Mark Thomas: Interview
Time Out asks comedian, investigative journalist, global human rights defender and self-confessed pain in the arse Mark Thomas about his new stand-up show
Mark Thomas used to be a stand-up. His first ever gigs were back in 1985. Five years later he won a TO Comedy Award. Two years after that he was shortlisted for the Perrier. By 1993, he was making his second guest appearance at the Montreal Comedy Festival and performing on Jonathan Ross’s ‘Saturday Zoo’.
He’s still a stand-up, of course. But now he’s a lot more, too: investigative journalist, human rights campaigner, activist, shit-stirrer. ‘Pain in the arse,’ Thomas contributes as a self-portrait. Sure enough, the American Embassy got all steamed up when he put a £4,320 bounty on the head of President Bush. But there’s been widespread recognition of his crusading skills. He’s received a Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour and a UN Global Human Rights Defender Award. Just a few weeks ago he won praise from a Commons parliamentary committee on export controls for his exposure of how easy it is to buy banned weapons in this country.
‘That was a weird gig,’ Thomas says of the time he gave evidence to the committee. ‘We tend to think of politicians as time-servers and slackers. But on those committees they usually have an interest in the subject. And they’re quite clever. I’ve seen them pick people apart. It was quite unlike any stand-up gig. If they’re having a go, you can’t just put them down with “Yeah, I remember my first pint!” ’
Gathering evidence on the illegal sale of equipment that kills and damages human beings became a lengthy task.
‘I stayed on that particular story for about a year,’ Thomas reveals. ‘I have the freedom to do that. The only deadline is the one I give myself.’ What does it take to hang in there? ‘Tenacity.’ He reflects for a few seconds more. ‘Obstinacy. Naturally there’s egotism involved. I take the view that these people are wrong and I’m going to make sure other people know they’re wrong. Or, beyond even that: the whole world is out of step apart from me.’
We could all learn a thing or two, though, from Thomas’s tenacity and, above all, from the way he sets about confronting his opponents. ‘Creative devilment,’ he calls it. During the campaign against the building of a dam in Turkey which would have displaced 78,000 Kurds, he built an enormous ice dam in the headquarters of the company associated with the project. He once tried to make an inspection of the UK’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane on a pedalo accompanied by a lawyer and brandishing a copy of the Geneva Convention.
There are countless other examples of calculated foolhardiness from the six series of ‘The Mark Thomas (Comedy) Product’ on Channel 4. ‘There were times when I couldn’t fall asleep,’ he confesses. ‘From wondering what the hell would happen from what we’d planned for the next day.’ He knocked the programme on the head in 2002 after 45 shrewdly subversive, often passionate, episodes where he tangled with cynicism and hypocrisy. ‘I suppose the final sign that I should give up the show came when I started to get a good night’s sleep.’
Thomas’s adventures in the arms trade became the subject of his first ever book, ‘As Used On the Famous Nelson Mandela’, published by Ebury Press in July. He’s adapted that to create a stand-up show with the same name. It’s worth seeing because, one suspects, stand-up is what Thomas still does best. Whatever the medium, however, whether he’s working on stage, in TV or in print, Thomas hopes for the reaction he got recently from a comedy promoter in Sheffield: ‘I didn’t know until now that I needed to know this stuff.’
‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’ is at the Soho Theatre until September 9.
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