Campaign manager - Mark Thomas
This article is from 2009.
Somewhere between stand-up comedy and political activism, the new show from Mark Thomas aims to kick more establishment butt. Jay Richardson is very careful not to offer him a cold glass of Coke
The origins of the apocryphal Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ are obscure. But for comedian and activist Mark Thomas, political instability, economic meltdown and the imminent collapse of Western civilisation can occasionally feel like a blessing. ‘What’s interesting is that so much is up for grabs,’ he enthuses. ‘When everything is in flux, that’s when ideas come forward. Ideas that seemed mad before, now we can say, “we can do that”. Having pumped so much money into the banks and with the collapse of Parliament through the expenses row, the lobbying scandals and what have you, people are seriously discussing proportional representation, how many terms an MP should serve and the mechanisms we can set up to control them.’
His new show owes more to Scots artist, musician and million pounds-burning eccentric Bill Drummond than Bill Clinton, with Thomas describing it as ‘a mixture of political activity, campaigning and stand-up, as well as a weird show of ideas. It’s a mix between comedy and a happening. It’s an event.’ Appearing at the Fringe for a fortnight, Thomas plans to march on Holyrood and establish a debate, ‘trying to get MSPs to discuss policies voted on in Edinburgh’.
His manifesto and much of the show’s material will be decreed democratically, with audiences handed a slip of paper when they arrive on which to suggest measures that could benefit the world. Proposals submitted during the course of his tour so far include ensuring the 1967 Abortion Act applies to Northern Ireland, assuming consent for organ donors and instigating a ban on people walking around in pyjamas outside their house.
As a seasoned campaigner on such varied issues as the arms trade, construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey (which would controversially displace over 75,000 people) and the right to demonstrate in London’s Parliament Square, Thomas has compiled a contacts book of informants that would put most investigative journalists to shame. In his recent book, Belching out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola, a damning exposé of the soft drink company’s record in developing countries, he recalls being contacted by a figure he dubs ‘Coke Throat’, one of many whistleblowers who’ve assisted his enquiries over the years. ‘I find it fascinating that someone like that will contact me with information. More often though, you go digging and find someone who finds someone who finds someone else. That’s the path you follow until you reach someone who says “oh, I can help you”.’
Others are less enamoured with the pugnacious ‘libertarian anarchist’. In March, Thomas finally got his DNA removed from the police database after his arrest in 2003 and subsequent acquittal on the charge of causing £80 worth of damage to a bus at a protest against the arms dealer BAE Systems. His reputation as a thorn in the establishment’s side is well-documented, yet when he recently threatened legal action against the then Speaker of the Commons, Michael Martin, following the MPs expenses row, The Times was prompted to ask whether he had ‘eclipsed Bono as our most self-important and preposterous entertainer?’ He testily swipes such brickbats aside. ‘I don’t give a fuck. I really don’t care. The most important thing is to keep on doing the work. A lot of this is emotional stuff that really stays with you.’
Besides, he suffers from a restlessness he ascribes to borderline OCD. ‘On a personal level, I like doing things where I get the chance to ramble off for a couple of years and thoroughly investigate it, really snap onto it,’ he explains. ‘I’ve done investigative stuff on the arms trade since 1998 and made programmes, performed shows and written a book about it. I loved it. It’s the nature of obsession. With Coca-Cola, I’ve done the book, documentary, live show and even art exhibitions. ‘For Thomas, it’s all about improving as a comic who matters. ‘The main point is to change and keep looking for different injustices. Work dominates our lives, it defines who we are, especially if you regard yourself in any way as a creative person. To still be doing the same work I started doing, I’d find that so fucking boring.’
Mark Thomas, The Stand III & IV, York Place, 0131 558 7272, 5–18 Aug (not 12), 6.15pm, £12.