The Tab Meets: Mark Thomas

TIM SQUIRRELL chats to Mark Thomas about his new show 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, political comedy and the Daily Mail.

Mark Thomas is known for his unique brand of political comedy, which (according to his promotional material) has caused a politician to resign, an arms deal to collapse, triggered the reformation of inheritance tax law, forced some multinationals to clean up their act and, in the process, made him the Guinness World Record holder for political protests.

His most recent stunt involves organising the Stuck in the Mud championships in Hyde Park to protest the fact that people are now being charged to play sports there – all part of the so-called “Olympic Legacy'”.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with him – and he had a lot of interesting stuff to say.

This thing you’re doing in Hyde Park at the moment seems less overtly comedic than some of your other stuff. With your mix of politics and comedy, does one tend to come over the other?

I don’t think it’s less comedic than stuff I’ve done in the past. The whole point with the 100 Acts is it’s supposed to be a mix of the silly, the fun, and the serious – same with everything I do, actually. The stuff at Hyde Park is great fun … at the same time, we’ve also got a legal challenge going on, so I think you can do both things. The whole point is that when you decide what you’re going to do, you start by withdrawing your consent as a way of challenging it.

Finalists, What’s the Time Mr Wolf Championships 2013

Do you think that it’s necessary for the politics and comedy to mix – can one exist without the other?

They can, in a very literal sense of politics. Anything you do has meaning. I had an argument with a critic, actually. He said that Nick Reeves’ work is just surrealism, it doesn’t have meaning. Of course it has meaning. It’s hugely postmodern and plunders all sorts of things, from absurdism through Dadaism, if you want to get all art history about it.

There are decisions performers make all the time about politics, and their career, and their style of comedy. For me, it’s just what goes together – I’ve done this for a long time, that’s how it’s ended up. It’s not a question of separating one from the other; the two are intrinsically linked.

I was reading an interview with you in which you described your career as ‘built out of the smell of burned bridges’. Do you ever regret any of those bridges that you’ve burnt?

On occasion. It’s the personal relationships, rather than the actual decision. I haven’t done stuff on Channel 4 for aeons, and that’s a very clear decision on my part. I regret the brusqueness of some of my dealings with people. Not the corporations, not the big decisions, but the people whom I had emotional and personal relationships with.

On your new show – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – is there one act in particular which you’re proudest of?

We’ve only committed 28 so far, so I don’t know which I’m going to be proudest of. A lot of it is just about fun and creating havoc. The one I think I enjoyed most was when we organised an LGBT rights gig with comics that was performed in the street outside the Russian consulate in Edinburgh. There were about 500 people and we just blocked the street outside the consulate. There was a sense of fun, and rebelliousness, and joy and mischief, but also anger.

Mark Thomas at the gig outside the Russian consulate

As comics came up to speak, there was one in particular, Susan Calman, who made a speech about the effects of saying that homosexuals… don’t have equal rights. She described the very personal effects on her life, of having to live under Section 28, and what it was like growing up full of self-loathing and doubt. It was so powerful, and it was so beautiful, and the street was just suddenly filled up with compassion and love. It was a genuinely remarkable thing.

What makes you most angry?

When people assume that because you think one thing, you’ll automatically think another – there’ll be a set menu of ideologies which you’ll adhere to. For example, if you’re against military intervention in Syria, which I am, they’ll immediately assume that you’ll then go ‘Aha! Was it actually the Assad regime that did the chemical weapon attack?’ and go looking for any kind of sliver of information which might suggest it wasn’t. And this search to say ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is the most reductive, ridiculous piece of shit thinking that anyone can have.

But can you walk away from Syria? I don’t think you can. You have to think about winning these fights in the unsexy and unglamourised and un-media attentioned moments where we bring in all the stuff about international law and treaties, where we make sure that we don’t support these regimes, that we don’t arm these people. You have to be committed to that, day in, day out – and it’s so important.

So you’re saying that it’s all this boring stuff that builds up and eventually reaches a threshold?

Yes, and we should all be stuck in and involved in that. When we did the gig outside the Russian consulate, in honesty, we should also have looked at the Ugandan consulate and nipped around the corner and done them as well… and then we should have gone to the Saudi Arabian one. It’s important to fight those fights – not just the ones that get the media attention.

Do you ever think that the things that you do are the things that create media attention?

Sometimes. We got a massive turnout for the gig outside the embassy, and I think there’ll be attention when the court action kicks off over the Hyde Park stuff. I think alternative media is also really interesting. You get genuine voices, grassroots voices… but also a level of ideological bullshittery, and quite an unchecked report. You could argue the same thing happens in the Daily Mail. There’s a degree of editorial spin that means you can absolutely warp fact, and indeed they do, not that I’m defending them. There’s no fact checking in alternative media, so you get a lot of opinion coming through. Interestingly, there’s a lot of self-policing that goes along with it.

Do you think that’s effective?

Probably not enough to make the reports accurate, but if you post something on Twitter you immediately get half a dozen people going ‘what’s happening, where are your facts?’ and it’s slightly annoying, but it means that people aren’t able to bullshit.

Mark Thomas will be performing 100 Acts of Minor Dissent at the Junction in Cambridge on the 24th September. You can book tickets here.