Si Hawkins Circuit Training: from stand-up stage to the studio

Circuit Training 54: Bravo, Mark Thomas, Bravo

Published November 2012

Mark Thomas. Image credit: Idil Sukan.Dodgy-dealers and despots can breathe a (brief) sigh of relief: Mark Thomas's latest show isn't trying to bring you down. Bravo Figaro is about opera. Quite a change of pace for comedy's foremost campaigner, whose last tour, Extreme Rambling, documented his walk along the Israeli Separation Barrier in the West Bank. Not that he's any less concerned about the wicked and corrupt, a fact that becomes abundantly clear as the conversation progresses.

I caught up with Thomas at home, during a bit of between-gig down time, and kicked off with some pleasant tour chat.

Part One: Areas and Arias

Touring can be terribly dull. What do you get up to in the gaps before gigs these days?

I've now taken to haunting charity shops and second hand book shops, which is a lovely thing. You can resolutely tell a place by the books they've got. I was in Chester and I remember being stunned by the number of Tory MP biographies on the shelf in Oxfam. It was like, wow, okay, I know what this town is like.

Mark Thomas. Image credit: Idil Sukan.The new tour is a bit different: how did it come about?

This show was born out of accident. What it was, I went on a Radio 4 programme to talk about inheritance tax and there's a strand on the show about music you inherit from your family, and so you talk about music and memory and families - I was the first person ever to do it. And I talked about Figaro's opening aria in the Barber of Seville by Rossini and about how my Dad - who's a working class, Tory-voting, self-employed builder - fell in love with opera.

It's a very improbable thing, as a man who left school with no formal qualifications: he epitomised in many ways the idea of working class self improvement. And so when he fell in love with opera it was really bizarre, he used to go and sing this stuff on building sites. He used to play it on the scaffolds, and he was dreadful. He couldn't sing, it was like he would change key every other note, so it was just excruciating and hugely embarrassing. But actually it's a memory I've come to sort of cherish.

You were working there as well?

I worked with my dad. It's very funny, there's a rumour that my dad 'owned' these building sites; he was a self-employed builder with one bloke and a van. And so I would go and work with him and we would put the scaffolds up in the summer doing the roofs and he would be singing along. I thought it was excruciating, but now I regard it as something which shows his uniqueness and shows who he was, it goes with all these great qualities. About improvement, about being true to himself.

There's no embarrassment there is there?

No - I mean to be fair he was a fighter, so had there been any embarrassment or anyone tried to call him on it, he was proper hard. And so it was like at school, when you get people going 'my dad's bigger than your dad,' it's like, 'my dad has beaten your dad up. That's not a threat, this is historical reference.'

Part of me dearly cherishes that thing of him getting up there and singing, so I went and talked on Radio 4 about it and some people from the Royal Opera House heard it, got in contact, and I was commissioned to do a show for a festival there.

I see, so it grew from there...

It all fell into place entirely by accident. I was working with a director on it because, what we did, I agreed to do the show if they gave me opera singers to borrow. I took these opera singers down to my dad's bungalow in Bournemouth and we put on a concert for my dad who's very ill now, and has got dementia and all sorts. And he responded really brilliantly to it.

Mark Thomas. Image credit: Idil Sukan.When I went in [to the Royal Opera House] for the first time - because I'd never been in there - I was like 'what the fuck is this?' We were performing in a place called the Linbury which is a 400-odd seater studio and they said 'oh, do you want to see the main opera house?' And you go and look in the main opera house, it's like the inside of a hull of a ship that has been turned into an auditorium.

It's just an amazing place. We'd be rehearsing all day, there's a canteen on the top floor and we'd always have to go past the dance rehearsal studio which has just a glass wall, so you can see into it. The Russian State Ballet are in rehearsal and there's us lot walking past, and me, this bloke who's nearly 50: the funny thing is, you still pull your stomach in. Past a ballerina and you still go [loudly breathes in] - not out of any sexual tension or anything, you get to my age and it's just shame. These people doing things and you think 'I can't possibly do that. Especially after eating a plate of chips.'

So the show must have gone well?

It was really, really exciting. It got to the stage where we were a day before the performance and I called up my agent and promoter and said 'I think you ought to come and see the rehearsal.' He came and saw the show and said 'we've got to put it on the road'. And that was it. It was going to be a one-off.

Would you have ever done a show like this otherwise?

I don't think I would have, no. I have to say, the Royal Opera House were the last people on the list of people I thought would have been supportive of my work. Below the Tory party but above the Nazis.

It's interesting you wandering past the Russian State Ballet etc, given that you were seen as such a threat to the establishment for so long.

There is that.

You were exposing corruption every week on The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, but I'm not sure the general public properly woke up until the recent Hillsborough revelations. We've all suddenly gone 'how could this kind of cover-up happen in Britain?'

The simple answer is that the establishment and authorities have a natural inclination to protect themselves, and also a natural inclination to say 'we are the rulers' and therefore there is stuff that the public don't need to know about. The British disease is where the institutions investigate themselves. We're slowly confronting this disease whereby the police would investigate the police or the politicians would investigate each other, we're slowly confronting that and saying that this can't go on. Self regulation within the banking industry is just another extension of it: it's grown with privatisation and all of those things over the past 30 years.

Mark Thomas. I think it's really interesting that over the past five years we've seen the collapse of the old order where people would have faith in the pillars of the establishment, the police and maybe the media and politicians and banks. You have a destruction, an erosion, a realisation actually that we need to improve this, we need to get this right. Democracy isn't just about putting your cross on the ballot box every four or five years, democracy is about holding these people to account.

When people say that political parties are all the same, I think there are differences actually. But you've got to remember that we are the opposition. The general public, what we think, what we hold to be true and how we hold our leaders to account, we are the opposition.

The Hillsborough campaign shows what can be done.

The people who held them to account were the relatives and the supporters. It's amazing that they had to do it and it's amazing that they did it. The scale is shocking, it's disgusting. I think it's great that actually they're going to investigate the police. 23 years too late.

It was an amazing day. Even Cameron managed to do something right, with the apology.

Another very interesting thing is the demonising of football fans and the demonising of what is regarded as the working class, especially Liverpool. Liverpool has always been seen by the right wing as a slightly maverick city, as very rebellious in some ways. Actually I think the whole thing with Liverpool and Derek Hatton and the crisis with the council and the way in which the Tories were talking about letting them go, about letting Liverpool just go under, the riots in Toxteth and all of that, that fed into how the media portrayed Hillsborough. And I think it was nothing short of class prejudice.

People still see Liverpudlians as 'whinging'...

It's not whinging - this is nuts, the language that we use - it's actually protesting. This is what they are doing, and what they are doing is right, and what they are doing is standing up for justice and what they are doing is bringing people to account. It's exactly what an opposition should be doing in Parliament.

The idea of whinging Scousers has become quite entrenched now though...

I don't think Harry Enfield particularly helped.

Part Two: Whitehouse, Woody and the Products

When you started on the circuit, did you have any inkling that you'd end up with this kind of career?

When I got on the circuit originally I was in love with the idea of Lenny Bruce without really knowing too much about him. I liked the idea that you could challenge audiences, I liked the idea that you could do things that were a little bit different. I liked the idea that you could try and talk about absolutely anything.

I did a drama degree at Breton Hall, this very arty place, which was all about academic and practical stuff. I adored it, we'd be putting on Greek tragedies at six in the morning in the middle of a wood. Dressed in togas with firebrands one minute and then going to perform sketches that we'd written that afternoon in a miners' soup kitchen the next.

Mark Thomas. Image credit: Idil Sukan.So you could have ended up at the Opera House anyway then?

I think it was a bit too experimental to be honest - 'let's all paint ourselves and pretend that we're wild flowers drifting on the breeze'. I'd always wanted to be a comic since the age of 16. My real heroes were people like Dave Allen and Woody Allen. Those were the people I adored. There was this wonderful tension, the very well crafted art-house movies, things like Stardust Memories - an incredible film - and I was absolutely in love with Annie Hall and Manhattan, which were even better than Sleeper or Bananas. You know what I mean?

Yeah, Sleeper was sort of a gateway drug to Woody's cleverer stuff...

...then you find yourself in Manhattan, which was incredible. I mean the opening shots: no messing about, it was his city. At the same time you have the Gershwin underneath it. I loved all of that. I also loved all of Dave Allen's stuff, resolutely mocking. I remember seeing him do a routine about advertising, first time I had seen anyone do it. A ten minute routine about how crap adverts were. Which is now standard fare, but no-one had done it. At the time it was like 'Oh my God, this is fantastic!'
Dave Allen was the father of alternative comedy, and Peter Cook. You look at those two people and they did more for British comedy than [anyone] - and possibly Alexei Sayle.

I think I first came across you on The Mary Whitehouse Experience - the radio version.

It was great fun. We always divided into two camps: there was Jo Brand, Skint Video and me, and then there was what we saw as the Oxford and Cambridge set: Rob Newman, David Baddiel, Punt & Dennis. And we always sort of split down the middle, there was a real tension in the show.

That's funny, because there was an obvious gap between Newman & Baddiel and Punt & Dennis.

Absolutely, it's very funny because you know Rob is a really good mate of mine. And David has turned into a fine chap, he's a nice man. It's just great looking back on it, 25 years later, just going 'wow we really got het up over that.'

That was in the 'comedy is the new rock and roll' days...

Yeah, Rob and Dave doing Wembley. 'Comedy is rock and roll' I think was really a journalistic construct. The NME was at a highpoint, under people like Danny Kelly, he was an amazing editor. They were amazing in the way they championed comedy in the magazine, but it was very much a construct. I always thought that rock and roll was the new rock and roll.

How did The Mark Thomas Comedy Product ever get on telly?

Well, I've no idea, a series of accidents. Channel 4 was very different in those days. I did a pilot for them that was immense fun to do. We were doing stuff that now we wouldn't - we were really worried about it. Can we get away with it? We followed a Tory MP on an election bus and we heckled him, he was on an open top bus going around saying 'vote for me' and we were behind him, just heckling him. We were very worried that we would get arrested and all of that, but it was fine. At the time it was great fun to do.

I suppose, once they had commissioned the show, my idea was that we should do things that you didn't normally see. We'd come up with putting people in situations you wouldn't normally see. And so it was really exciting to do things like the McDonald's thing where you turn up in tanks, to get MPs being interviewed by me dressed as a teddy bear, or what have you.

So you were just pushing yourselves further and further?

We thought, if we can do this, how about we try bumping up the factual content of it? So the next series we did a whole thing about radioactive birdshit at Sellafield, and ended up costing them a million quid or something in a cleanup operation. And then we thought, well, we could run our own investigation. So that was the next programme, me going off to arms fairs, and posing as human rights consultants for media and getting all these Indonesian generals to confess to torture, thinking they were part of a media training group.


There must have been a point where you realised 'blimey, we're doing important work here'?

There were some days where that was the case, I mean we did get a commendation from Amnesty for the work that we did. We changed a law on tax, stuff like that.

The word 'comedy' disappeared from the title eventually...

Yeah it did. The main reason was, you do all this great work, but then we take it forward to a committee stage in the House of Commons or forward to the law or whatever, and they just say 'well it's a comedy show', so we just took the word comedy out. It was easier to dismiss us [before that].

It finished 10 years ago now - were you all knackered?

Mark Thomas. We'd done 42 programmes in the space of six years which is quite a good rate. We'd done specials, one-offs as well, we'd done stuff for Dispatches. We'd proved corruption in British export deals, we got companies like Nestlé to change their labelling, we were on the front page of the Guardian every series, and we had the whole spotter card thing with the police [they printed up cards earmarking Thomas as a dodgy character to watch out for]. We had a minister asking civil servants to dig for dirt on me.

And... actually, there is a mixture of being knackered but also thinking that both the channel and, to a certain extent, the production company and, to a certain extent, myself were just going 'oh we know how to do this now' and that's the worst thing you can think. There was a point where I thought 'this has become a product. And I no longer want to do it, and I no longer want to work with Channel 4.' I think in all honesty, it was right to stop the programme.

The thing about stand-up is, it's audiences, all they want is the same as they've seen before, but different. 'We like what you did last time, and we'd like more of the same.' Actually, what you want [from an audience] is 'we liked what you did last time, what the fuck are you going to do this time?' And that is hopefully what people think when they come and see the shows. 'I wonder what he's been up to this time?'

Do you have any idea what sort of thing you'll do after this opera show?

Nah, you just go 'right, what did we learn this time around? Let's do something better and different.'

One thing I did wonder, you were saying about your dad being a Tory: what did he make of your activism?

It was funny, he was like 'well, you might not like what he says, but he says it very well.'

Did you ever change his mind on things?

Yes I did: attitudes about gender and sexuality and race, he really changed over the years, and I like to think that his children had a good influence on him. Obviously he influenced us, but I think we also influenced him.

For details of the Bravo Figaro tour, visit www.markthomasinfo.co.uk

Si Hawkins has been interviewing comedians since Russell Brand was a little-known MTV presenter. He also edits the front end of a popular music magazine and pontificates about football for anyone who'll put up with him. He's @SiHawkins on Twitter.

RSS Feed    Previous Columns

 
Thom Tuck interview

Thom Tuck interview

Thom Tuck talks Munnery, Bambi, expensive dross at the Fringe, piles of rubbish on BBC3, and more. Read

Bill Kerr dies aged 92

Bill Kerr dies aged 92

Bill Kerr, who played Tony Hancock's dim-witted Australian sidekick, has died at the age of 92. Read

BBC Radio workshops

BBC Radio workshops

BBC Radio Comedy will be running comedy writing information sessions in London and Manchester. Read

Big School interviews

Big School interviews

David Walliams, Catherine Tate, Philip Glenister and Frances de la Tour talk about Big School Series 2. Read

Obituary: Lord Alan B'Stard

Obituary: Lord Alan B'Stard

Lord Alan B'Stard, First Marquess of Haltemprice, has died at the age of 58, it has been confirmed. Read

Frankie Boyle's big speech

Frankie Boyle's big speech

Frankie Boyle has blasted TV commissioning, Mock The Week, panel show booking, & other topics. Read

Edinburgh Comedy Awards

Edinburgh Comedy Awards

John Kearns, Alex Edelman and Phil Ellis are winners of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2014. Read

The Wrong Mans 2

The Wrong Mans 2

Plot details have been released about the 2nd series of James Corden and Mathew Baynton's comedy. Read

Lucy Beaumont interview

Lucy Beaumont interview

Lucy Beaumont talks about how she got started in comedy, and what she misses about leaving Hull. Read

Emma Kennedy's comedy

Emma Kennedy's comedy

BBC One has ordered a comedy drama series based on the best-selling book, The Tent, The Bucket and Me. Read

BBC1 gets Mountain Goats

BBC1 gets Mountain Goats

BBC One has ordered six episodes of Mountain Goats, a sitcom about a mountain rescue team. Read

Ashley Jensen - new comedy

Ashley Jensen - new comedy

Sky1 is making Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death, a crime comedy drama starring Ashley Jensen. Read

Aidan Strangeman wins

Aidan Strangeman wins

Musical comedian Aidan Strangeman has won the 2014 So You Think You're Funny? new act competition. Read

Another series Alan Davies

Another series Alan Davies

Channel Dave has ordered 10 more episodes of comic chat format Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled. Read

Keith Lemon's sketch show

Keith Lemon's sketch show

ITV2 has commissioned a brand new sketch show starring Leigh Francis's alter-ego, Keith Lemon. Read

E4 gets some Chewing Gum

E4 gets some Chewing Gum

E4 has ordered a new comedy series called Chewing Gum, written by and starring Michaela Coel. Read

Roy Chubby Brown is bad!

Roy Chubby Brown is bad!

A police camera has caught comedian Roy Chubby Brown reading a newspaper whilst driving. Read

Backchat moves to BBC Two

Backchat moves to BBC Two

Jack Whitehall and his dad will move to BBC Two for a second series of Backchat. Read

Jonny Sweet's BBC3 series

Jonny Sweet's BBC3 series

BBC Three has ordered a new comedy series called Together. The show is written by & stars Jonny Sweet. Read

BBC Three gets Top Coppers

BBC Three gets Top Coppers

BBC Three has ordered Top Coppers, a 'silly, gag-filled, action comedy' which follows two police detectives. Read

Fried gets a series

Fried gets a series

Fried, a BBC Comedy Feeds sitcom pilot set in a low-rent fast food chain shop, has been given a series. Read

BBC3 orders Josh series

BBC3 orders Josh series

BBC Three has ordered a full series of Josh, the sitcom starring and co-written by Josh Widdicombe. Read

Harry Hill's new show

Harry Hill's new show

Harry Hill will host a reboot of singing show Stars In Their Eyes. ITV wants to do more comedy too. Read

Pre-Gig Notes: Photos

Pre-Gig Notes: Photos

A photo gallery providing an intimate insight into the pre-gig routines and notes of some of comedians. Read

Foster's Award Nominees

Foster's Award Nominees

The shortlists for the prestigious Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2014 is here: Read

WitTank get E4 sitcom pilot

WitTank get E4 sitcom pilot

The sketch group WitTank, stars of Live At The Electric, are now developing a sitcom project for E4. Read

New show for Hugh Dennis

New show for Hugh Dennis

Outnumbered star Hugh Dennis is to appear in You Should See My Family, a new hybrid comedy format. Read

Romesh Ranganathan

Romesh Ranganathan

Stand-up Romesh Ranganathan talk schools, comedy writing advice and more in this interview. Read

Adam Hills new panel show

Adam Hills new panel show

Channel 4 are to pilot a new panel show format hosted by Adam Hills called Welcome To My World. Read

Stuart Goldsmith interview

Stuart Goldsmith interview

An interview with stand-up comedian and podcast host Stuart Goldsmith. What is his own masterplan? Read

The Full Monty live show

The Full Monty live show

Gary Lucy, Andrew Dunn and Louis Emerick are amongst the stars for The Full Monty live UK tour. Read

Top 10 Fringe jokes 2014

Top 10 Fringe jokes 2014

Tim Vine has won the award for the funniest joke at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe festival. Top 10 gag

Holly Walsh poster award

Holly Walsh poster award

Holly Walsh's Edinburgh Fringe marketing design has won at the first ever Comedy Poster Awards. View

Tom Craine interview

Tom Craine interview

Stand-up comic Tom Craine talks about the cultural panic that exists around being single nowadays. Read

Video: Hangover cures

Video: Hangover cures

A bunch of comedians offer their suggested cures for that inevitable festival-based hangover. Watch

Lee Evans iPhone game

Lee Evans iPhone game

Lee Evans has launched 5 Minutes Mr. Evans!, a game for the iPhone/iPad. Get him to his gig on time. Read

Harry Hill's BBC1 show

Harry Hill's BBC1 show

Harry Hill is reportedly working on a scripted comedy show for the BBC. Few other details are known. Read

Miranda Hart's new show

Miranda Hart's new show

Miranda Hart will host a revival of BBC gameshow The Generation Game. Maybe. It's confusing. Read

Celia Pacquola wins award

Celia Pacquola wins award

Stand-up Celia Pacquola has been named the winner of the Amused Moose Laughter Award 2014. Read

Tim Key's ghost story

Tim Key's ghost story

Watch Tim Key tell a five minute tale about ghosts at the Edinburgh Fringe. It's chilling stuff. Watch

ITV to revive iconic show

ITV to revive iconic show

Jimmy Carr and Sarah Millican amongst the stars for a Sunday Night At The London Palladium revival. Read

Live Scriber interview

Live Scriber interview

An interview with Peter Morey, who is documenting gigs by creating a unique real-time illustration. Read

Luke McQueen's stunt

Luke McQueen's stunt

Luke McQueen tricked people into thinking they had Frankie Boyle tickets. They weren't happy. Read

Scottish poll mockumentary

Scottish poll mockumentary

Channel 4 is to screen Scotland In A Day, a one-off mockumentary tied to the Scottish Independence poll. Read

Comedy Video Website Fails

Comedy Video Website Fails

A look at why the comedy video websites Comedybox, MySpace and Funny Or Die all closed. Read

NewsRevue interview

NewsRevue interview

Emma Taylor, the producer behind long-running sketch show NewsRevue, talks about the show here: Read

The Job Lot: Series 2

The Job Lot: Series 2

A behind-the-scenes guide to the forthcoming second series of The Job Lot. Includes a video. Read

Boomers interviews

Boomers interviews

The cast of new sitcom Boomers talk about growing old, and why their new sitcom is set to appeal. Read

Stars at your service

Stars at your service

Russell Howard, Al Murray, Greg Davies, Russell Kane and Rhod Gilbert will be in Stars At Your Service. Read

Watson, Key and Basden

Watson, Key and Basden

Mark Watson, Tim Key and Tom Basden are to reunite for a new Radio 4 comedy series in September. Read

Stand-up sign language

Stand-up sign language

We chat to Catherine King, who provides sign language interpretation at various stand-up gigs. Read

Off Their Rockers Series 3

Off Their Rockers Series 3

ITV has ordered a third series of Off Their Rockers, the hidden camera prank show which involves OAP actors. Read

Scrotal Recall cast

Scrotal Recall cast

Johnny Flynn, Antonia Thomas and Daniel Ings have been announced as the stars of Scrotal Recall. Read

The Football's On again

The Football's On again

Ian Stone will return to BT Sport from next week with a second series of The Football's On comic chat show. Read

James Corden - a US star?

James Corden - a US star?

A US website has reported that James Corden will take over as host on The Late Late Show in America. Read

Joke Thieves format for TV

Joke Thieves format for TV

A live comedy format in which comics must perform each others' routines is being developed for BBC Two. Read

David Brent film in works

David Brent film in works

Ricky Gervais will star as The Office's David Brent in new film Life On The Road. Read

ITV orders Delivery Man

ITV orders Delivery Man

ITV has ordered a full series of The Delivery Man, a new sitcom about a male midwife. Read

Stag comedy to BBC Two

Stag comedy to BBC Two

BBC Two has ordered Stag, a "Cluedo-esque" comedy series, from The Wrong Mans team. Sounds good. Read

Almost Royal interview

Almost Royal interview

An interview with Georgie and Poppy, the minor aristocrats characters from E4's new show Almost Royal. Read

Siblings interviews

Siblings interviews

Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Stourton talk about taking on the lead roles in new BBC Three sitcom Siblings. Read

Fringe shows at Odeon

Fringe shows at Odeon

Three comedy shows are to be transmitted from the Edinburgh Fringe to Odeon cinemas nationwide. Read

Meet the No Strings puppets

Meet the No Strings puppets

We encountered a group of puppets on the streets of Edinburgh who were planning an improv Fringe show. View

Steve Hall blog

Steve Hall blog

Steve Hall explains why he's resisted the urge to go to Edinburgh. Instead he's performing in London. Read

Jarred Christmas blog

Jarred Christmas blog

Jarred Christmas introduces the show he is putting on at the Phoenix Fringe with beat boxer Hobbit. Read

1st show distractions

1st show distractions

A bike race, a fire alarm and a pig have been amongst the things that have disrupted Fringe shows. Read

Susan Calman & Rob Newman

Susan Calman & Rob Newman

Susan Calman and Rob Newman both have brand new Radio 4 series with Hat Trick, it has been confirmed. Read

Kenny Ireland - RIP

Kenny Ireland - RIP

Actor Kenny Ireland, best known as Benidorm swinger Donald Stewart, has died aged 68. Read

Dapper Laughs on ITV2

Dapper Laughs on ITV2

Internet star Dapper Laughs is to front an ITV2 comedy/reality show called Dapper Laughs On The Pull. Read

Rhys James sitcom

Rhys James sitcom

Stand-up comic Rhys James has published a five-part sitcom to promote his Edinburgh show. Watch

Radio 1 live at the Fringe

Radio 1 live at the Fringe

Radio 1 is hosting a stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The gig will be streamed live. Read

Comic Relief darts series

Comic Relief darts series

Various comedians will take part in a special pro-celebrity darts tournament, for a BBC Comic Relief series. Read