise awareness and cash for the forcibly displaced. It does turn out these benefit gigs also serve as a rare opportunity to catch up with others on the scene. “I think they [benefit gigs] do make a difference. Everybody goes away feeling a little bit better. Well they should do. We don’t know yet. If we’re all absolutely awful, people might think: ‘I’m going to oppose the refugees now. What a shit night.’” He jokes.

Belligerently progressive and with an innate sense of comic timing, Steel has been touting his immaculately crafted jokes around the comedy circuit since 1982. Since then there’s been TV shows, radio series and numerous tours. He’s annoyed the right-wing press, not just for his liberal leanings or his faded ‘70s and ‘80s references, but for a show about cricket. He likes cricket, England V South Africa is on in the background and there’s a distant part of his consciousness playing close attention.

Recently he’s been travelling around with his In Town show. Based on his popular Radio 4 series, it sees him lovingly mock some of the country’s finest backwaters. Now he’s back out to incur some more indignation from local residents. “We’ve done Bedford, and then Matlock next Tuesday. And then four more after that. That usually takes half my year…” While comedy writing reduces down to mere minutes of stage time, the preparation is a long and detailed process. “I was talking to someone in a café, when I was trying to do some writing, and they were going: ‘Cor. You tend to think that that comics just get up and say it!’ That’s the trick. You write a really good show and it takes months. You’re not supposed to tell anyone, because it’s supposed to look like we’ve just got up and said it after a few beers.”

Mark Steel appears in the Stand Up For Refugees benefit show when it comes to Brighton Dome on Weds 21 June 2017.

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