Since starting out in the 1980s, Mark Thomas has been called many things, but first and foremost; he is a comedian. His politically minded material has often courted controversy and sparked public debate, and he’s even influenced government policy along the way. Mark describes himself as a ‘Libertarian Anarchist’, and this is reflected in the comedy shows that he creates, each taking on something new and exciting, as well as treading on a few toes in the name of change. His passion for activism and reinvention is what keeps his comedy right on the cutting edge. Now touring with a new show, ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’, we caught up with Mark to find out a bit more about the show and about some of the other work he has created, before he comes to Cardiff on March 19th.
Hi Mark, good to talk to you. I suppose we should start with the fact that you are often talked about as being very skilled ‘in the art of creative mayhem’, would you mind telling us a little bit about what ‘the art of creative mayhem’ is?
It is exactly what it says. It’s getting in there and causing trouble for interesting reasons.
How does ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’ compare to your other work?
I suppose in many ways it harks back to stuff that I used to do. I like to think that all the stuff that I do is different from the last. Last show that I did was a theatre piece about my Dad and Opera and about love. Before that, my show was about walking the length of the West Bank. Which I did, every foot of it. And then I came back and told the story of me doing it. So the shows are fairly different. This show is about committing one hundred acts of minor dissent in one year. They can be as small as putting a sticker on a book, or as big as taking the police to court. Both of which I am doing within the show!
You’ve been in stand up since the 80s, what keeps you coming back to it and creating work?
Apart from tax bills?
Aside from tax bills.
I got into stand up because I love the idea that people could just get up and do stuff by themselves and make people laugh. I love the fact as well that you can create something that is interesting and different and will make people think in a different way and make yourself think in a different way. I love the fact that you can challenge an audience and you can challenge yourself. I love the fact that actually, if you are working as part of a campaign, you can change things. Stand up is the most fantastic thing, one of the most amazing art forms in the world. For me, the whole point is to be as creative and as imaginative and to come up with as many ways of doing it as you can. I do it because its fun, because I love it and because I don’t have an option. And that’s what drives us forward.
Have you ever turned down work?
I was once offered an advert; I was offered the chance to be the voice of thrush cream. And I thought, this is as low as it gets. When I turned it down I explained to someone, very simply, that one of the things we were doing on our show at the time was flying a hot air balloon over a U.S. listening base. It was a huge secret, and the U.K. had no legal jurisdiction over that area; it’s a U.S. base, on British soil and it’s part of a listening system called ECHELON. And we flew a hot air balloon over it, because we worked out that it was so secret that they hadn’t put any flight restrictions over it. So we flew this hot air balloon over it, nearly crashed the balloon, had all the police come out and then we showed all of the footage on the telly of this base that you weren’t supposed to look inside of. This was my point; if you go on telly and you are the voice of thrush cream then you don’t get to fly over U.S. listening bases in hot air balloons. For me, it’s an easy trade off, you do what you want to do, you keep some integrity to it, you make sure that you do your stuff, and don’t just do it because you want to make a quick buck. That’s it.
Having said that about stand up, if you could have any other job what would it be?
President of America. If we’re talking fantasy jobs, that’s the one.
You’re just heading out on tour with ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’, what do you find is the best thing about being on the road?
The nice thing about touring is that you get to go to places that you’ve been before, places where you know people, and you get to catch up with folk. That’s really, really lovely. And actually, you look forward to certain gigs. There are certain places that you go that you know will be good. I suppose Manchester is like that, Sheffield is like that, Leeds is like that, Cardiff is like that. You want to come to those places because you think, this is home territory, this is going to be a really good one.
Could you tell us a little bit about your first ever gig?
The first ever comedy gig I did was when we used to do these shows up in Yorkshire, in the Labour Club. My mates and I used to write these shows. We’d write them in an afternoon and then perform them the next day. We performed them in Labour Clubs and on picket lines, regional TUC days, all that kind of stuff. We used to perform a lot in ‘The Red Shed’, which is the Labour Club in Wakefield. ‘The Red Shed’ is literally a shed, it’s a single storey shed. At the end of WWII the Labour Party bought it, painted it red and called it ‘The Red Shed’. There was a Tory Club nearby made of brick, but we used to scorn it because of its posh brick. ‘The Red Shed’ is still there, and I’ll be going back there soon to do a gig with some old friends to commemorate the Miner’s strike. Those gigs, looking back on it, were really very significant. You don’t realise it at the time, but they were really important.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
[Laughs] The interviews, and the rest of it, all the stuff around the comedy!
Mark Thomas will be bringing his show ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’ to the Sherman Theatre on March 19th. For more information please click here. Mark Thomas was talking to Ben Atterbury.