Mark Steel has made a speciality out of combining his personal brand of left-wing stand-up comedy with his take on the big events (and occasionally the unsung personalities) of history. In this 2 DVD set, Steel turns his attention to a staple of the high-school history syllabus. It's to his credit that he manages to reinvigorate the topic of the French Revolution, rescuing it from the mundanity of dates and lists and drawing-out the often forgotten human element behind the upheavals of 1789.
Steel's protrayal of Marie Antoinette and family is surprisingly sympathetic from an avowed republican. His ire is really reserved for the system which deified the nobility and kept the working classes of pre-industrial France in a state of perpetual servitude. The image of peasants sweeping frogs out of the noblemen's moats well sums up the tragic absurdity of the age. In Steel's account, the revolution happens almost by accident; and it's the educated middle classes who build up the rush of idealism into an unstoppable force. This is where Steel's treatment of the revolution differs sharply from the history books. His depiction is of the triumph of people power against all the odds; and when the revolution IS betrayed, it's the money-grabbing capitalists and the outside forces of conservatism that combine to create paranoia, the Reign of Terror, and ultimately the regime of Europe's first modern dictator, Napoleon.
So much for the history. The real joy of this DVD is that Steel is a stand-up comedian, not a historian (his contempt for the Simon Schamas of this world is made clear in almost the first minute of the show). What really brings the performance alive is his colourful portrayal of the lesser-known characters in this drama: the party animal Danton, the magnificently angry Marat, and Norfolk's own Tom Paine, the unlikely working-class hero of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. A string of colourful digressions draw out the parallels and contrasts with 21st century Britain; a few too many of these are of the "we'd never do that because we're rubbish" variety, and some of them go on for far longer than is necessary, but this is my only real grumble about a performance that's as hilarious as it is enlightening.
The extra features on the second DVD are well worth lingering over. The talking head pieces with Jeremy Hardy on a park bench don't start very well, but bear with them; there are some priceless autobiographical nuggets here, the best of which are the string of fabricated answers Steel has produced over the years to the question "How did you get started in comedy?" The deleted scenes from the main show continue in the same vein, and the snippets of the Mark Steel Lectures which enhance the stories of characters from Tom Paine (again) to Beethoven serve as great accompanying material to the main event.
In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this and would recommend it to any fans of intelligent comedy who don't mind an indulgent digression here and there.
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