One of the highlights of recent Radio 4 comedy has been "Mark Steel's in Town" in which the radical and acerbic stand-up satirist visits a town, researches and writes a comedy routine based on the place - and then delivers it to an audience of locals. The format has worked really well on the radio for three series, as Steel brilliantly dissects the quirky, weird, odd, or wonderful aspects of a place and its people, drawing on his experiences today or on the history of the places. Each show features his entertaining monologue - (much of which he we invariably delivery in a cod version of the local accent), the local crowd reaction to this outsider affectionately teasing their foibles with laughter, cheers, boos or hoots of derision; and an interview with a colourful local character who seems to personify one of the town's most endearing eccentricities. Most of the last series has been excellent, and listening to it usually provokes a wry grin, and occasional peals of laughter.
The book based on the series contains a lot of material which will be familiar to the Radio 4 audience, such as the chapter on Douglas in the Isle of Man where he accuses the residents of basically being tax dodgers. It's written in Steel's distinctive tone, and is packed for of Steels trademark radicalism, disdain for the establishment, wonderful sense of irony and delicious use of ludicrous comparisons. He quotes lovely stories from the archives of the places he visits too, in Basingstoke he describes the way in which the droll and quietly spoken cricket commentator John Arlott got the better of a verbose colleague who concluded his description of the ground by "telling listeners he could see the sun setting in the West. When Arlott came on he said slowly, 'you can be rest assured that if the sun starts to set in the East I'll be the first to let yo know.'" And then in Wigan he discovered that local 1940s 'cheeky' banjolele songster George Formby "toured pre-apartheid South Africa and upset his hosts by refusing to play segregated venues. As a result, a black member of one audience presented Formby's wife Beryl with a box of chocolates, and George gave the man a hug. National Party leader Daniel Francois Malan, who would introduce apartheid two years later, heard about this and phoned Beryl to complain, to which she replied, 'Why don't you p*** off, you horrible little man?'
While analysing London and rejoicing in its colourful ethnic diversity, Steel says:
"My son once introduced me to a new friend, saying, 'This is Ernest, he's Polish. Don't worry, I don't miss any opportunity to remind him that his lot had to be saved by us in the war.'
I said, 'What?'
He said, "Everyday I remind him that his country would have been stuffed without us in the Second World War.'
I said, 'Listen, you know that aeroplane battle at the start of the war, over Kent, that meant that Hitler had no chance of invading?'
'Oh yeah, the Battle of Britain'
'Yes, the Battle of Britain. Well, do you know where a fifth of pilots on the Allied side came from? They were from Poland!'
He turned straight to his mate and said, 'See, you were nicking our jobs even back then'.
Now who wouldn't want to live in a city like that?
There are plenty of laughs in the book, but despite this I couldn't help feeling that it failed to live up to the Radio show. In fact, its a lot less funny and enjoyable than its Radio equivalent despite the fact that so much of it is the Radio show scripts. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Steel has to tone his language down for the BBC, whereas his publishers allows him to barrage the reader with expletives which become wearisome. The second is that so much of the humour comes from Steel's delivery, and mimicry of local voices, or bursting into song, and interaction with the live audience - something which doesn't translate to the page. The result is that while the book is wryly amusing, it doesn't deliver the laughs like the Radio show. Fans of the show will feel somewhat underwhelmed by the book, I suspect.