The Mark Steel Lectures

Thursday, March 2, 2006 by

For me, the Radio 4 series of The Mark Steel Lectures was a delight. In each episode, he proved himself to be one of the few people who can talk passionately and entertainingly about relatively academic subjects. Some were naturally more interesting than others – a subject like Aristotle is always going to be difficult to sell to a comedy audience, after all – but all were entertaining, with a good balance of facts and jokes. This was often achieved by concentrating as much on the subjects’ personalities as their achievements, and usually the best moments would be the asides, reflecting how modern society would interpret each subject’s activities and eccentricities.

For me, there was one episode of the radio series which had a particular impact. I had never had any interest in Charlie Chaplin until Steel dedicated an edition to him. As far as I was concerned, he was just a silent film star from a distant age, who wore a bowler hat, waved a cane, and had a moustache. After listening to Steel’s fascinating account of his life story, I was soon inspired to start investigating his work. I watched Chaplin, Richard Attenborough’s biopic, starring Robert Downey Jr. Later, I read Chaplin’s autobiography, and was startled by the sheer expressiveness of a man famed for his silence. I started watching Chaplin’s later, more controversial, films. I discovered real gems in the forms of his final silent flicks, Modern Times, and City Lights. I discovered the deliciously dark satire of his first (and again, highly eloquent) talkie, Monsieur Verdoux, and the emotional resonance of Limelight. More than anything, however, I discovered what became my favourite movie ever, Chaplin’s courageous attack on Adolf Hitler, The Great Dictator.

While I was busy building up my Chaplin DVD collection, The Mark Steel Lectures transferred to TV, and suitably to BBC4. Through the first series, I eagerly hoped for a televised version of the Chaplin lecture, but it never came. Second time around, however, brought with it the topic I was so keen to see. Surely of all the subjects covered in the radio series, Chaplin was the one that would be most suited to a TV version? There was, after all, a certain irony to using radio as a medium to advocate the greatness of a silent movie star.

If you compare any of the TV lectures to their radio predecessors, one thing is obvious. Mark Steel is a much better performer on radio than television. There, his delivery is quick, sharp, and passionate. On TV, there is always a sense of being a rabbit caught in the headlights. The delivery is slower and less natural, the jokes more laboured. The sense of Steel being an enthusiastic advocator of the subject is replaced with more the aspect of a teacher who tells the odd joke to keep you interested.

This formality is as evident in the Chaplin lecture as any other. Material delivered as an aside in a radio lecture is here padded out into short sketches that turn a decent throwaway line into a clunking pause in the story. Although some of these sketches contain good jokes, these are mainly the silent ones that play to Steel’s continuing narration, such as Chaplin taking inspiration from a newspaper full of headlines like “Man ties woman to railway” and “Piano falls on man’s head”. Less successful is some of the material copied directly from the radio version. On the wireless, it is just about possible to convince yourself Steel’s asides and tangents are at least semi-spontaneous; but on TV the same material falls flat, each line being delivered with an uncomfortable silence where the studio laughter should be.

The stiffness of Steel’s delivery also acts to the detriment of the lecture’s content. For example, the radio version’s semi-serious tone allowed Steel to make points that a conventional documentary could not. Much of the reason for my admiration of The Great Dictator lies in the fact a popular comedian is able to take a then-controversial political stance against the Nazis, which Steel rightly mused would be impossible today: “You couldn’t imagine Patricia Routledge being called to 10 Downing Street to be persuaded to tone down the political indictments in her latest series of Keeping Up Appearances“.

Such pithy contextualising is largely missing from the television version, and the overall programme is worse for it.

Still, that doesn’t matter with the Chaplin lecture, surely? Steel can do the teaching, while the jokes can be left to the movie star. Furthermore, the big advantage of this lecture over most of the others is that we have footage of the man himself -the whole reason for his fame is his films, after all. Bizarrely, we don’t get to see any footage of Chaplin. Instead, Lectures regular Martin Hyder (who looks nothing like Chaplin), recreates some of his most famous scenes, managing to spectacularly jettison every scrap of humour or emotion that Chaplin strove to create. Indeed, the dismal enactments of famous scenes from The Kid and Modern Times had me cringing, while the take on The Great Dictator was so poor as to make me contemplate throwing the TV set through the window. Surely if you are making a programme about Chaplin and don’t have access to the real footage, the solution is to either work around that, or abandon the show? The solution here truly was the worst of both worlds, akin to making a programme about Fawlty Towers in which Arthur Mullard acts out John Cleese’s best scenes. Surely Steel, a professional political comedian professing admiration for Chaplin, would see this?

Maybe you could say I am too much of a Chaplin devotee to make a reasoned judgement here. Maybe I was always destined to be disappointed in the way that advocates of the series’ other subjects might pick fault with Steel’s account of their hero. How ironic though, that I should feel this way, given that the sole person responsible for arousing my passion for Chaplin is Steel himself. Can I imagine being similarly stirred by the television version? Probably not, which is a shame, as a few original clips of Chaplin’s finest moments, mixing the silence of the tramp with the engaging fluency of his later work, would surely convince more people of Steel’s basic argument, that it is wrong to see him as nothing more than “a bloke with a silly walk who bumped into things … ideal for Saturday morning kid’s telly”.

As for Steel himself, he is certainly an excellent radio comedian, and with a studio audience, could almost certainly translate his talents to television. As it is, however, The Mark Steel Lectures is an excellent idea, generally well made, but somehow doesn’t gel in the way it really ought. Tweaking the format, such as ditching some of the more obviously scripted tangents, or delivering the lecture to an audience in a mock-academic setting, might help to turn the TV version into the kind of success both the radio version, and the concept in general, deserve.


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