Open2.net: How did you get into comedy?
Mark Steel: When I was a television repair man I had a few jokes I'd learned off my brother when I was about seventeen and just used to try them out on people; and sometimes, obviously, they're very annoyed when you can't fix their TV and say,"I'm going to have to take it away and fix it", so I tried the jokes out to calm them down, really.
So, it really was humour as a defence mechanism, but in an unconventional way?
Yes, exactly - they thought, "We've had a little bit of entertainment even though we've got no telly for the next week." That was my first venture into professional comedy. There was an award as well in the Television Repairman's magazine for the best joke that anyone had told when they came round to see a television they couldn't fix. I won three months in a row. Can't even remember what the jokes were now.
How did you get from comedy to political comedy?
I think you just say whatever you think's funny. When you see politicians who said at the time we went to war, that Saddam Hussein could get his weapons ready in 45 minutes and now they're saying "Oh, no, we didn't mean weapons of mass destruction, we just meant he could get his guns ready in forty-five minutes," regardless of the morals of war, that's just an insult to lying. My kid could do better lying than that. And that's funny. I cannot see how you couldn't see that as funny. If they just meant his guns, why forty five minutes? Is his locker busted? When Saddam launched a war did he like to watch the first half of a football match before he started? It's just mad. How could anyone not find that funny, in a sick sort of way? If you ignore that he helped take the world to a period of unprecedented carnage, potentially.
So I find that sort of thing funny, but equally I might find something that someone said funny, too. Like, I've got a mate from this little village in East Anglia, and the other day his Mum said to him on the phone, "Did you see our village was in the paper?", really proud. "What was it about?" he asks. "Didn't you see it? They've done a survey of all the different places in Britain and our village is the most in-bred village in the whole of Britain." And either of those things - forty-five minutes or my mate's Mum, I find funny.
Where did the idea for the lectures come from?
I'd done talks at various events, about the American Civil War or something; having done them I thought, "there's always jokes to be found in these subjects, there's always a jokey way of doing it" and so I wondered if that was something that could be extended that could fit into a comedy slot. And it seemed to work. I think. It's just doing a lecture as if it was a lecture, but packing it with jokes. For television, it's a different format, but the same thing applies; we had to work out one or two stylistic things, but it's the same principle, really. Again, it's like the 45 minutes thing - there's a way of telling these stories where you point out all the nonsense of it.
Was there anything you found you couldn't do on TV at all?
All sorts of things - there's all sorts of ways around it; if there's a joke that's going to cost two hundred and fifty million quid to stage it because we're talking about rockets flying to the moon or something, you can just say the joke. And that happens sometimes, but most times we find a visual way of showing it. For example, in the Byron one, you want to show that he's really like various modern people, so we've got him as Bob Dylan doing the Subterranean Homesick Blues video, and we've got a modern rapper doing Byron lines to hiphop - that's something that you couldn't do on radio. And we've got him in the Paul Simonon pose from the front of the London Calling album. There's more things you can do on telly than on radio. The only downside is it's a huge palaver, and you need a team of about fifteen people running around for four months to make it work whereas I can write, rewrite, rehearse, direct in effect, record and edit the whole series in four months myself for the radio. But I hope it brings something extra, or else a lot of people have been wasting their time.
What do you hope people will take away from the shows at the end of the programme?
It's obviously very flattering if someone thinks "Blimey, Aristotle really is fascinating, I'm going to go and start studying philosophy," but really, the truth is, if you want to know a lot about these people you're going to have to do more than to watch my programmes. Having said that, because it puts these people in their context, and because it looks at their times and sees what the mass of people were doing, that's an angle that most tv programmes don't take. For example, one of the most fascinating things about Byron was his support for the Luddites; I wouldn't concentrate on that to the exclusion of how his poetry works, but most of the books about Byron more or less ignore the fact. It's incredible - he was incredibly impassioned about it. There was an academic who lectures on Byron who I was talking to, and he said, "I think that if Byron was alive today he'd be a Conservative MP, wouldn't he?" - that's an extraordinary thing to say - Conservative Lords broke the tradition of ringing a bell on the death of a Lord when Byron died; they refused to do it because they hated him, and this bloke lectures on Byron and says he'd have been a Conservative MP. An astonishingly ignorant thing to say; I think it's because they get wrapped up in the detail of these things and they miss the big picture. The big picture is: the events outside these people shape people - they're not geniuses, but they're shaped by massive events. Byron was shaped by the aftermath of the French Revolution; he was severely depressed by the death of Napoleon which signified the death of all his hopes for a better world and so his poetry was informed by that - of course it was. That's not to say all the affairs aren't all fascinating, but you have to put them into context. So in that sense, what I hope people mainly get out of it is that you have to see the bigger picture. But then, at the end of the day, I'm a comic, so if they don't laugh, it's bloody useless to me. It's no good them coming up and saying "I was so inspired it changed my life," - no good to me, is it? I'm just a comic.
Is there anyone you're itching to do on the lectures?
The one in this series that I was always wanting to do on the radio but couldn't was Freud. There's no way you'd get away, in the slot we were in on Radio 4, with talking about the things you need to talk about to do the Freud story, and it was really good fun to do that on the telly.
What research process do you go through to produce the lectures?
It's fairly systematic, really. For example, when I started to write Freud I go to a bookstore and whatever department the Freud books are in and I read a beginner's book, so I'd at least know what the parameters of his life are, and then just start reading the biographies. The thing with reading is just that most people don't have the time, and you can read a four hundred page book in a day, if you have to. The reason why 400 page books usually take months to read is that you're trying to do it in and out of going to work, looking after kids, and so on. But if you sit down in the morning and take it bit by bit, over a period of about eight days you can read quite a lot of stuff. And in that, you're looking out for two things - first of all, I've got to work out who these people were, and what their interests were, what the arguments and debates were, and what I feel about all the various contentious points; and then having done all that, then I've got find all the funny quotes and the slightly manic things. Most of these people are so nutty they come at you fairly easily.
Have you ever had to abandon anyone because they didn't have enough quirks?
The one I started but couldn't get anywhere with was Boadicea, or Boudaca or whatever you're supposed to call her. Just because there's so little stuff about her - I got the four or five books that there are, and they were all about twenty pages and they all said the same thing. You realise we don't really know anything about these people. I did Hannibal on the radio and there are about three or four books, which all go back to Pliny; they're all pretty much the same, and then a couple go on at enormous length about the precise route he took across the Alps - who the hell cares, honestly? But I did do Hannibal in the end, and I really enjoyed it, but you realise the amount we know is very, very little and it just becomes difficult. We did Aristotle, but we say the truth is we don't really know anything about these people's personal life.
How was working with the Open University?
They were really good they had academic people who helped us. The guy who did the Newton one was really good; the guy who they got to talk to us about Aristotle came up with a brilliant quote - about the rich judging everything by how much it cost; an ancient version of "the price of everything and the value of nothing." It was a brilliant quote to have over shots of Blair meeting the Hinduja brothers, and Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch, because that's how they judge everyone - if someone's rich, they're successful; if someone's done some extraordinary thing but haven't much money, therefore they're a failure.
Has your opinion of any of your subjects changed during the course of preparing lectures?
Yes, almost all of them. I can't pretend I'm some biographer who's spent three years digging through some sort of obscure archives, but even just looking through a dozen books or so you change your mind. Like Freud, I never quite fell in love with Freud in the way I did with the others, but gradually, since we ended up the filming, I think he was extraordinarily single minded; and Marx, I didn't realise he was a cantankerous old bastard, really, but something quite loveable there, the fact he was so flawed. I think that's the thing, you find these people are flawed and personally flawed, and that can be quite endearing. Because all we know of Isaac Newton is that he was a genius, then you find out that he was a miserable old bastard - it makes him human. It makes their genius more real - they weren't just born geniuses, they were living, breathing human beings who went through the same tribulations as other people, and within all this, they managed to come up with this remarkable stuff.