On a murky Monday morning in August I met up with Mark Thomas at an Edinburgh café of his choosing for a two-part chat... ok, it was one long chat that I've now split in two, but let's not split hairs.
Part one was about his pick of shows at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, and the production he particularly urged me to see has now transferred to London: Underground Railroad Game is at the Soho Theatre until the 13th, with various spin-off workshops and talks along the way. And he wasn't wrong: it's remarkable. Comedic, compelling and important.
As indeed is Thomas' own new show, Check Up: Our NHS @ 70, which is touring the UK and begins a run at London's Arcola Theatre on the 22nd October. The tireless comic/campaigner/theatre-maker has hunkered down within numerous NHS establishments to get a firm grip on where the service is at - from drop-in clinics to emergency rooms - as well as interviewing practitioners, patients and outside experts. The result is fascinating, often funny, and sometimes heart-stoppingly tense.
Thomas emerges from it with a simple but stark solution that you won't hear spouted loudly at the party conferences, and that has caused some unrest even on his usual side of the political divide. But then - as we find out below - his audience is more mixed than you might imagine.
Is this the most drama you've had in your shows - particularly the bit in A&E?
That was actually in Major Trauma, which is an add-on to A&E, the really dramatic incidences are brought in there. At one point, towards the end of it, I was standing writing notes, everyone I was supposed to be shadowing had disappeared, they'd gone off to do things.
There's a whole load of cops, because people have been stabbed, shot, they're standing right there. And there's this lad in one of the bays, they're paper thin and this lad's going [young chavvy-gangster voice] "seriously, the feds are here, you've got to get rid of it. Don't stress me. Get. Rid. Of. It. Man, the feds are here!" Ha!
That whole evening was fairly full-on.
I liked how you didn't dwell on it though, because their staff can't - that drop-in GP you visited, under huge pressure to get everything right for her patients, all day everyday...
Yeah, she was amazing. What's important [for the show to work] is that you start to describe where the system is, so you have major trauma, and doctors, which are the first ports of call.
But class plays an enormous part, and access plays an enormous part. You have that wonderful thing with [professor and health inequalities expert] Michael Marmot - he was great. That wasn't an interview, it was a monologue, with me chipping in every 15 minutes.
I think I did an interview with you like that once.
You're not the first person to say that.
How did this show come about then?
This time last year I went to the Traverse [Theatre, in Edinburgh] and said 'look, I've got two ideas for shows which I want to do in the coming year, one is about the NHS, one is about Palestine, can we do them both at your gaff?'
The idea was, two years ago, people weren't really thinking about the 70th anniversary. It's really a service on its knees in certain parts, it's certainly in crisis, and you talk to staff there and it's absolutely unbelievable. The number of people who'll come up after the show and talk about their work and what's happening.
I saw Dr Phil Hammond's show a few years ago, and I'd say about half the audience were NHS staff. Is it similar for you?
There's always NHS staff in - one reason is that the NHS is the fifth biggest employer in the world, so you're gonna get a few of them around. I love the fact that people come up and want to share things.
There's some interesting stuff about your family background in there.
We've got three nurses in our family: my mum, nan and my aunt. My uncle Richard came back from Dunkirk after being held prisoner of war for five years, and was not expected to live, he took his health so seriously he married his nurse. We basically had a family of nurses and fighters.
It feels like there's a powerful movement just within NHS people.
What we wanted to do was create a portrait of the NHS, where it might go, but also the forces that shape it: poverty and austerity, the failure to regulate threats to public health, the draining of its funding and staff. And so all of those things we wanted to try to put into a show.
I definitely learned a lot from the show. But how do you get it to a wider audience?
Well, we tour.
But how do you get a different type of audience to go and see it?
There's a really interesting thing, when we did Showtime from the Frontline [his show about setting up a comedy club in a Palestinian refugee camp] we performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and the audience was completely different, hugely diverse. This is London, every race is represented, an incredibly wide range of people coming to see the show, and that's really exciting.
It's all about inclusivity, making sure you've got surtitles, signers, audio describers, good access.
I think absolutely everyone should see this show, including people who are quite well-off, and also use the NHS.
Believe me, more of them come than you think. There's nothing quite as fucking annoying as entitled middle-class theatregoers. One year someone came up to me and said [snobby voice] "I love your work but I saw your last show and I was absolutely outraged by what you said about Prince Philip, it made me so angry I thought I had to tell you" - I don't give a fuck!
Someone the other day came up and said [also snobby] "we really enjoyed your show - the last two we hated, so you're on probation'" - fuck off!
They're exactly who should see this show though!
I don't care about them seeing the show, I just hate their sense of entitlement, that their opinion is more important than everyone else's.
But the issue is about access, and that's normally about class: working-class people are less inclined to come. Part of it is ticket prices, part of it is culture, but you build and focus on that culture. West Yorkshire Playhouse, they made a concerted effort: 'We're going to put on northern stories.' It's reaped dividends.
You did The Red Shed there.
Yeah, and at the same time they had Barnbow Canaries, which was about an explosion in a local munitions factory in World War One that killed loads of women: it involved various choirs from the local community, Alice Nutter from Chumbawumba wrote the play - it was amazing.
They did a two-man version of Kes, they've done The Damned United, these northern stories that touch people - and people come. So it's about what you're putting on, how you're encouraging people to get into theatre.
What's The Answer?
How do you get people to actually change stuff though, after we come out of your show? Most of us haven't got the drive that you have...
Part of it is engaging people emotionally, that's really important. But there are lots of little arguments in that show that are really vital.
It's the first time I've seen someone talk about the NHS and say 'we all need to pay more tax'.
What we have to do is start those arguments now. We've got a choice, we either put up tax and you fund [the NHS], or you lose it - and we're beginning to see it happening. Councils implode, they literally pull themselves apart and turn round and say 'we can no longer do this.' Mental health is on its fucking knees - in a sane world we would be screaming that this is a massive outrage.
The figures you mention in the show - how our health service compares to the rest of the world - are alarming!
We always go on about 'we're the best in the world' - we're not! That attitude is fucking getting in the way.
So there are lots of arguments we can engage with in the show. Tax - there was a bit that we had to cut out because of time, about how it's not just about making the rich pay more. It helps, but actually we need all of us to be committed to the idea of it, it's about all of us.
Again, it's not an argument you hear often.
Some lefties have a go at me about it - 'you shouldn't be arguing to put up tax, we should be making the rich pay' - it's not going to be enough. And also when you do that, you're avoiding responsibility, and all of us have got a responsibility.
I want people to become engaged, and to understand also the extent of the marketisation of the NHS, the forces of debt, and of wastefulness - they come from the structures that have been created by politicians. All those arguments are important. It's a dense old fucking show.
Recovering From Comedy
It's also very watchable, though. Comedians have quite a unique ability to make tough subjects accessible.
I don't describe myself as a comic any more, I'm a recovering comic. But what I love about comedy is its brevity, and what I love about theatre is its ability to emotionally engage, with storytelling. And that's the great thing about journalism - that's kind of like the three elements of what I do. You want to go out, you want to document this stuff, and get it right.
I think that background in comedy helps - filtering stuff down to a memorable phrase.
When people ask 'what are the things that influence you?' they always expect me to come out with a list of comics - Dave Allen and Alexei Sayle, they're the big ones. But the people that really influenced me: Joe Strummer, Rock Against Racism, The Clash - a band where picking up an album was like picking up an argument.
The film The Front, with Woody Allen, has the best end titles ever. It's about blacklisting in America, all these people are being blacklisted, so they give him the scripts. Brilliant. And at the end they roll the titles, and as it comes up - producer, director, camera people - it gives their dates of blacklisting after their name, the most powerful fucking thing. Amazing. The power of just trying to use every bit of space you've got.
I like your stage set-up - it looks simple but there's another clever way of presenting people's voices in there, which is a theme of your theatre shows.
For me, it's always about finding ways of getting new voices on stage, and how you represent those voices.
Bravo [Figaro], we recorded my mum and dad, and have the lights that go on and off as they're speaking. Cuckooed, cabinets come out with TV screens, and conversations with my mates. Red Shed, we have masks, recordings, and we invite the audience up, because that show is all about community. And here, again, how do you represent people?
I think the great thing about coming to Edinburgh, you get a chance to reinvent, to come up with something new. You want to show your peers: 'look what I can do.' I get my mates to see this show and what they've got to say is far more important. If you say 'who do performers actually work for?' - yeah, audience is very important, even critics, but the most important opinion is from your peers.
As long as they're honest about it...
That does help.