No laughing matter

Vive la Revolution: a stand-up history of the French revolution

Mark Steel <em>Scribner, 299pp, £1

Mark Steel is one of a wave of comedians who, to be blunt, aren't very funny. Pretty much interchangeable, their acts and columns seem to consist of variations on the theme of "that Blair bloke, he's more Tory than the Tories". This is usually met with sympathetic, knowing laughter from an audience that goes to hear the "comedian" only because they know and share the politics. There are exceptions - Jeremy Hardy, for instance, is as explicitly political as any, but he is also genuinely funny, as is Rory Bremner, whose show masks a clear political agenda behind its light-entertainment production values.

But it is lamentable - and puzzling - that new Labour, a concept which is almost satirical in its own right, should have failed to produce anything much better than the dismal rantings of most of the left-wing comedians. Mark Steel is one of the worst of the genre. I've yet to read a piece by him that was intentionally amusing. The only one that ever made me laugh was an account of his sacking by the Guardian (he now writes a column in the Independent): what was intended to be a devastating and hilarious attack on the newspaper revealed, in its astonishingly leaden prose and conceit, precisely why the then comment editor decided that he could do without Steel's contributions.

So the concept of "a stand-up history of the French revolution" by a writer such as Steel was, even leaving aside the bizarre concept of a "stand-up history" (whatever that might be), hardly one to relish. I am still no nearer knowing what a "stand-up history" is, beyond a history with some jokes thrown in. But what I can report is that Vive la Revolution is a perfectly readable account of the revolution with - quelle surprise - some pretty limp jokes.

Steel appears to have read widely and then assembled a cut-and-paste account from those writers whose politics match up to his own. Why anyone would want to read the verdict of a bad comedian with an agenda, as opposed to the account of a fine historian with an enviable prose style - such as Simon Schama's Citizens - is a mystery. Steel seems well aware of this problem, and thus begins by trying to dismiss him: "Simon Schama in Citizens tells us that Marat 'made an art form of confrontational ugliness' as 'his eyes were not quite aligned'. After all, modern society would be so much fairer if we reverted to those quaint but effective 11th-century methods of judging people as unacceptable if they lack a symmetrical face."

Sorry, but a few weak jokes do not a dismissal make. And on and on it goes, snide references to historians who have actually had something worthwhile to say beyond "I'm a lefty, ha ha ha". It's not a wholly worthless book. Some of the jokes are mildly amusing - the best being his account of the invention of the guillotine: "introduced as a liberal measure and considered to be more humane than the old methods of execution, of which the most common involved strapping the victim to a water wheel until his back broke. So it's almost certain that when the guillotine was introduced, a French Ann Widdecombe will have complained, 'Doesn't this show that the Jacobins are soft on crime? For if the burglar knows that if he is caught he will merely be beheaded instantly without hours of agony on a water wheel, there is no deterrent whatsoever. Proving once again that Mr Robespierre is the burglar's friend.'"

But since I've just given you more or less the funniest part, I'm not sure why anyone would want to bother with Vive la Revolution. If you've got an A-level to sit, have never read anything about the French revolution and have only two hours to go before the exam, then the book might have something to offer, as it's a perfectly reasonable canter through the events. But if you're looking for jokes and you don't crease up at the description of Camille Desmoulins, who stuttered when he wasn't addressing a crowd, as "the Gareth Gates of the French revolution", then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.

Stephen Pollard is writing a biography of David Blunkett