This year, the most critically acclaimed comedy show at Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t some bright-eyed new comedian or a chainsaw-juggling clown; it was a middle-aged guy talking about his shed. OK. That’s misleading actually. The gentleman in question was the widely respected Mark Thomas and the small structure was Wakefield’s Red Shed. A labour club within Yorkshire’s collapsed mining community; it’s where he began his career. Now it provides both title and inspiration for his latest work. But rather than languishing in his heritage, Thomas pushes on with a story more poignant than ever. It’s more about what’s happening now,” he tells me. “I’d call it a contemporary tale about the miners’ strike.” Through interviews with old friends and colleagues he pieces together this club’s history, as it reaches out to one of the most deprived areas in the UK.
This is the story of a battle for hope and the survival of a community, set against a backdrop of strikes, fights, dinner ladies, crap beer, placards, friendship and love. “If you go to the places where The Red Shed is set, these are real places with real people who are in real fucking dire straits. If you look at these mining villages, they have the worst indices of joblessness, domestic violence drug abuse and alcohol abuse. They’re scarred and they’ve never recovered.” He’s adamant that all of us are living in the shadow of the 1984 miners’ strike.
This was a period when the miner’s union were opposing the closure of pits without adequate review. Through the deployment of police officers on a national scale the unions were defeated and the pit closure programme accelerated. Ultimately some of Britain’s poorest areas were left with massive unemployment and a loss of identity. But these communities were viewed as an obstruction to progress, and they were treated accordingly. So support from the titular Red Shed became more vital than ever. “It’s a story about narrative and the importance of truth in narratives. The dominant narrative that nags us now in Britain is that immigrants and migrants are a negative thing. It’s been fought not with fact, but hatred and propaganda. In that way the show is very contemporary.” He remains steadfast in his regard for the unions. They’ve been the driving force behind almost every piece of employment legislation. “The things that push wages up are the trade unions. But we’ve seen an increase in the gap between rich and poor. It’s quite clear that the continued attacks on the unions have been a factor in this.”
Through the best of intentions, Thomas has found himself and five other National Union of Journalists members on the Metropolitan Police ‘Domestic Extremist’ database. “None of us have criminal records, and none of us could be seen as extremists, but we’ve been monitored for our work.” It’s not the first time he’s found himself under scrutiny of this kind for his views. Development of The Red Shed has been financed in part by his successful legal action over the ‘construction blacklist’. Used by dozens of construction firms to vet applicants, the list included details of worker’s political views, competence, and trade union activities. After a successful court action, Thomas and over 200 other people on this list were awarded compensation of over £10m.
There is a note of disappointment in his voice when he talks about the way that political campaigns are conducted now. The level of behaviour during the EU referendum only reinforces his case. He describes both sides’ tactics during the referendum as ‘shameful’. “Remain fought this campaign which was like: ‘you underlings, you really are going to be in big trouble if you disobey us.’ It’s really annoying having a PM who bashes the EU at every turn, then says we’ve got to stay in. Whereas Leave were just full of lies. Especially Farage and his way of playing with race.” He attributes the rise in racially motivated attacks directly to the negative way this campaign was conducted. In fact, he views the whole Brexit episode as little more than a dangerous charade. Boris Johnson particularly comes under fire, for using the situation to make a desperate grab for the premiership. “These fuckers have played with an entire country. British policy is now being fought out in the common room and playing fields of Eton. You could look at the EU referendum, and the way the papers reported on it and it was just a battle for which Etonian was going to be in charge of the other.” Despite the continued erosion of our individual power, Thomas remains an ardent supporter of democracy. There’s a belief that it should be extended as far as possible, to look at how we’re governed, how we rule and how we can turn the tables and run our own lives. With this amount of passion and clear thinking, you’d have to question why he hasn’t run for public office himself. But he’s certain of the eventual outcome in that scenario. “I’d just steal all the money. I’d be the worst fucker going. I’d have a queue of rent boys with poppers going around the block,” he jokes.
In a society that copes with the effects of a banking crisis by blaming the immigrants and the poor, is it still possible for an individual to make their dissatisfaction heard? He says that activism is simply a matter of making a choice to be counted. “All of us have got a part to play. Everything has its place. The context of it, and the intention and the outcome is really important. People make their own minds up about what kind of life they want to lead, and if they’re happy to look in the mirror every morning.” Thomas’ way of getting his voice heard is by using his life stories to look at wider issues. In a mixture of stand-up, theatre and story-telling he’s spreading his message. The Red Shed looks back at his involvement with a close-knit community, an experience that probably changed his life, and gives us something vibrant, hilarious and meaningful. “It’s a really good show and I’m really proud of it. More importantly the people from the actual Red Shed who have seen it are really proud of it too. That’s a really important to me, that these people from Wakefield have seen travelled up to Edinburgh to see this show.”