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

 
Katherine Parkinson pilot

Katherine Parkinson pilot

Katherine Parkinson, Ralf Little and Stephen Tompkinson are to star in a brand new sitcom pilot for ITV. Read

Babylon series now filming

Babylon series now filming

Six episodes of Channel 4's police-based comedy drama Babylon are now being filmed in London. Read

Marcus Brigstocke interview

Marcus Brigstocke interview

A snapped heel, torn cruciate and broken relationship - 2014 has been turbulent for Marcus Brigstocke. Read

New Julia Davis C4 pilot

New Julia Davis C4 pilot

Julia Davis has written and is starring in a new pilot about a breakfast TV host, called Morning Has Broken. Read

Trigger Happy TV USA

Trigger Happy TV USA

Dom Joly is reportedly having another go at taking his prank show Trigger Happy TV to America. Read

Ross Noble Freewheeling 2

Ross Noble Freewheeling 2

Ross Noble Freewheeling, the improvised comedy series which sees Ross Noble travelling the UK, is to return. Read

Frankie Boyle sitcom pilot

Frankie Boyle sitcom pilot

Frankie Boyle is amongst the stars talking part in a read-through for Wildlife, a new sitcom pilot. Read

Chris Addison podcast

Chris Addison podcast

A podcast in which Chris Addison talks about his career, and how they made the new sitcom Trying Again. Listen

Jason Lewis interview

Jason Lewis interview

Jason Lewis introduces Sniggers With Attitude, the sketch show he has made for TV channel London Live. Read

Damn the Torpedoes!

Damn the Torpedoes!

BFBS Radio, the British armed forces broadcaster, is launching Damn the Torpedoes!, a new sketch show. Read

TV Comedy Preview

TV Comedy Preview

A panel show celebrating BBC Two, and a sketch show pilot called Sniggers With Attitude are amongst our picks. Read

Michael McIntyre Series 2

Michael McIntyre Series 2

The BBC has ordered a second series of Michael McIntyre's chat show. He will return to BBC1 later this year. Read

C4's latest Comedy Blaps

C4's latest Comedy Blaps

Channel 4 has launched three more mini-series on the internet under its Comedy Blaps branding. Read

Al Murray's new tour

Al Murray's new tour

Al Murray has announced a new Pub Landlord UK tour titled One Man, One Guvnor: 20 years at the lager top. Read

Russell Kane hosts Vidiots

Russell Kane hosts Vidiots

Russell Kane is to host Vidiots, a panel show pilot in which comedians compete over viral video clips. Read

Underbelly Festival returns

Underbelly Festival returns

The Udderbelly Festival is back on London's Southbank until the 13th July. Lots of comedy on offer. Read

Want Doc Brown as a mentor?

Want Doc Brown as a mentor?

Comedian Doc Brown will be offering free mentorship and career guidance via the Noise Festival website. Info

Jason Manford footy shows

Jason Manford footy shows

Channel Dave has signed up Jason Manford to provide the voiceover for three football-based specials. Read

Tommy Cooper drama photos

Tommy Cooper drama photos

Photos from ITV's new drama focusing on Tommy Cooper. The comic is portrayed by David Threlfall. View

Paul Whitehouse's new show

Paul Whitehouse's new show

BBC Two is to make a four-part comedy series based on Nurse, Paul Whitehouse's Radio 4 show. Read

A Seance For Thatcher

A Seance For Thatcher

'Bile merchant' Nathaniel Tapley has written this to explain why he's doing a Margaret Thatcher seance. Read

History Of Britain on DVD

History Of Britain on DVD

We take a look at the definitive box set of Terry Jones and Michael Palin's historical documentary spoof. Read

Bath Fest's New Act winners

Bath Fest's New Act winners

Archie Maddocks and Paul Revill won at Bath Comedy Festival's 2014 New Act of the Year competition. Read

Bob Larbey interview

Bob Larbey interview

In this interview, top sitcom writer Bob Larbey - who died last week - talks about writing comedy. Read

Steve Best's Snapshots

Steve Best's Snapshots

Check out some of the interesting facts from Steve Best's photo book from the comedy circuit. View

BAFTA Awards nominees

BAFTA Awards nominees

The IT Crowd leads the comedy-related nominations for the 2014 BAFTA TV awards. See the full list here: Read

RIP Bob Larbey

RIP Bob Larbey

Bob Larbey, the prolific sitcom writer and creator of shows including The Good Life, has died aged 79. Read

Greg Davies podcast

Greg Davies podcast

Stand-up comedian and actor Greg Davies is a very funny man indeed. Check out this great interview. Listen

Comedy Central's new site

Comedy Central's new site

Comedy Central is creating a website featuring 'funny videos, lists, quizzes and articles featuring celebs'. Read

Alan Partridge film sequel

Alan Partridge film sequel

Alan Partridge will return with a feature film sequel, as well as a new series and Coast-like special on Sky. Read

Monty Python's new song!

Monty Python's new song!

Monty Python have published their brand new music track The Silly Walks Song. See the video here: Watch

Shaun The Sheep - Trailer

Shaun The Sheep - Trailer

Shaun The Sheep is coming to the big screen in 2015. Here's the first trailer for the film - it's funny. Watch

Sony Radio Awards nominees

Sony Radio Awards nominees

Bridget Christie and John Finnemore are amongst the comedy nominees for the Radio Academy Awards. Read

Simon Nye's new sitcom

Simon Nye's new sitcom

Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye is working on Private Parts, a new sitcom project set in a hotel. Read

Tommy Cooper trailer

Tommy Cooper trailer

The first look at David Threlfall playing Tommy Cooper in the new ITV drama. It's a rather good impression? Watch

Audio: Vicar Of Dibley

Audio: Vicar Of Dibley

Hear Dawn French appearing as The Vicar Of Dibley, as she delivers Radio 4's Thought For The Day. Listen

CBeebies comedy Boj

CBeebies comedy Boj

Jason Donovan is to provide his voice to Boj, a new animated comedy series for the CBeebies channel. Read

Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie

Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie

The trailer for the Mrs Brown's Boys movie. Agnes has to fight to save her market stall. Out in June. Watch

Miranda Hart in new film

Miranda Hart in new film

Miranda Hart has signed up to star in a big movie. She will appear in a film by Bridesmaids' Paul Feig. Read

Stella is not yet axed

Stella is not yet axed

Sky TV has denied the reports that Ruth Jones' comedy drama Stella will end after the next series. Read

Psychobitches - Series 2

Psychobitches - Series 2

Production is underway on the second series of Psycobitches, the excellent Sky Arts sketch show. Read

Chortle Awards 2014

Chortle Awards 2014

The results of the stand-up related awards run by the website Chortle have been announced. Read

Omid Djalili autobiography

Omid Djalili autobiography

The first volume of actor and stand-up comedian Omid Djalili's autobiography will be published later this year. Read

Keith Lemon's Keyhole 2

Keith Lemon's Keyhole 2

Keith Lemon will go Through The Keyhole again later this year in a second series of the comedy panel show. Read

Hebburn axed by BBC Two

Hebburn axed by BBC Two

BBC Two sitcom Hebburn, starring Chris Ramsey, Kimberley Nixon & Vic Reeves will not return for a third series. Read

Top 5 Monty Python songs

Top 5 Monty Python songs

With a new Monty Python music album on the way, it's a good time to look back at some of their classics. Read

Rev interview

Rev interview

Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman talk about what is in store in the brand new series of BBC2 hit sitcom Rev. Read

David Brent back on TV?

David Brent back on TV?

Ricky Gervais has revealed he is working on an idea to bring David Brent back to television. Read

Watch the new OFAH sketch

Watch the new OFAH sketch

Watch the new Only Fools & Horses sketch filmed for Sport Relief here. Del, Rodney and Beckham: Watch

Robert Llewellyn podcast

Robert Llewellyn podcast

Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn is the guest for the latest episode of Richard Herring's podcast series. Listen

Danny Baker comedy drama

Danny Baker comedy drama

The BBC is working on a comedy drama based on the autobiography of broadcaster Danny Baker. Read

A tribute to Ernie Wise

A tribute to Ernie Wise

We pay tribute to comedy legend Ernie Wise on the 15th anniversary of his death. Read

Johnny Vegas in Benidorm

Johnny Vegas in Benidorm

ITV has ordered a seventh series of its holiday-based sitcom Benidorm with Johnny Vegas back on board. Read

New series for Trollied

New series for Trollied

Sky1 has ordered a fourth series of sitcom Trollied, and announced a partnership with US network FX. Read

PBH Free Fringe troubles

PBH Free Fringe troubles

Peter Buckley Hill, the founder of the PBH Free Fringe operation, has said he will not go to the festival. Read

Javone Prince sketch show

Javone Prince sketch show

PhoneShop star Javone Prince is developing The Javone Prince Show - a comedy show for the BBC. Read

BBC Three's new shows

BBC Three's new shows

BBC Three has announced new comedies 600 Days and Top Coppers, plus re-ordered three sitcoms. Read

New Monty Python album

New Monty Python album

Monty Python Sings (Again) will be a music album featuring a mix of classic and new songs from the group. Read

RTS Award Winners 2014

RTS Award Winners 2014

The winners at The RTS Awards 2014 include Alan Carr, Brendan O'Carroll, The Last Leg and ITV2's Plebs. Read

House Of Fools Series 2

House Of Fools Series 2

House Of Fools, the sitcom series created by Vic & Bob, has been given a second series by BBC Two. Read

Mark Thomas interview

Mark Thomas interview

We caught Mark Thomas in a political mood as he explained his plan to commit acts of 'minor dissent'. Read

Mike Bassett film sequel

Mike Bassett film sequel

Ricky Tomlinson has signed up to star in the sequel to the 2001 comedy film Mike Bassett: England Manager. Read

Harry & Paul to spoof BBC2

Harry & Paul to spoof BBC2

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse will lampoon BBC Two's best known shows in a new comedy special. Read

Lewis Schaffer interview

Lewis Schaffer interview

An interview with London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer. He talks fame and controversy. Read

Ronnie Corbett to retire

Ronnie Corbett to retire

Ronnie Corbett is reportedly retiring from showbusiness following a 'worrying' health scare. Read

Lenny Henry TV sitcom pilot

Lenny Henry TV sitcom pilot

Lenny Henry is currently recording a pilot for a TV version of his radio sitcom Rudy's Rare Records. Read

UKIP v Jonny & The Baptists

UKIP v Jonny & The Baptists

A campaign to try to hinder a comedy tour by anti-UKIP comedians Jonny & The Baptists has backfired. Read

Graham Norton's new book

Graham Norton's new book

Graham Norton is to write his second autobiography. The book is called The Life and Loves of a He Devil. Read

New comedy drama 'Cut'

New comedy drama 'Cut'

Channel 4 has ordered Cut, a comedy drama series about a group of civil servants forced to relocate. Read

RHLSTP with Answer Me This

RHLSTP with Answer Me This

Helen and Olly from Answer Me This! join Richard Herring for the latest episode of his hit podcast. Listen

Hancock's Half Hour is back

Hancock's Half Hour is back

BBC Radio 4 is working on The Missing Hancocks, a series in which in lost episodes are re-recorded. Read

When to end a sitcom?

When to end a sitcom?

Following recent sitcom resurrections, here's an article looking at ending a show at the right time. Read