Can a comedian improve the image of an inner city suburb of Birmingham? Roz Laws finds out how Mark Steel has been out and about in Handsworth before his latest show.
If you look up Handsworth on Wikipedia, almost the first thing it says is that it is “known for its high crime rates and civil unrest”.
But comedian Mark Steel is hoping to do his bit to improve the image of the inner city area of Birmingham.
He is coming to The Drum in Aston on Wednesday to record an edition of his Radio 4 series Mark Steel’s In Town, in which he thoroughly researches his location and makes his observations in front of a local audience.
He’s already done three series of the award-winning show, recorded in places as diverse as Walsall – where he wasn’t that impressed with the Walsall Hippo stone sculpture – Gateshead, Penzance and Basingstoke.
Mark spends time in the town he is going to perform in before writing his show, researching its history, notable local people, landmarks and customs.
I catch up with him on his first visit to Handsworth.
He’s just arrived but says: “The first thing that strikes me is that it seems to be more Sikh than Jamaican these days. I couldn’t miss the huge Sikh centre.
“I’ve read a few things about Handsworth, but it hasn’t got the best of images. It seems that if you mention Handsworth to most people, they think of the riots in the 1980s.
“At least it’s lively! We will have to address that. It is a bit unfair, as it was a long time ago. Even if you have a riot every 10 years, that’s a lot of days in between without any rioting.”
Mark, 52, grew up in Kent but his mother came from Erdington, so he visited his grandparents in Birmingham as a boy.
“I was aware from an early age that Birmingham was somewhere where it’s quite possible to go round and round on the ring road for several months without ever getting anywhere, even though it looks as if you are 100 yards from where you are going,” he remembers.
That’s the kind of fact he would bring up on a Mark Steel’s In Town show.
“The more specific you are, the better. You have to get it right, though, or the audience will swiftly let you know.