Review: Mark Thomas
Venue: Hyena Lounge Comedy Club, City Screen
After more than 25 years in the public eye, Mark Thomas should need no introduction. But he has covered a lot of ground, and an overview of his career is probably useful in trying to get the measure of one of the more interesting people to have emerged from the world of comedy in recent times.
He came to attention in the late 1980s, first as a stand-up and then as part of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He went on to enjoy TV success with The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, which ran for six series between 1996 and 2002.
During this time the balance of his work gradually shifted away from comedy towards investigative and explicitly political journalism, to the extent that the word “comedy” was eventually dropped from the title. This was an unusual and – in traditional career terms – risky change of emphasis, and one that began to attract flak from certain politicians.
He was ahead of the game on many matters, drawing attention to issues long before they showed up on most mainstream agendas. It was his investigation into inheritance tax loopholes which eventually contributed to a change in the law. He also attempted to draw greater attention to defects in legislation relating to corporate manslaughter and accountability, and investigated the dodgy practices of multi-nationals.
He continues to campaign actively on a wide range of human rights and environmental issues, additionally supporting them with benefit gigs. He has exposed some of the darker secrets of the arms trade, eventually earning a commendation from a parliamentary committee for his work. By this point, you should have deduced that he is unlikely to take over the reins at ‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’ any time soon…
For me, his work continues to have resonance because the politics is always anchored to the personal. He sees the human cost behind the statistics and party political rhetoric.
His gig at the City Screen Basement last night was a warm-up for his Radio 4 programme, The People’s Manifesto, a show in which the audience gets to have its say and then votes for its favourite policy from the evening. Some of the best policies may ultimately be taken on by Thomas and campaigned for. It sounds like the ideal vehicle for combining his interests in comedy and politics.
In the event, the politics were ours rather than his, with the emphasis very much on the comedy. He remains extremely funny, and tireless too, steadily working his way through the audience’s hastily-scribbled ideas during a full-on two hour set.
I had assumed that a Mark Thomas audience would have produced policies which broadly reflected his own world view, but they veered from the hard-line (hanging, and compulsory euthanasia, anyone?) through more grounded suggestions (re-nationalisation of railways, amendments to abortion laws) and on to the incurably daft.
These latter suggestions won out, of course. One proposed that it should become legal to take out, dodgem-style, fellow motorists who are using their mobile phones. Another suggested projecting a smiley face onto the moon to cheer us all up on our way home from a bad day at work.
But the rightful winner was the guy who made the brilliant suggestion that all bendy buses should make an accordion sound when they go around a corner. As Britain’s economic crisis grinds on, this is surely the sort of thing we need.
This was an excellent show. Mark Thomas is sharp and well-sussed, a great comedian who is ready to engage with any subject that gets thrown at him. I also enjoyed a couple of stories about his own political work, such as his arrest for tying himself to the underside of a bus containing BAE executives trying to get to an arms fair.
And we learned about some of the winning policies that other towns have produced, such as Crawley’s decision to defuse the Falklands crisis by giving the Isle of Wight to Argentina because it has no minerals worth extracting and is stuck in the 1950s anyway. The more you look at it, the more you can see that the nation’s politicians are way out of touch with what the people really want. Well, probably, anyway.
It is worth checking out the series on Radio 4. My favourite policy from a recent broadcast was one proposed by a 14- year-old girl who wanted to introduce a GCSE in lying, on the basis that schools have a duty to prepare kids for adult life and that lying forms an integral part of the survival toolkit of the big players in our society.
It was persuasive stuff, topped off with the suggestion that an A* could be awarded to students who failed to hand in coursework but were able to come up with a sufficiently plausible excuse. Now, just imagine if that one came to pass…