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Comedy: Behind Byron’s Bear
Feature Article by Pat Stack, October 2003
Pat Stack asks socialist comedian Mark Steel about his new TV series The Mark Steel Lectures
Pat Stack (PS): Where did the idea come from for the series?
Mark Steel (MS): I had a radio series in the mid-1990s with the same format. I thought, ‘There is a way of doing these talks that has jokes in but doesn’t deviate from the subject.’ It doesn’t necessarily send up the subject. These sort of historical events are funny to anyone who’s not an academic.
I’m reading about Charles Darwin, and he was so obsessed at one point when he’s writing The Origin of Species he was going to count the number of worms in his garden. He’d got as far as counting 53,767 worms per acre when he’d stopped and worked it out. Then he decided to put these worms in the house. He filled up one room with them. Then he put a load on the billiard table, and he’d blow tobacco smoke at them and get his son to play a bassoon at them, and see how they reacted. Now, I find it extraordinary that any academic, or anyone, can read this and not find it incredibly funny. People like Darwin are so utterly single-minded and obsessed that they develop these really funny characteristics. They obviously were all geniuses - you know, Darwin altered the way we view the universe. And yet these people were all personally beautifully flawed. That makes them very funny.
The books about Darwin will have the bit about the worms in there, but they just skirt past it. Anyone normal would think, ‘What the fuck’s with the worms?’ Sir Isaac Newton, Byron, all these people, they’re extremely funny. When Newstead Abbey - Byron’s aristocratic home - was in financial difficulty, in his accounts was written down, ‘One grizzly bear - £80’. But the biographer just carries on! Anyone normal would go, ‘Huh? A bear?’ I suppose he was skint and has this bear, so he must have seen it the way pensioners see their fags: ‘I can’t get rid of the bear, it’s the only pleasure I get.’
The other thing is putting them in context. This is something academics don’t do. Anyone on the left who’s done a talk will know you want to get across what puts you at odds with the orthodox way of looking at history as being about the last 30 days - against the way the Sun or the Daily Star view history. So you try to put it in context. Straight away, regardless of people’s politics, that unlocks a great deal for people.
PS: On the face of it, it would seem an incredibly ambitious thing to do, to teach historical context, to teach about the individual, and to make it funny. Because without all three of those components it doesn’t work.
MS: It’s especially ambitious on the television, actually. It seems reasonably ambitious on the radio. But that is just a lecture - it’s not like writing a book. Anyone who’s done a talk - say, a talk at Marxism - if you read a couple of good biographies, you can do a pretty reasonable talk. If you’re doing a radio series you need to spend a couple of weeks reading. What’s really hard with the television, more than the radio, is the jokes. Television just sucks up jokes.
The first joke I did at the start of the Marx programme goes, ‘Anybody looking at the world now can see that Communism doesn’t work. If you had a party one night, and the only way to keep the guests in was with a 50 foot high wall, an army of snipers and even then some of the guests were trying to escape in a hot air balloon, you couldn’t say, “Well, that was a successful evening”.’ I can do that joke on the radio, and that’s it. As soon as that appears on the television screen there are people making little hot air balloons, a whole industry geared to setting up this one joke. And I’m thinking, ‘Don’t go to all that trouble, it’s only a joke!’
PS: Did you find academics in general supportive or were they a bit, ‘Well, it’s funny, but it’s not real’?
MS: A couple of them were very good. The best one was the guy for the Aristotle programme, who gave me a wonderful quote - ’The people at the top of society make the mistake of believing that we can reduce all life purely to the amount of wealth that is embodied in the world.’ I’ve not done it justice, but it’s a brilliant quote. And of course it applies perfectly to, say, Blair.
When Blair talks about the arts, for example, he’ll always say, ‘Yes, I’m a big supporter of the cinema, it’s created lots of jobs,’ or, ‘Music is an underestimated industry in this country,’ and then run through bands who make profits for the British economy. And of course this is exactly how they think. So it works well, having this Aristotle quote about what we see in Blair and Mandelson. Blair just thinks this is success. When Blair talks about success, he doesn’t think you’ve done something well, or been creative, unless what you’ve created is money.
The Mark Steel Lectures begin on BBC4 on 7 October.
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