Giving the people what they want
Mark Thomas talks to ThreeWeeks Features Editor Andy Malt about his manifesto
The term ‘political comedian’ can strike fear into people’s hearts. I blame Ben Elton. But Mark Thomas has been bringing the two worlds together for over twenty years to great effect. And, far from just talking, he really puts his money where his mouth is. Over the years he has campaigned on numerous issues, from the arms trade, to attacks on trade unionists working for Coca-Cola in Colombia, to UK inheritance tax. Along the way he’s caused laws to be changed, been arrested, got into the Guinness Book Of Records (for the most number of demonstrations held in one day) and kept audiences laughing at the same time.
But, says Mark, he’s not here as either a comedian who campaigns or campaigner who tells jokes. “You just use whatever you’ve got,” he says. “People always ask whether I’m predominantly one or the other but they both come together. It’s all linked.”
Both comedy and politics, at their best, he says, are driven by ideas; the less willing either becomes to push things forward, the less value it has. “The point of all my shows is to say what you think and then talk it out”, he continues. “The point is that comedy can be a force for change. People talk about politics being boring, and they’re right, because of the convergence between Labour and The Conservatives and The Lib Dems – you couldn’t really get a Rizla paper between them in terms of a lot of their policies – and it all becomes a pasteurised lump of shite. And at the same time, a lot of comedy becomes about making the least offensive gag, but the most interesting comics are the ones who say what they think and put forward ideas.”
Mark’s latest show, which makes a stop at the Festival for two weeks during a wider UK tour, is a collaborative effort between him and the audience. “I ask people to come up with policies, we go through them, discuss them, vote on them and create a manifesto,” he explains. “Each audience decides on one policy, and this is the basis for the manifesto at the end of the tour. Then I’m going to take that and actually see if I can put some of it into practice.”
So is this democratic comedy? “No, because I’m in charge,” he says wryly. “Every comedy show has an element of benign dictatorship.”
Policies put forward so far range between the serious and the ridiculous. One audience decided that the Benny Hill theme tune should be played during arguments in the House Of Commons, while another decided that the UK should introduce US-style protection of free speech.
“Some policies that have come out of the show are brilliant. Some are really odd, but they’re all interesting,” says Mark. And, he reveals, they can spark further debate once they have been included in the manifesto. “One of them was that OCD sufferers should be employed as cleaners in the NHS to get rid of MRSA. But, in fact, only a small percentage of OCD sufferers clean obsessively, so by putting that out and discussing it we can break stereotypes.”
True to his word, Mark has already started putting some of the policies into action. “One thing that’s already happening is that we’re creating a SATs-style rating system for MPs,” he explains. “Hopefully it’ll launch in September before MPs go back to Parliament. It’ll be like a school report for MPs, based on things like how often they attends debates, how often they speak, how often they vote, how often they get on select committees, how much they get in outside money, and it’ll give them a grade of A, B, C, D or E, E being the lowest. It’ll be a way of finding out if your MP is really doing the work they should be.”
The original inspiration for the show came from a series of podcasts Mark recorded earlier this year, in which he asked various experts to help explain the economic problems facing the country.
“When recession started to bite I thought, ‘You know, I just don’t know enough about this,’” he says. “I have friends who know a bit, I know someone from the New Economics Foundation, and have friends who are NGOs, and I know a guy who used to be the chief economist for Jersey who now works for the Tax Justice Network. We talked about it a bit and decided it would be great to get people who know about this stuff on stage to discuss what’s going on, and try to find what we can do about it. So we had people like Hugh Wilmott from the Cardiff Business School, Vince Cable from the Liberal Democrats, who was amazing and talked about nationalising the Post Office, Caroline Lucas from the Green Party, who told us how to put social policy through, and Richard Wilkinson, who’s an amazing academic and explained how wealth disparity creates problems in society. It’s really exciting talking to all those people and saying, ‘Where do we go? How do we fix this?’”
At the end of his Edinburgh run, Mark is hoping to get the Festival’s policies implemented in Scotland straight away. “At the end of it we’re trying to get a meeting with a group of MSPs and put forward the policies that come out of this run of shows and say, ‘What do you think? Can these work?’” he reveals, adding “It’s great to think we could have a comedy show that could have an idea that gets into the Scottish Parliament”.
Sounds like he’s going to be busy, but who would Mark see at the Festival if he wasn’t performing? “Will Hodgson,” he says instantly. “He’s just my favourite comic. I was lucky enough to have Will supporting me at the start of the tour, just as the show was getting up on its bandy legs, and he’s brilliant. And Daniel Kitson. Will and Daniel would be the people I’d go and see.”
Mark Thomas – The Manifesto, The Stand Comedy Club, 5 – 18 Aug (not 12), 6.15pm (7.30pm), £12.00, fpp75.