Steel yourself for revolution

Mark Steel can see the funny side in just about anything.
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The Independent Culture
REVOLUTIONS ARE generally described as disastrous, grotesque or fantastically liberating. The writer, columnist, comedian and radio host Mark Steel has another word for them. He thinks they are "funny".

"For example, I think it's funny that in the middle of the French Revolution the Chief Guillotinier of Paris demanded a pay rise to account for increased productivity. Or in 1969, a team of New York gays had just forced the Tactical Patrol Force to retreat when they formed a chorus line and performed a musical in the middle of their own riot.

"In the American civil war, (which I would call a revolution) a Confederate General wondered why the Union Army seemed to know in advance exactly where his troops were heading. An ex-slave was employed as the General's washerwoman and she had been sending signals to the Union Army using an elaborate system of codes which involved hanging the washing in a different order to indicate the troops' direction."

The Mark Steel Revolution came about when Mark decided, after three series of his acclaimed Mark Steel Solution, that it was time to look back in time for something different. "I talked to the the producer, who is also a history enthusiast and we decided to do revolutions with comic sketches."

The reason many historians miss the joy of revolution is because they have a tendency to view it as leaders who call for an uprising and the masses who meekly follow. "For instance, the historian Robert Service said that one of the reasons the Russian Revolution happened in 1917 was because Lenin was ill and he wanted it to happen quickly. Like old people might say, I am 78, if I don't go to the Lake District this summer I might never get another chance," says Steel. "It isn't just the Right, the Stalinist Left are just as bad.

In fact, because revolutions involve the types of people we all know from workplace or pub, they are often characterised by confusion, enthusiasm and chaos. Fortunately for The Mark Steel Revolution, this amounts to plenty of material for comic sketches. "The night before the storming of the Bastille there were mass meetings held round Paris to organise the seizing of weapons and get hold of the Bastille. I think anyone who has ever seen a tenants meeting on a council estate will have some idea of what these meetings would have been like. There must have been a hard man shouting, `why wait till tomorrow you wimps, let's go down now'. Someone would have offered his brother the bricklayer to knock up a castle, there would have been a hippy who said he didn't have any weapons but could bring a flute, someone would have been screaming, `never mind the Bastille, when is someone going to fix my drains', and a bewildered pensioner would have wondered whether she was at the right place to get a dog licence."

There is another quirk of revolutions. Most of the time, they are not the work of an outside agitator or a heroic leader snapping their fingers, so hardly anyone sees them coming. "There was a journalist called Louis Sebastien-Mercier who a year before the French Revolution, wrote: `Unlike in London, the prospect of rioting in France is an impossibility.' In April 1968, a bloke called Andre Gorz wrote a pamphlet arguing that the power of the working class had come to an end. One month later he couldn't get it published because the whole country was on strike."

This in some ways explains the final reason why there is plenty of humour in looking back at past revolutions. As soon as they happen, the old ideas that once seemed to make sense look ridiculous. "For example, a sex education guide for boys, published just prior to the sexual revolution of the Sixties, said `girls' feelings are rather different to boys', in that sex to them is rather like looking at a beautiful sunset.' So there you are boys - if during sex your woman says she can see Canary Wharf in the distance, it's a compliment."

The Mark Steel Revolution is at 6.30pm tomorrow, repeated on Wednesday, 11.30pm, Radio 4