Mark Thomas: in rude health

The apparently tireless Mark Thomas is back with a new show about the NHS. Just don’t call it stand-up

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Activist, author, raconteur, agent provocateur, holder of the Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour and actor – Mark Thomas is a man of many talents. A comedian, however, he is not.

“I stopped seeing myself as one of them a long time ago,” he states, audibly bristling at the thought. A moment later, and laughing, he adds: “But for simplicity maybe I should just describe myself as ‘fabulous!’”

Live performances often include vigorous debate between himself and the audience

Comedian or not, Thomas happily acknowledges the ubiquity of humour in daily life, something reflected in each of his projects. The apparently tireless, South London-born 55 year old has previously examined corporate human rights violations and the arms trade, undertaken a politicised walk along the Israeli West Bank wall and once crafted a show around the discovery that he was under surveillance by London’s Metropolitan Police for being a “general rabble rouser and alleged comedian”.

Stern stuff, admittedly, but always injected with a slice of (often rather perverse) humour. “Life isn’t just these two masks – happy and sad,” Thomas says. “It’s a complex world and I get people to experience empathy, laugh and hopefully explore new thoughts, ideas and emotions as they travel through someone else’s vision.”

Now Thomas has turned his attentions to the National Health Service. Check-Up – Our NHS @70 is his latest stage show, which, following 2018 performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and in London, is now on tour, dissecting our national institution as it goes.

Research took place during a month-long residence at London’s Imperial Group hospitals, where Thomas shadowed consultants, doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals. He also spent time in waiting rooms, drop-in centres, and with academics and government health ministers, and the resulting performance has been described by reviewers as stirring, compassionate, compelling, righteous and engaging.

“I’m a great believer in going off, having an adventure, then coming back and telling the story. I could have been a lot richer if I had a less thorough approach – just ask my family – but then I wouldn’t have produced the work that I produce,” Thomas says. “And, honestly, that month within the NHS really was a life-changing experience. It made me, firstly, sort of fall in love with the
dementia nurses who truly are wonderful people and about as close as you can get to the state providing love. But I also began to understand the incredible scale of the NHS and the problems it faces.”

Obviously funding is crucial to the continued existence of the institution but, as Thomas discovered, survival depends on much more than just the bottom line. “It’s about the public and those who hold the purse strings getting into the mind set that says more people living longer actually is the success. That means there are more people needing medical attention so the demands on the NHS are always going to be going up. So, just to stay still, we need to spend more money year on year, forever. That’s how people need to view the NHS and that is the only attitude that will ensure we get to keep it.”

The connection between health and wealth is also examined during Check-Up. Thomas spoke to Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an expert on how socio-economic position affects health outcomes. The conclusions reached are both revelatory and damning.

“We know that bad housing, bad diet, a child’s first eight years, job insecurity, anxiety, education and unemployment all create someone’s health determinant. I even discovered that, literally, the number of words a child has in their vocabulary when they go to primary school will help determine their entire lifetime health outcome.”

Thomas’s voice becomes ever more incredulous as he adds: “So by looking at these areas we can actually change people’s health outcomes for the better and if we leave them unchanged that is an injustice. Marmot has shown the poor die younger and live with bad health for longer and this is something we all need to take seriously.

“Another thing that needs to be addressed is social care. You talk to people on the ground and initiatives like Sure Start children’s centres and mental health provision are on their knees. Improved social care leads directly to an improved NHS and the thing that has done more damage than anything is this myth that divides the deserving and undeserving poor. More than any other thing that division has to be smashed to pieces just to get a sense of equality in health.”

Injecting personal experience into Check-Up, at one point Thomas recalls how his grandmother, pre-NHS and living in the Northumberland mining village of North Seaton, used to save pennies in a cup towards the time a family member may need to pay for a doctor. Harsh times, for sure, but the modern-day account he gives of a man having to sleep in his car – worried for his own physical health due to his wife’s violent, dementia-driven outbursts – isn’t a million miles away. At the root of each anecdote lies the issue of funding.

But is he merely preaching to the converted with his stage shows and excursions into television? Not so, he counters, recalling how live performances often include vigorous debate between himself and the paying audience. People bring their friends, children and parents along – ones who know very little about his points of view.

“You get so many different ideas in the room and the concept that me and the audience have ‘the answer’, this one solution where we’re all sitting there singing from the same hymn sheet, is rubbish. We all have different ideas and experiences.

“That’s one of the reasons I walked away from straight stand-up. So much of that relies on people liking what you did before and coming along and expecting pretty much the same. My shows now are big discovery missions, explorations into new things with new forms and different ways of handling different subjects. I want people to see and hear things maybe they haven’t considered before, hopefully have their minds opened, maybe form new opinions.

“For me life’s all about getting out of bed, trying my best, trying to make the world a bit of a better place and trying not to be as much of a shit as you really are. Those are my rules for life.”

Check-Up – Our NHS @70 is touring until April (markthomasinfo.co.uk)

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