Interview: Mark Thomas

Someone once said to me,“You’ve got a great career”, and I told him, “If you use that word in front of me again I’ll fucking nut you.” Libertarian anarchist, comedian and Dispatches host MARK THOMAS lets loose to BEN REDWOOD.

activism Ben Redwood cerebral palsy interview Mark Thomas politics protest

You may have seen Mark Thomas campaigning against the evils of Coke on Dispatches, lobbying the government on their tax laws, or perhaps standing outside with a placard as part of his attempt to stage 20 different protests in one day.

He told The Tab about the time his friend was arrested for holding a cake, how he nearly died in El Salvador and what we should all be doing to change the world.

You’ve been doing comedy for nearly three decades now: looking back, how do you view your career?

It’s a funny old thing. When I first started out about 27 years ago alternative comedy was quite underground. But “career” was the C word. Someone once said to me, “You’ve got a great career” – and I told him “If you use that word in front of me again I’ll fucking nut you.” What we were doing was ephemeral – it was naughty, subversive – all because it wasn’t a career. I remember my first cabaret night, and all the variety there was: old school street entertainers and cabaret, clashing with drama, performance art and stand up – it was exciting.

You’ve also heavily involved yourself with political activism over the years. Did this stem from your comedy or has it been kept separate?

Well, I’ve never drawn a line between my interests and my material. I don’t have an ideology or a game plan, I just pick an idea and burrow away on it. The things I choose to do are always things that “you don’t do”, that “you shouldn’t speak about”, that are awkward. But I think that act of self-censorship is very childish and you can get a lot of material from pushing those boundaries.

A friend of mine was threatened with arrest for having a cake that said “peace” on it in parliament square, because “she hadn’t gained permission for a protest”. So I thought, right, fuck you. I filed thousands of permission slips for protests, and eventually they came to describe me as “a bureaucratic burden on the police”, and in the end, they changed the law.

What’s been your scariest moment undercover during your activism?

Probably in El Salvador, when we were investigating Child Labour in sugar plantations. We followed the transport trucks in through these gates, and were waved through by guards, who assumed we worked there. After a few miles we came to a clearing and started filming. But our presence was obvious, because we stuck out. These kids went running into the cane fields, and soon we were just standing there surrounded by these men holding machetes. We then realised that we were miles from anyone, that anything could happen… we jumped in our van and left promptly.

What can an ordinary person do to get involved?

All sorts of things – sometimes small, some big. Amateur activism isn’t always the answer, as it’s often quite disorganised. But my mate Karim took the Turkish to the European court and won compensation for the relatives of those captured and tortured in the extra-judicial killings of the Kurds. He was able to do that after being freed from a Turkish prison thanks to letters from Amnesty international. So sometimes the best thing you can do is to do your homework and write a letter.

How’s the new tour going?

I love it. It’s a personal show about my Dad: how I got on with him, his passion for Opera, and our coping with him contracting Cerebral Palsy. People have been really moved by it, and I think that engagement – whether comedic, intellectual, emotional – is crucial. The critics don’t quite know how to describe it – fuck ’em, that’s their job! – but they’ve all reacted positively. It’s really different from my previous stuff, but then I only want people coming to my shows who are after variety. If you’ve ever watched Dave sober, then I don’t want you coming to my show.

What’s your best practical joke?

I’m a man of simple pleasures – I think the best thing I did was shove a banger under the toilet door when my mate Nigel was on the bog.

Worst place you’ve ever been to?

Probably Cannes for the TV Festival, with my wife who works in the media. Actually, not Cannes – just anywhere with a TV festival. Edinburgh – shit too. Anywhere where a group of people who work in television meet and pat themselves on the back – is shit.

Best hair – Romney or Obama?

Obama – you see, he’s into hair management rather than hairstyles – and I like the utilitarian approach over the “mock lustre” of the Mick hair. He once said this awful thing – “Once upon a time, this could have been a quiff” – no mate. It never was.

Mark Thomas is performing at The Junction on 25th and 26th November.