Mark Steel has become an unlikely national treasure through his appearances on BBC Radio 4, most notably via his tour of UK weird that is Mark Steel’s In Town. He recently decided to look around this part of the world, and asked me to take his hand and lead him around the streets of Nott’num. Here’s the story behind the show…

Mark Steel’s In Town: Nottingham is broadcast on Monday 22nd August, 6.30pm, on BBC Radio 4: you can find it here. There’s also a podcast, find it through BBC Sounds.


Royal Tunbridge Wells,  Kent, Autumn, 2001, and weirdly this is where I live. Or rather, where I have been living, for today I’m leaving, after three years. I arrived here as a barman and ended up at the BBC via many other roles, but now my time in this place is over. No more Pantiles, or spas. Bye Beau Nash, goodbye Georgian Finery and tarah, Toad Rock. This town, which serves as a punchline for many jokes, is no longer my home. With trepidation, I’m moving back to Nottingham. 

The journey will be a long one, so before I post the key on my old house ( which the landlady would now like back since it has astronomically shot up in value) , I best get some reading material for the trip north. There’s a bookshop close by, and I buy Reasons To Be Cheerful, a memoir of sorts by a comedian I’ve seen at festivals and on the radio, who seems a good sort. His name is Mark Steel, and Sussex Stationers take my cash and hand it over.

Tunbridge Wells. Disgusting. (Actually a very nice, grossly misunderstood place)

I open it as we head from Kent through to London, and then around the M25 and the M1, the artery I know far too well. Near the top of it, Junction 25, and the place I grew up. I have little love for it. I left it for a purpose, and moved around: Newcastle, Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal. Anywhere but Nottingham. It’s now known, rather grimly, as Shottingham. When I’d recently told a friend’s dad I was heading back there, he’d looked concerned and said ‘Well, I here there’s trouble there. You be careful there now”. My friend’s dad had moved to Kent in the early nineties from Troubles-era Belfast. I consider the cost of Kevlar. I fidget. Eventually, I read the book.

It’s a fantastically funny, utterly heartfelt and pleasingly radical: Steel’s politics chime with my own. I’ve just witnessed a general election in Tunbridge Wells, and if you ever need a rebellious boot up the arse, it’s after what felt like the most inconsequential electoral contest ever. I’d been asked to ring around local politicians the morning of the result: none really cared, there were no surprises and no decent quotes, aside from a sleep-deprived Anne Widdecombe calling me a ‘rude young man’, which wasn’t deemed newsworthy enough. Things felt flat. The book’s joy in rebellion was a tonic. Steel avoids dogma and instead lets an active optimism serve as a weapon against despair. The road rumbles North.


I intended to stay in Notts for a short period of time: grimly, however long it takes my gran to die. She was the most important person in my world, and last time I’d visited she’d been unwell; I was terrified she’d slip away before I could hold her papery but warm hands again. When I find I had to find a new place to live, and when i considered I’d had to work a nightclub job three nights a week, and several shifts at a local pub on to of my job at the BBC just to make the rent in the first place, the thought of having to sort a new place wasn’t alluring. It was time to go back, albeit briefly. Once my gran is gone, my connection there will be broken and I’ll head off again, wherever. 

My gran hangs on until 2006. “It was a bit of wind” she explains to me when I arrive back and go and see her “They took me to a ward, stuck all these things on me, wires everywhere, then I farted – I mean, really farted- and I felt right as rain. Couldn’t tell them that though. Though I think they knew…..I mean, it lingered”. By the time she does die, well into her nineties, and funny to the end, I’m very much tied up in Notts. 


Spring 2022, and my Twitter notifications start going crazy. I momentarily panic: have I written something on there that’s suddenly blown up for, and I’ll become a pariah and a subject of a Jon Ronson article? I check. No, rather it’s a slew of tweets tagging me, recommending me to Mark Steel, after the comedian has asked

He should ask me, they say. I’ll be a good help to explore the place, others mention. It’s extremely flattering to read them: I do indeed write a fair bit about place. My first paid journalism was down in Kent, where I would research and write articles about local sports stuff: I’d soon became a bit of an expert on the local area, using the context of place to elevate a story about a golf course, or a rugby club. In 2009 I set up this blog after occasional articles here and there on the weirdness of the town. In 2011, a physical magazine was kicked into life to give a space for others to also talk about the town. Since 2014, I’ve been writing about Notts in terms of its writers, as part of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. Along the way, my butterfly mind has been thoroughly indulged, feeding on bizarre facts and unexpected links; strange events and anecdotes that shape over time in legendary stories. I still remember the buzz I got in the early noughties, reading a link a friend had sent where an upstart Nottingham website interviewed someone who I’d never have imagined being interviewed: Frank, the Xylophone Man from outside of C&A. Are we allowed this, allowed to celebrate our own city like this? It seemed thrilling. LeftLion, for it was they, also moved into print, and has just celebrated its 150th issue. 

LeftLion: Reimagining Notts

Mark Steels In Town has a similar ethos, where the host travels around the UK (and further afield) and snuffles in the local leaf-litter for truffles of amusement. He’ll also look for common themes: what makes a place somewhere, and not just anywhere? It’s been wildly successful: now into its 12th series it’s become an anticipated treat (“People write in and say ‘can you come to my town and slag it right off’ Mark will later tell me “Though that’s not the point”). It’s popularity is rooted in many areas – Mark’s hilariously absurdist rants; the attention paid to the script; the sheer variety of the choices of places to focus on – but perhaps key is something much deeper in the British psyche.


We are bound in many ways to the land we live in, we are subject to the idiosyncrasies of place. I like mushy peas, and definitely think they’re best served molten hot, drenched in vinegar and mint sauce, and served in a polystyrene cup. Would I be so keen on this treat if I’d been born in, say, Tunbridge Wells? Similarly, would I balk at saying the word ‘rabbit’ if I lived in Portland; or take pride in having the longest street market in the world if I grew up in Walthamstow? Mark understands this, and holds up a mirror on a place. Never mockingly, never with a sense of superiority; but with a fascinated amusement. However global we feel , however divorced from geography in this digital age, however spoiled for choice we are with motorways and rail networks and cheap flights…we are always at least a little bit made of where we are from. This isn’t to be confused with the pernicious nationalism, exceptionalism and homogeneity that is peddled by Farage. Rees-Mogg and all their fellow right-wing (non) travellers. 

Instead, it’s an innate understanding: what makes us great as a nation is a combination of that which connects us, what commonality holds; and the bafflingly wonderful diversity within. Mark effortlessly gets this, and spins these strands into golden radio content. Which he now wants my help with. Yep, there was gulping. 


Steel’s producer arranges us to meet in the city for a scout around the area. As I walk to our rendezvous by the entrances to the Caves I rehearse what to say. I’ve made a huge list of notes about the weirdness of Notts, but feel it only scratches the surface. Best to make sure he is first disabused of the misconceptions. Top of the list: Shottingham. What was a massively over-hyped, concentrated clash of gangs still unfairly overshadows much of the city. That must be a deal-breaker: we don’t tolerate  guns (or Gunns) in this city. I’m about to cross the by the side of the Crown Court when two white vans screeched to a halt immediately in front of me, doors springing open and a bunch of helmeted, heavily armed police bundled out telling pedestrians to get back, which we duly did. I’m aware – which is latterly confirmed -that this is probably seen by my guests. Thanks, random chance.

I don’t recognise Mark at first: he’s one of those strange people who look taller than on the radio. He’s also wearing a purple hat over his boyish mop-top. I introduce myself, and we head off to find coffee, and for me to begin my ‘look, those armed police, right?” speech. Carl, the Manucian producer, is here, alongside writer Pete Sinclair, who has been involved in so much comedy I guarantee he’s previously made you laugh before. I run through facts, anecdotes and oddness and they take notes and ask questions. A little voice keeps nagging at me ‘You’ve just made a bunch of professional funny people laugh and it didn’t look like merely out of politeness” but I somehow keep it suppressed and resist falling to the floor and We Are Not Worthy-ing the table.

Thus begins a tour of Nottingham, through the Caves (my first visit, and impressive); Five Leaves, The Council House / Left Lion and many other places. It goes by in a whirl, and we’re in the Trip to Jerusalem, below the Haunted Galleon, that I notice the time: real life kicks in, hands are shook, hugs dispensed, and I’m back on a bus to Beeston and reality. 


Time passes. Forest are promoted in a thrilling end of season dash culminating in a Wembley final. Nottingham is back in the Big League. Summer warms up, and that weird day in Nottingham slips back into fond memory. I’m dimly aware they’ll be recording the show soon, but Summer has a habit of breezily accelerating like how Winter seems to stick in thick frozen mud. I get a phone call from a number I don’t recognise. ‘It’s Mark Steel” he says, as if that very familiar voice needed introduction “I’ll be up in Nottingham before we record. Are you around?”

I meet him off the train on a warm day, and we head to a cool pub to chat and practice the accent. The ever excellent Dr Natalie Braber joins us. She’s perhaps the world’s foremost academic on How Ter Speak Notts. She gives Mark a crash-course in the hybrid linguistic oddity of the accent, which is fascinating to watch: an East Midlands Pygmalian. Soon he’s AyupMiDucking like a native. 

We watch cricket together on the big screen, supping lemonade. It’s happening live just down the road at Trent Bridge, but its also sold out so this will have to do. We talk cricket, and again, a little voice rises within “You’re talking cricket with one of the nation’s most famous cricket fans!’ but I swallow it back. 


The following day, and it’s showtime. Another hot day, and I meet Mark and Carl for a pre-show coffee and a run over details.  Mark doesn’t just visit places for the show, picking out the odd bit of odd here and there, but genuinely tries to absorb the sense of the place. We are on Friar Lane, and as people pass, chatting away I notice him watching them, listening to the rhythms of their accent, the gait; some deeply complex essence of Nottingham. 

They head off to prep for the show, I drop back home and shower. Mark’s mentioned he will be calling on me to speak during the show, and I swing my keys around my fingers restlessly on the bus in, jangling them in tune to my nerves. Metronome, the venue for the recording, is already heaving, but I’m ushered in swiftly, where I chance upon my friend Rish and his wife. Rish was my first assistant editor on The Beestonian, and still runs the best Forest podcast out there, 1865My plus-one is the mysterious legend that is Ron Manager Remembers Nottingham, possibly the best celebration-of-Nottingham-via-erstwhile-Fast-Show-Character that Twitter has ever seen. The true identity of the person behind the account is a closely-guarded secret, so I will say little else on their true identity on pain of death / decent sized bribe.

I get a call off Carl – can I come backstage immediately? I make my way there, to find a pre-show Mark clutching the script intently. “Can’t nail the accent” he explains, so we spend a surreal few minutes before showtime with me coaching his accent down from Leeds, via Sheffield, past Chesterfield and into a NG postcode. To learn Nottingham one must first forget Yorkshire.  He practices, it slips back into place, and the auditorium fills. I take my seat, alongside Robin Hood, the Mayor and Sheriff of Nottingham and we’re off.

LEFT TO RIGHT: me, Lord Mayor, Ghost of Maid Marion, Sheriff of Nottingham

I won’t put any spoilers here, though having had a preview of the edit I can tell you it is utterly hilarious, with Mark exposing the ridiculousness of our city in ways only an outsider can: an eye for detail of our strangeness and individuality. It’s delightful to hear well-worn anecdotes I’ve told for years down the pub get the Mark Steel treatment, and turned into something sharper and many times funnier than your own telling: Pimp My Ride for wannabe raconteurs. I’m thrown to several times to tell a story, or to add context. I have the whole audience behind me as I do, sparing me trying to read their faces as a stand-up must do, and the tiny fraction of a second before a joke hits and the laugh begins is absolute proof of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

It’s over with a flourish, and the audience flow out delighted, and possibly prouder of their city than ever before. We are a humble bunch in Nottingham, and often don’t have a strongly defined sense of who we are , what we are. We’ve just had an expert explain it to us, and we are made up.


I head for dinner in Kayal with the production team, a fine end to what has been an incredible experience. Having interviewed many famous people over the years, I’ve never truly brought into that thing about never meeting your heroes. Still, there is always the fear that someone you’ve admired for a while being in a bad mood when you meet them, or just being an outright arse cheek. It’s sometimes strange to meet someone who clearly has a public persona that they can switch on and off.

Wonderfully, Mark is as funny, as kind, as curious and as outright wonderfully human as I imagined, and then some. He genuinely loves his work, and thus does it with panache.

Before I leave, I pull a book from my bag. It’s a bit battered, dogeared, spine crinkled and the price sticker peeling off. “Could you sign this for me please?” I ask, and as he does, I think back to the trepidation I felt leaving the South East to return here. “Would I find home?” I’d asked myself then. 21 years on, and as the ink dries, I’m prouder than ever to say I have.

Mark Steel’s In Town: Nottingham is broadcast on Monday 22nd August, 6.30pm, on BBC Radio 4: you can find it here. There’s also a podcast, find it through BBC Sounds.