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

 
James Acaster interview

James Acaster interview

An interview with 'low energy' stand-up comedian James Acaster, who has been having a great year. Read

What's your rapper name?

What's your rapper name?

Find out what your rapper name is, via this tool designed by Curtis from TV sketch show Cardinal Burns. Try It

Clubbed To Death

Clubbed To Death

A funny satirical short story featuring the characters of new book Clubbed To Death reacting to a problem. Read

Manford in The Producers

Manford in The Producers

Jason Manford is to star as Leo Bloom in the new UK tour of the hit Broadway musical The Producers. Read

Miranda to end

Miranda to end

Miranda Hart has confirmed that the two Christmas specials of her hit sitcom will be the show's finale. Read

Stand-up course diary

Stand-up course diary

A blog from Craig Beadle discussing what caused him to decide to sign up to a stand-up course. Read

At Last The 1948 Show found

At Last The 1948 Show found

Two missing episodes of pre-Monty Python sketch series At Last The 1948 Show have been discovered. Read

Brendon Burns on RHLSTP

Brendon Burns on RHLSTP

Outspoken stand-up comic Brendon Burns is the guest on this week's episode of Richard Herring's podcast. Listen

Still Game Live on TV

Still Game Live on TV

Hit stage show Still Game Live will be broadcast on television in November, on BBC Scotland. Read

Kirsty Wark sketch show

Kirsty Wark sketch show

Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark will host a new sketch show skewering the possibilities of the future. Read

Big Comedy Conference

Big Comedy Conference

Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye is amongst the latest speakers for The Big Comedy Conference. Details

Win signed Detectorists DVD

Win signed Detectorists DVD

We've got copies of the new Detectorists DVD to give away - they've been signed by Mackenzie Crook. Enter

Brotherhood now filming

Brotherhood now filming

Production has now commenced on Brotherhood, Comedy Central UK's first studio audience sitcom. Read

Boy In The Dress cast

Boy In The Dress cast

Jennifer Saunders, Tim McInnerny and Meera Syal are amongst the cast for The Boy In The Dress. Read

How Do I Get Up There?

How Do I Get Up There?

The up-and-coming sketch group 'How Do I Get Up There?' talk about their new BBC Scotland pilot. Read

Jenny Bede interview

Jenny Bede interview

Jenny Bede talks to BCG about filming her music-based BBC Three impressions show pilot AAA. Read

ITV returns to Palladium

ITV returns to Palladium

ITV will return to the London Palladium in 2015 for a second revived series of the comic variety format. Read

Cofilmic Festival workshops

Cofilmic Festival workshops

The Cofilmic Comedy Film Festival 2014 -has announced various cheap panels and workshops for creators. Read

Jason Byrne interview

Jason Byrne interview

Jason Byrne talks about why Father Figure didn't work, his next TV show, and touring his new live show. Read

The Dawson Bros US sitcom

The Dawson Bros US sitcom

British writing team The Dawson Brothers are working on The Spencer Tapes, a sitcom for NBC. Read

The IT Crowd USA 2

The IT Crowd USA 2

A second attempt is to be made to re-work Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd for American audiences. Read

Teckle Books interview

Teckle Books interview

An interview with the authors behind the comedic novels from new publishing outfit Teckle Books. Read

Moone Boy USA

Moone Boy USA

Moone Boy, the Sky sitcom created by Chris O'Dowd, is to be re-made by the US television network ABC. Read

10 O'Clock Live axed

10 O'Clock Live axed

Channel 4 has confirmed that its topical comedy show 10 O'Clock Live will not return for Series 4. Read

LOTSW policemen spin-off

LOTSW policemen spin-off

A Last Of The Summer Wine spin-off starring the policemen Cooper and Walsh is in development. Read

Mark Gatiss podcast

Mark Gatiss podcast

The League of Gentlemen and Sherlock star Mark Gatiss is Richard Herring's funny guest in this episode. Listen

Kitson and Lee together

Kitson and Lee together

A report from the charity gig in which two comedy heavyweights collided: Daniel Kitson and Stuart Lee. Read

Doll & Em gets Series 2

Doll & Em gets Series 2

Sky Living has ordered a second series of Doll & Em, the show from Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells. Read

Solemani & Howard reunite

Solemani & Howard reunite

Him & Her stars Sarah Solemani and Kerry Howard are reuniting to write a new BBC One sitcom. Read

Russell Howard's rom-com

Russell Howard's rom-com

Russell Howard has written and will star in a romantic comedy project. His sister will also appear in it. Read

Give Out Girls interview

Give Out Girls interview

Hatty Ashdown, the creator of Comedy Central's new sitcom Give Out Girls, introduces her show here. Read

Alan Carr interview

Alan Carr interview

Alan Carr talks about co-hosting Channel 4's charity fundraising night Stand Up To Cancer on Friday. Read

United We Fall interview

United We Fall interview

An interview with Gary Sinyor, the creator of the football-based comedy film United We Fall. Read

Ardal O'Hanlon's new sitcom

Ardal O'Hanlon's new sitcom

Ardal O'Hanlon is to star in a Radio 4 sitcom about an angel sent to Earth in human form. Read

Katherine Ryan podcast

Katherine Ryan podcast

Richard Herring's hit interview show is back for a new series. The first guest is Katherine Ryan. Listen

Dad's Army - new cast

Dad's Army - new cast

Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, and Catherine Zeta Jones are in the new Dad's Army film. Read

John Cleese video interview

John Cleese video interview

Ahead of the publication of his new book, John Cleese talks to Eddie Izzard about various comedy topics. Watch

Musical Comedy Awards 2015

Musical Comedy Awards 2015

Entry is now open for the WeGotTickets Musical Comedy Awards 2015. The heats start in mid-January. Read

Christmas gags competition

Christmas gags competition

TV channel Gold has launched its 2014 search for the best new Christmas cracker jokes. Read

League Of Gents reunion?

League Of Gents reunion?

The stars of The League Of Gentlemen have met for lunch to discuss the idea of reuniting to mark 20 years. Read

Miranda Hart's BBC show

Miranda Hart's BBC show

Auditions for contestants to take part in a BBC One show hosted by Miranda Hart are being organised. Read

Matt Forde's chat show

Matt Forde's chat show

Matt Forde's comic sports-based chat show, Sports Party, will be broadcast on talkSPORT radio. Read

Taxi Gags

Taxi Gags

Channel 4 has launched a new series on its website called Taxi Gags. Comedians talk about different subjects. Read

Revolution To Be Televised

Revolution To Be Televised

Heydon Prowse and Jolyon Rubinstein talks about Series 3 of The Revolution Will Be Televised. Read

Guilt & Shame blog

Guilt & Shame blog

Double act Guilt & Shame explain the importance of having a comedy show that is about something. Read

Chris Ramsey interview

Chris Ramsey interview

Chris Ramsey talks about tackling Katie Hopkins on Celebrity Juice and more in this interview. Read

Angela Barnes interview

Angela Barnes interview

Angela Barnes talks about the comedy career ladder, Mock The Week, and having her GP on speed dial. Read

Top 10 best known comics

Top 10 best known comics

Michael McIntyre, Jimmy Carr and Peter Kay are top of a list of the UK's best known stand-ups. Read

Trodd en Bratt Series 2

Trodd en Bratt Series 2

Radio 4 has ordered a second series of new sketch show Trodd En Bratt Say 'Well Done You'. Read

EastEnd Cabaret questioned

EastEnd Cabaret questioned

Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria - aka EastEnd Cabaret - answer questions about each other. Read

Over 55 stand-up prize

Over 55 stand-up prize

Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival have launched their 2015 Silver Comedy stand-up competition. Read

Professor Branestawm film

Professor Branestawm film

Harry Hill is to star in Professor Branestawm, a BBC One family comedy drama. Read

Drunk History UK

Drunk History UK

Jimmy Carr is to front the pilot episode of a UK re-make of hit American comedy format Drunk History. Read

Scrotal Recall interviews

Scrotal Recall interviews

Tom Edge, the creator of Channel 4's Scrotal Recall writes about the show. Plus interviews with the key cast. Read

Sarah Campbell blog

Sarah Campbell blog

Sarah Campbell talks about getting 'lizard brain' whilst filming undercover on ITV2's Bad Bridesmaid. Read

Rhod Gilbert interview

Rhod Gilbert interview

Interview. Rhod Gilbert talks about taking on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, plus his sitcom plans. Read

ITV's Ann Summers comedy

ITV's Ann Summers comedy

ITV is developing Good Vibrations, a TV comedy based on the book by the boss of Ann Summers. Read

Jason Manford's new show

Jason Manford's new show

Jason Manford is to host a new ITV comedy game show in which couples will fight to win a holiday. Read

Ryan Sampson interview

Ryan Sampson interview

Ryan Sampson - aka Grumio from Plebs - talks about how Bulgaria doesn't understand bare bums. Read

London Hughes blog

London Hughes blog

London Hughes describes how she had to turn herself into a horrid diva for ITV2 show Bad Bridesmaid. Read

Axis of Awesome interview

Axis of Awesome interview

Musical comedy group Axis of Awesome talk about their UK tour, and their elaborate YouTube series. Read

Video: Cardinal Burns tips

Video: Cardinal Burns tips

In this video, double-act Cardinal Burns offer insight and tips on how to create a sketch show. Watch

The Job Lot inteviews

The Job Lot inteviews

The cast of The Job Lot talk about the second series of the sitcom set around a Job Centre. Read

Taskmaster coming to TV

Taskmaster coming to TV

Alex Horne and Greg Davies will star in Taskmaster, a new show for channel Dave in 2015. Read

The Revolution 3

The Revolution 3

Hit BBC Three satirical prank show The Revolution Will Be Televised returns to screens in October. Read

Peter Kay's new role?

Peter Kay's new role?

A newspaper report suggests Peter Kay will play the father in Danny Baker's Cradle To Grave. Read

Enter the Hobgoblin Awards

Enter the Hobgoblin Awards

The search for the next British comedy talent is underway. Do you have what it takes to win? Read

Comedy Knights 2014 winner

Comedy Knights 2014 winner

Dave Green has been named the winner of the Comedy Knights 2014 stand-up comedy competition. Read

Toast Of London wins award

Toast Of London wins award

Matt Berry's Channel 4 sitcom Toast Of London has won ae prestigious Rose d'Or TV award. Read

New Danger Mouse stars

New Danger Mouse stars

Alexander Armstrong, Kevin Eldon and Dave Lamb will voice the new series of Danger Mouse. Read

New sitcom Undercover

New sitcom Undercover

TV channel Dave has announced it has ordered Undercover, a new sitcom about a covert police officer. Read

Job Lot Series 2 interviews

Job Lot Series 2 interviews

Interviews with all the key cast members of The Job Lot, as Series 2 prepares to start on ITV2. Read