“There weren’t nearly as many stand-ups back then. There were maybe 20 of us doing it, maybe a bit more. But now I get the impression just about every building in Edinburgh has somebody putting on a stand-up show. It’s brilliant things have got like that, with lots of people trying to do work which is sort of distinct.”
It’s been two decades since Mark Steel last brought a show to the Fringe, and both he and the UK comedy scene have grown enormously in stature over the intervening years. Now a columnist and revered media personality, the left-wing provocateur remains a thoroughly unpretentious figure. At only one point in our conversation does he slip into the comfortable role of industry elder statesman.
“We never bothered with that in the old days,” he cheerfully recalls of those early years of the Fringe. “But it’s improved things in a way.”
The veteran’s appreciation of the competition and heightened artistic ambition now fostered by the festival is no affectation. Whether visiting to record radio shows or do the odd turn here and there, he’s been a quietly omnipresent figure at the event, keeping his eye on new talent and prevailing trends. But while he discusses the circuit and his return to the programme with enthusiasm, there’s something refreshingly out-of-step about Steel. Take his new show for instance.
Who Do I Think I Am? is an account of the comic’s adoption and the efforts made to track down his blood relatives after he himself became a parent. His recently deceased natural mother refused to make contact with her son, but was an equally staunch advocate of radical politics. His biological father now enjoys a friendly relationship with Steel, despite his ties to the monarchy and faith in neoliberal economics.
This narrative represents an even balance between the tragic and the farcical. The loss of an estranged parent with whom the star shared deeply-held principles lends itself to what’s colloquially known as the ‘Dead Dad’ show, a sub-genre popularised by Russell Kane’s award-winning confessional, Smokescreens and Castles. Playing up to the time-honoured image of the sad clown, nothing can lend a performer gravitas quite like a Dead Dad show. The transatlantic expedition to track down a millionaire playboy father, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of ersatz quest that Tim FitzHigham would kill for, or that Dave Gorman would use as the basis of a lucrative book deal.
Ever a man of integrity, Steel seems appalled by the idea that a comic might trade in personal trauma for critical plaudits, or embark on such a significant journey with a view to generating material. “Good Lord, that would be awful,” he exclaims, barely containing his disgust. “I think I’m going to go search for my biological parents because that means in 15 years’ time I’ll have a show to do for Edinburgh.”
Surely there must have been a point during his investigations when a cynical side of him felt all too aware of the situation’s comic potential, of an emotionally complex show starting to write itself? “Not really, no. I mean…no!” He sounds bemused. “It was some time last year I thought, ‘Yeah, I ought to write this up.’ I imagine everything that’s going to happen has happened now.”
It may be only with hindsight that Steel is able to recognise his tale’s crowd-pleasing potential, but now that he’s fallen for it, he’s fallen hard. Throughout our interview he refers to the "funny story" in a tone of ecstatic excitement and makes a series of bold, potentially hubristic claims in its favour.
“I think it would be impossible not to find the story interesting,” he suggests with conviction. “I think if you’re a comic you really ought to be able to make this story funny.”
In many respects Steel is the consummate comic, finding humour in a wide range of subjects with an inspiring, sometimes workmanlike, consistency. The content of Who Do I Think I Am? doesn’t daunt him in the least.
“I’m very lucky in one way, in that it’s the most ridiculous story and has sort of presented itself to someone whose job is to go and tell ridiculous stories and make them funny. If it had happened to a plumber, someone who thought, ‘Oh well, that’s a bit peculiar’, and left it at that, then it might remain untold.
“I think the best part of the story is that it doesn’t have to be a great big trauma. It doesn’t have to involve loads of tears, you know? If it was in Eastenders, everybody would be bursting into tears, going around with mallets slapping each other, that sort of thing. I just think it’s a fascinating and funny story.”
For a performer currently readying an autobiographical work ahead of its debut at the world’s largest arts festival, it’s both commendable and curious that Steel is eager to downplay the show’s emotional and thematic weight. He’s resolute in describing it as merely a "funny story".
I suggest that while a narrative-driven, highly personal show initially seems like a departure for him, he’s always been one to explore concepts of identity. Having previously addressed political and geographical identity, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to interpret this examination of his lineage as a continuation of an over-arching theme.
It’s with an anti-intellectual rigour that Steel debunks such ideas. “Blimey! It’s not meant to be a PhD on socio-cultural trends 1968-2015. That’s not the aim. If it answers any of that, then fine. But I’m just trying to tell a story and it may or may not pose all sorts of questions. First and foremost I think it’s fascinating and funny. I’m really not trying to do whatever that was you said, raise issues of concepts of identity politics and self-something-or-other. Please don’t say it’s that, because that’s a show I’d go quite a long way to not see.”
So that’s me told. But even with the man’s protestation ringing in my ears, I feel confident that Who Do I Think I Am? will prove more compelling than its author realises.
Your show in five words: Can't describe in less than....
What are your top tips for the Fringe?: The military tattoo on ice
Your most memorable Edinburgh Fringe moment?: Getting drunk with the Pope in the Gilded Balloon
he performances you're most looking forward to: Twelfth Night in Sanskrit