by Mark Steel

Vive La Revolution is, very possibly, a first - a comedian tackling a serious subject seriously, adding jokes only to lighten the read.

Stand-ups with an agenda tend to stick to the safer route of fiction, where there's no one to dismiss their research as a joke. But here, Mark Steel has set out to tell - straightforwardly, but wittily - the subject of the French Revolution. He's the Bill Bryson of 18th Century revolutionary politics, if you like.

It might not be the most obvious topics for comedy. Pretty much all most people know about those turbulent years is the guillotining of the aristocracy, the bloodthirsty mob storming the Bastille and, possibly, heads being poked on pikes during the grisly days of The Terror.

But Steel sets out to show it was more than that. He aims to put this great uprising into context, and challenge the common perception -perpetuated by everything from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Blue Peter - that this was a grisly, hate-fuelled episode with no redeeming features.

Steel makes no secret of his agenda. He's a left-winger with enough experience of fruitless demos to consider the overthrowing of the ancien regime by the sheer force of 'people power' to be one of mankind's greatest achievements.

He has a point. Pre-revolution, kings ruled by divine right, and could pass indisputable laws if they did so from a special bed, while tradesmen would work 16 hours a day, and even then more than half their earnings would go on bread alone. Yet a couple of years later, France was a complete meritocracy - no one's destiny was sealed by their birthright, and the people celebrated taking responsibility for their own country's fate. Of course, Napoleon came and screwed that up, but that's another story, only touched on here.

The hopeless situation of the masses doesn't excuse the guillotine and the countless other atrocities of The Terror, but it does go some way to explain them. That's Steel's argument - although he does at times come a little too close to being an apologist for the massacres for comfort.

But at least his motives are transparent. He rightly berates 'proper' historians - Simon Schama coming in for particular abuse - for their knee-jerk portrayal of, for example, revolutionary leaders as a bunch of hideous, foul-smelling pantomime baddies, despite the evidence of contemporary portraits. Steel has done his homework, and the book appears as factually rigorous of any of the weightier tomes on the subject.

For someone with scant knowledge of the period - and I include myself in that - Vive La Revolution is an education - and not a preachy or dry one, either. Steel has a concise and direct approach, which effortlessly communicates the motives and feelings of the key players. When he describes Monsieur and Madane Roland, leading lights of the Girondin radicals, as 'a sort of revolutionary Neil and Christine Hamilton', you know more about their personalities and relationship than a chapter of a dusty textbook could tell you.

The book is riven with such contemporary references - there cannot be many volumes about 18th century France that find room for Kurt Cobain, the Prague anti-globalisation riots, Goodfellas and the Daily Mirror's 3am girls - but this is it.

It's also not hard to draw parallels with today's world, where billions live in poverty while a few thousand have unimaginable wealth. Steel doesn't labour the point, but you're left with the impression that he considers what happened on a national scale in 1789 could easily happen on a global one today.

Comedy-wise, Vive La Revolution not laugh-out-loud funny, despite plenty of decent jokes and the presence of enough bizarre incidents and oddball characters to keep things interesting. But it is always enlightening, witty and passionate - and a damn good read.

Steve Bennett
July 1, 2003

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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