Say what you see

Comedian and political activist Mark Thomas tells Andy Murray why his recent trip to the Middle East was an eye opening experience

“That was an accident, but a rather nice one, I have to say,” remarks comedian Mark Thomas in a matter of fact tone.

In the course of your daily life, what constitutes a nice accident? Bumping into an old mate on the bus, perhaps? Finding a £20 note in your jeans pocket? Probably. But Thomas doesn’t do things by halves, and in this instance he’s referring to the time he got into the Guinness Book of Records by staging the most political demonstrations in a 24-hour period.

Thomas’s politically engaged stance has come to define his work

“I didn’t set out to do it,” Thomas explains. “I just went off and did all these demonstrations because the Labour government introduced a really inane law that if you demonstrated in Parliament Square and its environs you had to get permission. So on this one day I got permission for 21 demos and went round with my mates doing them. We did one to shut Westminster Abbey because God’s dead. We did one on the South Bank saying ‘Ban static mimes’ – you know, those people who paint themselves silver, and stand still? Oh, they just annoy the f*ck out of me. It was quite a sweet old day, actually. At the end of it the Guinness Book of Records got in contact, saying we’d like to make you a record holder.”

Surely there’s no better man to hold it. Thomas’s politically engaged stance has now come to define his work. When he began his career back in the 1980s, comedy was, in the parlance of the time, the new rock and roll. And he was right in the thick of it, appearing in several hit comedy shows for Radio 1. But in the years since when so many of his contemporaries have lost focus or vanished altogether, Thomas has continued to evolve as a performer. His Channel 4 show The Mark Thomas Comedy Product made waves in the late 1990s by staging a raft of politically charged stunts, perhaps most memorably insisting that Tory MP Nicholas Soames allow the public to see the collection of antique furniture he purchased tax-free as “conditionally exempt works of art”.

Last year he walked the length of the 750km Israeli separation barrier

From its fifth series the show was pointedly rechristened The Mark Thomas Product to emphasise the shift of emphasis away from comedy. Over subsequent live tours, Thomas has exposed the extraordinary dealings of the arms industry and spearheaded a campaign against the construction of the Ilisu Dam, which was set to flood a vast area of south east Turkey and displace over 70,000 Kurds. Now Thomas insists: “I am not a stand-up comic. If people ever mistake me for someone who might have appeared on any TV programme that has a panel on it, or which has the word ‘Roadshow’ or ‘Apollo’ in the title, they’re just wrong.”

Last year he walked the length of the 750km Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank, in the company of a cameraman, a photographer and a translator. The end result takes the form of a forthcoming book, Extreme Rambling, and provides the material for his latest tour, entitled Walking the Wall. The experience itself has, he says, done a great deal to broaden his perspective on the situation. “There are certain things that you just don’t take into account because your life doesn’t have those bits to it. Actually Israel’s a small place and so people would know all the suicide bombs that had gone off – and there were hundreds. The impact of that was huge. It was devastating. You can see why people wanted to put the wall up. You can understand that human impulse. In that situation you don’t look at solving the problem. You just look at stopping the thing that’s going bang, rather than resolving the conflict on a longer term.”

With comedy still at least one element of his act, his choice of subject matter might appear incongruous. “The thing is though, you just tell the story. That’s the whole gig. These are stories about the things that happen when you try and walk this walk. On one occasion, because we had to get from A to B at a certain point in time, we ended up trying to cross a mountain at nightfall. It starts to rain, we’re too near the wall and we shouldn’t be, we get attacked by wild dogs and my cameraman Phil falls off the mountain. Then the translator we’re walking with is terrified we’re going to get attacked by Palestinians who think we’re settlers. And lo and behold these guys come out thinking that we’re actually bad ’uns! In terms of absolute disaster comedy, that’s hysterical.”

The prospect of a proper democracy, or some form of it, in Egypt is fantastic

Of course, we’re in the midst of highly eventful times for Middle East. Speaking just after the resignation of Mubarak, Thomas says: “I think the prospect of a proper democracy, or some form of it, arising in Egypt is fantastic. It’s really exciting. Whether it is a spark that lights the fire, the domino that tilts the others, I really don’t know.

“Israel continually says: ‘We’re the only democracy in the Middle East.’ Now the prospect of that not being the case is rising on the horizon and Israel’s going: ‘Oh f*ck! We’re not sure that we like this.’ But I’m not an expert on the Middle East. I’m just somebody who went on a walk.”

Thomas’s passion for justice hasn’t always made for an easy life. At an anti-arms trade rally in 2007, he was unlawfully stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police. He was later awarded £1,200 compensation, which he used towards funding this new show. “If you look on the tour poster, it’s actually got the logos of the people that helped us – the Fire Brigades Union, War on Want, Fair Trade Foundation and the Metropolitan Police.”

“My family are just fantastically supportive and accommodating of my stupidity.”

But he rejects the notion that the often hazardous life he leads has left him with an uncommonly high appetite for adrenaline. “My family are just fantastically supportive and accommodating of my stupidity. But when I’m at home I don’t run across the road when there’s a red man or anything. ‘I must have my life in danger! Put fourteen sugars in my espresso!’ What I really want is to do good shows and then come back and cook with my kids at the weekend. I’m a lucky man. I get to do what I want to do. I just think, if you’re going to do observational comedy, observe something good.”

He’s certainly brought back some remarkable tales from his walk. “This one morning we set off early. The four of us were sitting on the top of this hillside south of Hebron. There were probably about five or six houses on this hill, nothing else. Beautiful sunshine, beautiful countryside. And these two lads come out and start saying ‘How are you?’ They go back inside and their mum comes out and says: ‘Would you like breakfast?’ She comes out ten minutes later with fresh baked bread, home-made sheep’s yoghurt, cheese and butter, home-grown tomatoes and this massive great kettle of black tea.”

For a moment he’s genuinely taken aback by this memory. “I’m never going to experience that again. And actually 99.9 per cent of my fellow countrymen and women aren’t either. It’s very simple. What I do is, I just go off and have an adventure and then come back and tell people about it.”

Mark Thomas: Walking the Wall, 14-17 March, Dancehouse, Manchester; 18 March, Harrogate Theatre; 11 April, The Quarry, Leeds; 16 April, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool. Photo of Mark Thomas by Idil Sukan

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