Mark Thomas Image by Tony Pletts

BN1 Chats with comedian Mark Thomas

“A laugh, a song. Lots and lots of jokes. A small insurrection might not start the revolution, but certainly will be cheering.”

Mark is fiery, provocative, and derisively political. He quickly launches into a stream of consciousness about trade unions, railway strikes and the condition of current politics. His emotive face is framed by a small white kitchen behind him on our Zoom call. He has been at the Edinburgh Fringe since Monday, and I catch him a few hours before he goes on stage to perform his new show to a likely audience of theatricals, agents, playwrights and other comics.

He tactically (or transparently) avoids answering my questions about this new show and I can’t help but smile when I see that the summary keywords of our zoom call are people, fucking, politics, blacklist, censored, comedy, domestic extremists and natural impulses.

In 2013 it was revealed that Mark had been put under surveillance by the Metropolitan Police Service‘s National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU) for his investigative journalism and work for Channel 4 and The New Statesman. This unit is the same one which was recently exposed for undercover agents’ deceptive and abusive relationships with female political activists, dubbed ‘spy cops’ by the British media. He was able to obtain the data collected on himself when the spy cops’ case was blown up by the Guardian and surveillance data was handed over to the Metropolitan Police.

Mark describes what he found in the data as a bizarre list of events monitored by the police, lectures given, panels attended, even petitions he had supported.

“One entry notes my presence at an anti-war demo, describing what I am wearing and what sort of bike I am riding, the police continue, ‘he said hello to us as he passed and seemed very happy’. This chatty tone noting my emotional wellbeing on their database is wonderfully odd in an Ealing Comedy meets the Stasi sort of way and has all the reassurance of a stalkers smile but does make for bewildering reading.” He is now engaged in a prolonged court case alongside seven other Journalists appearing soon at the Supreme Court to contest their place in this surveillance list.

The description of Marks activities, scribbled in a policeman’s notebook, as they observe a crowd gathered together in front of a foldaway table, hastily printed leaflets and tired speaker in crumpled trousers and student unions’ megaphone is an ode to the state of political resistance in Britain. Mark represents the ‘uncontrollable’ minority, those the ‘Establishment’ fears and has pumped huge amounts of money into subduing. They operate in pubs, old bookshops and sticky floors of Student Unions.

A commitment from Margaret Thatcher and the last ten years of Conservative government has depleted their efforts, and the NDEDIU has put the rest under surveillance. Although what they do with these pencilled notes is a mystery to all. Judging by the fact that many cops became lovers and partners to female activists in an official quest to subvert the weary efforts of female activists to free factory-farmed pigs, my guess is not naive.

Mark was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Bradford, for services to peace and for his work as a comedian, political activist, presenter and investigative journalist, written numerous books, reported on the arms trade as well as participating in grassroot political activism for many decades. His manner is abrupt, and his politics direct but he is not a dangerous man. His political ideals centre around increasing the minimum voting age and campaigning for proportional representation not storming parliament and inciting a coup.

The dedicated police trail of Mark through anti-war demos, on his bicycle, at protests or demos is an elegy to the police state. Marks efforts to destabilise the Government by banning Tories from his gigs and participating in anti-war demos do not warrant him a domestic terror threat but would perhaps qualify him for ten years in prison under the newly passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 for being a ‘public nuisance’.

Like many political men who came before him, abject and vague political sentiment flows from his mouth, eloquent and instinctive. Insistent on obscuring anything so much as alluding to emotions, at the cost of sometimes sounding incoherent. It is hard to paint a picture of him. I try with his childhood and am compensated with conflicted memories, permeated with rage for things other than himself.

Mark was born in Clapham and, reaching secondary school age won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, a ‘charitable’ boarding school which has a sliding scale of school fee’s corresponding to parent’s wealth. The morning the letter arrived his parents ran upstairs beaming, rousing him from sleep, Mark jolting awake and bumping into someone, causing him a nosebleed. The son of a midwife and construction worker, the day he got in was amongst the proudest of their lives. But his experience at the school was a crash course in class alongside violence and bulling.

He remembers going to see his career advisor. “As I walked in, he said now, before we say anything, I just want to say there’s nothing wrong with working with your hands. And I said I know! My dad is a builder.”

These influences set up a firm class consciousness within him, establishing a precedent for his concerted efforts to disarm the establishment. He spent a while helping out his father scaffolding in South London before his comedy career took off. But the whole time he spent Mondays thinking about his gigs over the weekend and Fridays planning his next ones. His father kindly told him to take off Monday and Friday so he wouldn’t be so distracted.

I ask him how he deals with the emotional overwhelm of being involved with social justice movements; picket lines, protests or walking the length of the Israel Palestine border. He says it is our natural impulse to help people who are in need.

“The core of humanity is to help.” He responds simply.

He paraphrases Eddie Dempsey, the Deputy General Secretary for RMT. “We get all sorts of people. We’ve got patriotic working-class members, we’ve got patriots, we’ve got anti-patriotic, we’ve got Republicans, we’ve got religious people, we’ve got pro-Brexit, we’ve got anti-Brexit. But what unites everybody is the pay packet.” I add another in my head; power.

Almost everything he says has the capacity to be quoted for a rally, demo, or committee, apart from a few select statements he asks me not to print over fear for his son’s safety. He credits mostly Punk and the Church for his politics. He says both provided him with an awareness of the power of the State. Until he was nine, he took the teachings of the Lord quite literally. The natural sense of justice in the church appealed to him, especially the teachings around helping people in need and doing things for your community. The Church led him to believe that many people who are exploitative are “fuckers”, he smiles.

“I was raised in the Church of Nazarene which is a Wesleyan Church. And we were encouraged to proselytise because lots of my family are vicars and preachers and all that kind of stuff.”

After school, he went up North to drama school in Yorkshire, which was facing a dire political situation under Thatcher. Many of the minors would come to drink in the student union bar for its cheap beer and sympathetic politics. Mark became friends with them and joined them on the picket lines and in organising. Like all student-led efforts in Britain’s class war, the theoretical became real for him when he saw his friend’s become pawns in Thatcher’s war against the Unions.

His performances, be they theatre, protests, comedy or picket lines seem to act as a cathartic release for the rage and pain of societal inequality. His statements; radical, unrehearsed and unafraid, push him into the fringes of society and into the plush sofa of the culture war plaguing the press.

But he is unafraid of this. He labels himself as; a mix of stand up, theatre, journalism and the odd bout of performance art. He says he is 57 years old and doesn’t care if it sounds pretentious. He has been arrested, in court numerous times, held many public bodies accountable and formed a people’s manifesto during his last show. His new show asks “how did we get here? What are we going to do about it? Who’s up for a singsong? After lockdowns and isolation, this show is about the simple act of being in a room together and toppling international capitalism.”

Mark Thomas comes to Hove’s The Old Market on Sat 15 Oct.

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