Mark Thomas: “there’s a lot to protest about”

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Mark Thomas is exhausted – he uses a more colloquial term – yet exhilarated. The comedian, writer, presenter, journalist and activist has just completed another one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, “the world’s largest performance arts festival”, that he’s been attending for the past 41 years.

An hour later he’s telling me why for the first time he’s performing a play he didn’t write: England & Son by Ed Edwards. He must enjoy it because he was scheduled to present the play 23 times north of the border and then has 54 shows lined up including a couple in Nottingham up to the beginning of December.

Mark first met Edwards in 2018 after seeing the Manchester playwright’s show The Political History of Smack and Crack. “I said to my partner ‘that was brilliant’ and a voice behind me went ‘I wrote that’.

“We got on like a house on fire. I loved his show and we said we’d work together. We were both up in Newcastle doing some work and kept meeting up.

“The play started in a very organic way where we were just talking about upbringing and attitudes. All the stuff in the show is true. There’s part of my life in it and there’s part of his life in it.

“I feel happiest performing. It gives me enormous pleasure to perform.”

“Ed doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s an addict and he did three-and-a-half years in jail for drug dealing. He’s clean now. That experience and the experience of trauma and trying to break through trauma is a fascinating thing to look at.”

England & Son picked up several five-star reviews and Mark admits he comes alive on stage.

“I love it. I feel happiest performing. It gives me enormous pleasure to perform. It’s where I feel freest, it’s where I feel I can be most inventive in stand-up and in my own shows, and most expressive in other people’s. It’s great. I adore it.”

Mark Thomas was born on 11th April 1963 in south London. His mother was a midwife and his father a self-employed builder.

He developed an interest in politics during his teenage years – his views are definitely left-wing – before being awarded a degree in theatre arts at Bretton Hall College, Yorkshire.

Mark Thomas [image: Kim Ford]. Top: image by Tony Pletts

After guesting on radio and television shows, his big break came when he was given his own political comedy show, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, by Channel 4. It ran for 45 episodes from 1996 to 2002.

In one episode Mark investigated the practice of avoiding inheritance tax by declaring art, furniture, homes and land available for public viewing. It led to then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown changing the law. Mark has been credited with bringing in millions of pounds for HM Revenue and Customs.

He’s taken the police to court three times and won twice; he’s given evidence to Parliamentary select committees on two occasions; he cost a councillor and a government minister their jobs; and he tried to get the government in court over the Iraq war.

He actually stood for Parliament in a 1996 by-election – but it was part of a television series and Mark was an independent in the safe Labour seat of Hemsworth. He came eighth out of 10 candidates.

Would he stand again? “No, I’m not interested. I’d steal all the money and spend it on sweets!” he jokes.

But he’ll continue to protest. He once held the Guinness world record for holding 20 protests in 24 hours. He says these days there’s plenty to protest about.

“We’ve got 70% of recipients of foodbanks who are in full-time employment. That’s insane. And we’ve got a massive cost-of-living crisis.”

Image: Steve Ullathorne

Mark who has two grown-up children continues: “We’ve got culture wars where people who are LGBTQ are being attacked.

“We can’t have this level of violence towards minorities, towards people who are asylum seekers. You get people trying to burn hotels, trying to stop lifeboats being launched. All of this has got to stop. So there’s a lot to protest about.”

What should people do to make their voice heard? “Whatever they’re comfortable with and whatever they’re able to, whether it’s through trade unions, campaigning groups, direct action – I don’t have a silver bullet, I don’t have a panacea for that. I just say ‘look, do whatever you can and every bit counts’,” says Mark.

He endorsed Jeremy Corbyn before the 2019 general election but is not a fan of Sir Keir Starmer who Mark thinks is a “complete waste of space”.

He thinks the problem with politics in this country is the first-past-the-post voting system: “You’re appealing to a very small number of people in each constituency to swing the vote. That means you’re skewing your electoral process towards that. If we had proportional representation the policies would be different. Obviously the system is broken.”

We go back to talking about the Edinburgh Fringe, a topic which has caused controversy because of the huge increase in the cost of accommodation. Many artists lose money going to Edinburgh, taking months or even years to clear their debts.

Mark stays out of town to save money because “the Airbnb business is nuts!”

He suggests improvements: “There should be pressure on Edinburgh university as a landlord of a huge number of venues to bring down the rent so that people don’t have to pay as much to go and perform. And that means ticket prices can come down which means it becomes more accessible.

“You can get the Fringe Society to put pressure on venues to pay all their staff the living wage. Edinburgh is still brilliant but there are things you can do to improve it.”

Despite that some artists feel they have to go to Edinburgh: “It’s essential for me because I really like it. I completely love the place. It’s still one of the most exciting places to be.

“My finest achievement is continually breathing.”

“You can see anything you want. I saw a Korean company do Euripides’ The Trojan Women in the style of pansori (in which a singer is accompanied by percussion). It was fantastic. Later I’m seeing a play in a little tent about relationships. I love it.”

After Edinburgh Mark will take a break before starting his tour which includes a return to Nottingham. He’s played the city several times and will be back at Lakeside Arts which he loves: “It’s just brilliant.”

He doesn’t have an ambition he’s desperate to fulfil – he just wants to create new work and for people to think it’s good. So what is he most proud of?

“My finest achievement is continually breathing. I think I’m very happy with that and I intend to continue breathing for as long as I can. That’s my best achievement.

The poster for Mark’s show England & Son [design by Greg]

“In terms of work, I’ve been some kind of weird old bohemian for the past 37 years and I’ve managed to keep my head above water. I’m delighted.

“I like the idea that you can still be inventive and come out with new things and challenge yourself. I’m 60. I started as a stand-up and what I do now is so far away from that. It’s great.

“I love the fact that you can invent a play or come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. What’s great is to be creative. That’s what’s really important.”

  • Mark Thomas will perform England & Son in the Djanogly Theatre at Lakeside Arts on Thursday and Friday, 28th and 29th September. Tickets are available at the Lakeside website.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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