If you look up Handsworth on Wikipedia, almost the first thing it says is that it is “known for its high crime rates and civil unrest”.
But comedian Mark Steel is hoping to do his bit to improve the image of the inner city area of Birmingham.
He is coming to The Drum in Aston on Wednesday to record an edition of his Radio 4 series Mark Steel’s In Town, in which he thoroughly researches his location and makes his observations in front of a local audience.
He’s already done three series of the award-winning show, recorded in places as diverse as Walsall – where he wasn’t that impressed with the Walsall Hippo stone sculpture – Gateshead, Penzance and Basingstoke.
Mark spends time in the town he is going to perform in before writing his show, researching its history, notable local people, landmarks and customs.
I catch up with him on his first visit to Handsworth.
He’s just arrived but says: “The first thing that strikes me is that it seems to be more Sikh than Jamaican these days. I couldn’t miss the huge Sikh centre.
“I’ve read a few things about Handsworth, but it hasn’t got the best of images. It seems that if you mention Handsworth to most people, they think of the riots in the 1980s.
“At least it’s lively! We will have to address that. It is a bit unfair, as it was a long time ago. Even if you have a riot every 10 years, that’s a lot of days in between without any rioting.”
Mark, 52, grew up in Kent but his mother came from Erdington, so he visited his grandparents in Birmingham as a boy.
“I was aware from an early age that Birmingham was somewhere where it’s quite possible to go round and round on the ring road for several months without ever getting anywhere, even though it looks as if you are 100 yards from where you are going,” he remembers.
That’s the kind of fact he would bring up on a Mark Steel’s In Town show.
“The more specific you are, the better. You have to get it right, though, or the audience will swiftly let you know.
“I’ve just been recording in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, where I soon discovered there was a common phrase – ‘You will need to go to Oban for that’. Oban is a five-hour round trip on the ferry, but it’s where you need to go to get anything big.
“Handsworth is entirely different. I think that in big cities, people identify more with the area they live than the city as a whole, though that’s most evident in London.
“Nobody thinks ‘I’m from London and I’m proud of London’. I’m from South London, and the whole of North London could be washed away as far as I’m concerned.”
It is our ability to laugh at ourselves which makes Mark Steel’s In Town work so well.
“I get ruder and ruder about these places yet people seem to be all right about it,” he says.
“I expect that one day I will be run out of town and have to go into witness protection, but it hasn’t happened yet. Even in Merthyr Tydfil, which I really didn’t like.
“It was by far the most unpleasant place I’ve been, with hundreds of paralytic drunks stumbling around in the middle of the day, and I think that came across in the programme.
“But I always try to find the positive bits of somewhere while not ignoring the other bits.
“Everywhere is so different, which is why I hope we can make several more series. There are lots of places still to visit and I’m already looking at a map with my producer.
“We haven’t been to Northern Ireland yet, for instance.”