is a British comedian
, newspaper columnist
and political activist.
Starting out as a milkman, he became one of the minor stars of the alternative comedy scene of the late 80s and early 90s, with occasional appearances on Radio 4's series The News Quiz and Loose Ends.
Steel has also had three of his own radio series, The Mark Steel Solution in which he proposed solutions to various problems facing the world, The Mark Steel Revolution, in which he spoke about various revolutions throughout history, and The Mark Steel Lectures, in which he lectured on historical figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Karl Marx. These shows would probably have had more popularity were they not very simillar in format to the rather better Jeremy Hardy Speaks To The Nation.
Steel also had a regular column in The Guardian in the mid-1990s, but while this was popular it was dropped from the paper in 1998 because Steel's politics (he's a revolutionary Trotskyist, a member of the Socialist Workers Party and stood in the London Assembly elections for the Socialist Alliance) were considered too left-wing for the increasingly centrist paper (which within a period of a couple of years around this time also got rid of columns by Francis Wheen, Jeremy Hardy and many other intelligent, witty leftists, replacing them with centre-left and increasingly centre-right comluminsts). Steel now writes for The Independent as well as for Socialist Worker (I believe he also has a column in a cricketing magazine).
As well as his journalism and his occasional forays into politics, Steel has also written two books. It's Not A Runner Bean is a hilarious account of his early years as a comedian, which suffers from being published by a small political company, who apparently couldn't afford the services of a decent proof-reader. His second book, Reasons To Be Cheerful (named after the Ian Dury song) covers much of the same ground, being a memoir of his years of political activism. However, this is much easier to find, being published by a mass-market publisher and a minor bestseller in the wake of John O'Farrel's similar Things Can Only Get Better.
(Update Feb 2004 - Steel released another book in September last year - Vive La Revolution, a history of the French Revolution. This is very much in the style of his Mark Steel Lectures radio series, and is more serious than his earlier two books, while still having a number of very funny passages.)
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Steel's politics (and even among the left the SWP are on the fringes) he is a genuinely funny comedian and writer, and it's hard not to admire his passion, although being at least vaguely left-of-centre and having a knowledge of UK politics over the last 25 years would probably be an advantage in appreciating his work.
People who like Steel's comedy tend also to appreciate Jeremy Hardy and Mark Thomas, both of whom are rather better known than Steel, but Steel deserves the same level of recognition.