Comedy, activism and Palestine: An interview with comedian Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas in Palestine

Mark Thomas in Palestine

In March 2011 I interviewed the English ‘activist-comedian’ Mark Thomas in Dublin. Mark was once a familiar face on British television with The Mark Thomas Product and various one off features. Today sadly, it seems he’s been relegated to BBC Radio 4 – though his output is still great. Mark was performing his new show and promoting the tie-in book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Barrier. For Fun.

The afternoon before the show, I get a call asking me to meet Mark in one of Dublin’s most upmarket hotels, a scene most definitely at odds with the image I have of this muck-raking lefty, whose career I’ve followed for the best part of twenty years. Happily, as Mark arrives for the interview, virtually his first words are “let’s go somewhere else”; he clearly feels as uncomfortable as I do in these plush surroundings. The lobby staff, who’ve been eyeing me with suspicion for the past fifteen minutes, also look relieved to see the back of us too. En route to a nearby cafe a man bounds up to us, hand outstretched to shake Mark’s. He’s a big fan, would Mark pose for a photo? Ever the gent, Mark is happy oblige.

As we begin our discussion, what really strikes me is that Mark is soft-spoken and reflective, totally unlike his highly animated and agitated stage-and-screen persona. At times I’m concerned my temperamental dictaphone won’t pick up his voice  over the general hubbub of the cafe. I’m happy to report that Mark was a thoroughly nice chap, and remains a courageous, trouble-making, muck-raking, rabble-rousing lay preacher of truth, justice and progressive action – an enemy of all the right people and funny to boot.

An opinion I’m sure you’ll share once you’ve read through the interview below.

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KS: Your new book is about walking the length of the West Bank Wall. This is probably a bad question to begin with, but I’ve been a fan of yours for almost 20 years, and this is the first time you’ve done something on Palestine. If this isn’t too bad a question, how come it took you so long to get around to Palestine?

MT: No that’s not quite right. There’s a lot I’ve done on the arms trade that went back into Israel and went back into the UK government’s relationship with the Israeli and the Defence Forces and certainly there’s a lot of stuff about the Head-Up Displays and the armoured vehicles that were used in the occupied territories by the Israeli Defence Force and the Air Force so I slightly dispute that, I’ve done quite a lot on this before.

KS: No I do apologise, I’ve just remembered that it was also actually here in Ireland where you brought the Israeli stone throwing machine manufacturers over. The whole “shoot sweets at Palestinians” thing!

MT: Also there was some of the companies we had thrown out of the London Arms Fair were Israeli companies, we’ve organised pickets outside Rafael which is an Israeli company, we’ve done stuff to coincide with Tom Hurndall’s anniversary, and we did quite a successful embarrassment of the Israeli Embassy when they agreed to pay the family some of the cost of transporting Tom and the cheque bounced, which was really, really out of order.

KS: I had not heard that at all, wow!

MT: So we did an action, a bring-and-buy to save Israel from going bust. So there’s been quite a lot I’ve done, including a number of benefits and so on as well.

KS: Haha! Yes, well I retract my original question, I guess what I was trying to get at was what was it that made you actually want to go to Palestine and do this amazing tour of the Wall?

MT: In all the stuff that I do, people make this great mistake and say, is part of your job to go and help, to tell people your message so that they can go away. Well I think it’s pointless for me to do this stuff unless it’s part of some process of change. But part of that process of change first and foremost is me. So it’s me finding out things, it’s me going to work out how things are, and if I can go and find this thing and examine it and find out how it works then come back and tell the story, then other people will sort of get to see it as well. So for me, part of the reason I wanted to go was curiosity. And really, I mention this in the show, that the second intifada made me switch off. I just really didn’t care a huge amount, I did carry on working on the stuff about the arms trade, but actually the second intifada was this huge, y’know, bloody mess and lots of Palestinians you’d speak to would say ‘Oh we lost everything’. Certainly international support was lost during the second intifada. And I know there are traditions in the international solidarity campaign that say we have to support this, it’s not up to us to choose the direction. And that’s fair enough, and that’s true, but it’s also up to me to decide whether I support something or not, and the direction that something goes in becomes a factor within that. So part of the reason I stayed away from the issue – and I have done a lot on it, but part of the reason that I hadn’t grasped it perhaps as firmly as I have now – is because the second intifada just switched me off it.

KS: So what switched you back on?

MT: What switched me back on was Operation Cast Lead. And I suppose both of those two things are important moments, not just for me but I suspect for many fellow travellers who would be like, y’know, ‘we don’t want anything to do with this shit’ – I mean the suicide bombs were horrendous, and yes there are the arguments about proportionality: there were more Palestinians killed than Israelis – which is true – but that doesn’t therefore justify the use of indiscriminate violence. These are kind of issues that somehow people either swerve or excuse – and I think actually it’s like the issue of, you know the Israeli soldier who’s been imprisoned?

KS: Gilad Shalit.

MT: Yeah, he’s been there for four years now and y’know, he’s just got to be released, y’know it’s just inhuman to keep someone in solitary confinement for four years. It’s as simple as that. And yet thousands of Palestinians are in jail. I went to see the Israeli military courts in action, and they are really unedifying. One guy was jailed for ‘harbouring a wanted person’, he was a taxi driver and the guy was in the back of his cab! It was like ‘Oh my Lord!’, y’know? So there is of course disproportionate abuse of human rights [by Israel], but that doesn’t excuse it on any count. I suppose my journey from going just ‘I don’t wanna know about that’ to being involved is one that lots of lots of people made, I suspect.

KS: I’ve certainly found that in our work. After Cast Lead, people became far more interested. Obviously Cast Lead was this totally brutal assault…

MT: It was. It was just hugely cruel, y’know, no matter what the analysis of it, no matter what viewpoint you had, you had to actually come down and say ‘you’re dropping banned weapons on a captive civilian population’. I think that was quite an important moment in me going ‘I wanna find out more’.

KS: And did the Flotilla have any effect, or were you already out there when that happened?

MT: I’d already been out there and back by the time the Flotilla happened.

KS: You’re not planning on going on the next one yourself are you?

MT: You know I’ve got a few dates to put in the book haha. I don’t know… maybe. Maybe. It’s one of those things I think you have to consider very carefully and think about a lot. Perhaps.

KS: I’ve heard that Russell Brand might be going, but whether that happens or not is another story obviously.

MT: I like Russell, he’s a great guy. He’s far more moral and intelligent than people portray him as. I think he’s a good fella.

KS: So obviously I only got the book this morning, and I haven’t seen the show yet, so when you walked the wall, you actually went out twice, is that right?

MT: That’s right.

KS: And did you start at the bottom and walk to the top? Or…

MT: We started at the top and went to the bottom. We started right where the River Jordan meets the Jordan Valley, right at the beginning of the very first part of the wall, basically the furthest east that we could and then just came all the way around.

KS: How long did it actually take?

MT: The whole thing took about eight and a half weeks in total. And that was because we were working with Israeli fixers and Palestinian fixers and all sorts of groups and we stopped to do interviews as we went along the wall. Sometimes we did interviews with people we’d just meet, sometimes people who were bussed in, sometimes just, y’know with whatever was out there. When we talked to the mayors in the settlements or with the army people that we spoke to, those took some getting in just to speak to them, and invariably there’d be times when someone would agree to an interview and we’d be in the south and have to get back up north to do the interview etcetera.

KS: These were filmed interviews?

MT: Yeah.

KS: So will there be a DVD coming out?

MT: A film, hopefully.

KS: On Channel 4 or what?

MT: In the cinema, we hope!

KS: Well that’s great, something to look forward to, fingers crossed anyway. Again this is from my brief flick through the book, it seems you would have met a lot of the same type of people I would have met when I was out, people from the non-violent resistance Popular Committees. People who I found really inspiring, what are your thoughts on them?

MT: I think they are inspiring. The non-violent resistance movement that is building there is really, really exciting and it is incredible. I mean, the national leadership is fucked, on both sides, and actually, y’know is just fucked. The most interesting stuff is the grass roots stuff, that’s what’s really interesting, the community leadership that’s coming out and the community action that’s coming out is just superb. It really is brilliant! And I love the fact and I find it really intriguing that people are quite honest about their approach to non-violence. The people I met would talk about, a lot of people would say to me ‘it’s way to do it, it’s the way to change things’. Other people would say ‘I was in jail and we started reading and discussing Gandhi and we’re not winning militarily, we need to change tack’. Other people would say ‘we’re giving it a go because violence hasn’t worked’, other people would say ‘we’ve just found it’, or what have you. People were very honest about it. And I was fascinated by the fact that there was discussion all the way along the walk about non-violent resistance and what it meant, whether it was like the anarchists over in Bil’in who talked about ‘unarmed resistance’ versus ‘non-violent resistance’, or campaigning work, whether it was attacking the theological underpinnings of Zionism through the Kairos Palestine document or what have you. I met some of the guys who drafted the Kairos document and they were wonderful, y’know? And the bits I enjoyed most of all were walking with folk and just getting into nice long conversations. Those were the most pleasurable. I have to say I found the Israeli activists absolutely morally on the money, and that was really exciting. I mean, I expected the Palestinian grass roots groups to be good, but I just didn’t have the Israeli activists really on my radar. People like ICAHD [the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions] I was aware of, but actually Combatants For Peace, who I met quite a few people from who I adore, just absolutely wonderful people, and also Breaking The Silence who are absolutely amazing, with a real moral sense of purpose. That I found really surprising, and absolutely brilliant, just absolutely brilliant. I suppose you get shocked by the things you don’t expect, and I didn’t expect that.

KS: I was actually going to ask you about the Israelis that you met, because last night we organised a talk with Gideon Levy, the journalist from Haaretz, and he painted a very, very pessimistic view of the Israeli society. I don’t know if I’m as pessimistic as him, but I wanted to know your general impressions of those that you met from the Israeli side, because I think it is important to recognise that it’s not just Palestinians involved in resistance, there is, I think, a growing sector of Israeli society that is involved.

MT: I’m not an expert, but I don’t know whether they are growing.

KS: Oh, really?

MT: No, I’m not saying I question your analysis, I mean that I genuinely just don’t know. What I think was very clear was obviously that Israeli groups and activists are coming under increased political pressure. Whether it is the criminalisation of advocacy of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], whether it is investigations into foreign funding of groups that criticise Israeli policies as is the case with Breaking The Silence. These are obvious moves that show that the Israeli authorities are worried by the campaign for sanctions and boycott, they genuinely are.  Despite the fact that there is, if I could generalise for a moment, a certain bellicose nature, that’s a bit Millwall – ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. And I’ll argue with Israelis, saying ‘you’re gonna be isolated, you’re gonna be isolated from the world, that’s what’s gonna happen’ and they just go ‘ the world deserted us in 1936’, y’know? But you were stateless then! I think there’s a very interesting mood, the Israelis that I met were the rump of the activist movement, and everyone seems a bit knackered, almost as if the second intifada just burned everyone out and y‘know I remember speaking to people from the Al Aqsa Brigades up in the north and they were also saying everyone’s tired. Everyone’s just keeping their heads above water. And to see all these different attitudes, these attitudes which were about trying to get non-violent campaigns off the ground, whether it’s challenging the wall, organising stuff, whether it’s Budrus or Bil’in or what have you, you know that there’d also be this feeling of actually, people are a bit shattered.

KS: Yeah, I kinda got that impression myself the last time I was out there. Ten years of the intifada and aftermath, it’s a long time to exist like that.

MT: Yeah. Hope and optimism isn’t in big supply out there. But I think the one thing that is, is the fact that the Palestinians have just remained there. One thing that somebody said to me on the first day was the thing that they were most proud of was the fact that ‘my people are still here’. I think by the time I got to the end of the walk I kind of understood a little bit about that. And that’s actually quite amazing and stunning that people have withstood the onslaught that is going on. That is quite amazing.

KS: As the slogan on the wall in Bethlehem says, ‘To Exist is to Resist’, I think encapsulates it.

MT: Absolutely, you’re right, it encapsulates it.

KS: Obviously when you were going along, doing your thing, you had cameras with you.

MT: One camera.

KS: Did you encounter much hassle from the military?

MT: Loads! Loads! Why do you think it took eight and a half weeks? Because we kept getting detained. There is a very weird thing in Israel that people believe that actually you can’t film them, y’know ‘you can’t film me, you can’t film me!’ You’re in a public place, and I come from that sort of culture, you know, you’re in a public place, of course I can film you!

KS: Ok so final question, it’s more about comedy really, as a vehicle for, well topical comedy as I called it earlier as opposed to satire.

MT: What I do isn’t stand up. What I do has a foot in theatre and a foot in comedy. But it’s not stand up. To me it’s about getting out and telling the stories and taking people on a journey, taking people somewhere they didn’t expect to go, that’s tradition that I sort of started in – you go to see a cabaret or you go to see a performance because you don’t know what you’re gonna see. You might see something that you really like, and you didn’t expect to see it. That was the gig, that you’d and see something that you didn’t know about. I think the major sea change that has happened is the proliferation of very cheap panel shows and comedy shows and stuff like that – and they are very economically viable to make, because you don’t need a script or an editor or a producer or a cast or rehearsals, you just have very highly motivated individuals with a vested interest in doing the best they can writing their own material. Which is very much a sort of neo-liberal version of economics. And people will go see a comedian in the O2 after doing a couple of series of a panel show… and it’s a fucking panel show, y’know?! I’m always amazed at how easily people will be fobbed off, that actually you buy a Frankie Boyle ticket and you’ll have seen all the stuff already on TV. The sea change that happened was that people started to go and see things that they knew they would like, and they knew what they were getting, ‘I wanna go and see Andy Parsons’ – good fella – ‘cos I know what I’m getting with Andy Parsons’. So people will turn up going, ‘I know what I want’ rather than saying ‘well, what’s on?’ And for me that’s always been part of the gig, I mean I was doing a gig the other night in Cardiff and the best moment of the night was finishing the set, packing up to go, and the bouncer just came up and said to me ‘that was fucking great, I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s marvellous!’ My job is done! Do you know what I mean? You can talk about anything, you can put anything into performance, you can put anything into writing… there should be no boundaries on art, simple as that. I just depends on the individual, whether they think it’s suitable or not. There are certain Zionists who are very upset that I’m even talking about this, because they say that even to criticise the wall is to criticise Israel and therefore to be an anti-Semite which is madness.

KS: Madness which is unfortunately accepted in certain sectors of society…

MT: I don’t think it’s hugely accepted, y’know, if you start going ‘we will decide what you can and can’t talk about on stage’, no you won’t, you’ll fuck off! I think quite a lot of people still think that about journalists – ‘fuck off you can’t tell people what to say’. But also I think there is a mood that is generally going ‘oooh you shouldn’t upset people’, and that’s to do with perceived racism, and that’s akin, there are parallels here, people are frightened of being accused of being an anti-Semite, regardless of whether you are or you aren’t, there is a fear that if you engage with the issue, you might be perceived as an anti-Semite. And that’s really awful that that fear is out there, in the same way – I don’t think it’s huge by the way, I don’t think it’s as big as people sometimes think – there was the play up in Birmingham, the Sikh play that was taken off because people from the Sikh community demonstrated against it, woah woah woah woah, no way! Once you start determining what constitutes what we can talk about and what we can’t talk talk about in public we’re on a really slippy slope about what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes state or religious control of speech. And I suppose the Zionist movement who would advocate and say that if you criticise the wall you are an anti-Semite, they’re part of that nexus of religious and ideological censorship.  For me it’s really about, I love the fact that I get people sending me little messages and texts and what have you, just going ‘great, I’d never thought about this or I’ve never realised this’ y’know? And to me it’s actually exciting, it’s really, really exciting and it’s just me saying how I started in my state of ignorance and learned a little bit, not a huge amount – I’m not an expert – but having done this walk and met these people, it’s very much about the people I met.

KS: If I could just big you up here to yourself, when I was I guess 14 or whatever I first saw one of the Mark Thomas Comedy Products on Channel 4, I’d grown up with y’know Fawlty Towers and all this kind of stuff…

MT: Which is great.

KS: … oh no, don’t get me wrong I love it, but I’d never seen comedy that could actually have a social purpose.

MT: Well for me it was about actually not just being a cheerleader for change, but being an instrument of change, and actually just going ‘you can get things done!’ And I love the fact y’know that when people go ‘well what good has come from your work’, I’ve got a small list that I like to look at! That’s really exciting, and there has to be a purpose to art, there has to be a purpose to all our expressions – whether it is right-wing literature or whatever, there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral piece. There is a very odd thing that happens, I mentioned it to someone this morning, there’s thing that happens that on the left we’re constantly questioned, people say, ‘what comes first, the politics or the comedy?’ Or ‘do you think comedy is a good vehicle for politics?’ Nobody turns around to Jim Davidson and says ‘Jim, is it the racism or the laughter? Tell me is it the bigotry that’s most important to you, are you getting new bigots?’ Do you know what I mean?

KS: That’s a very good point that I’d never really thought about before.

MT: So there’s always, always a political slant, just mine is slightly more pronounced and declared.

KS: So can we expect to see you back on television any time soon, no?

MT: [Laughs] Someone asked me that last night from the audience when we were finishing up, and I replied ‘I looked out this window this morning and there’s still no ice in Hell!”

KS: Well that’s very unfortunate.

MT: It is and it isn’t. The point being that with this tour, there’ll be 50,000 people that see the show. In the space of a year, that means the programs for the show, we’re doing these programs that have actually sold out before we got to Dublin, but we have these programs which are all about Zaytoun and their olive oil and about farmers struggling for economic viability, as so part of the profits go back to them. At the end of it all, I think we’ll have made a few quid for Zaytoun, we’ll have covered all the costs of doing the thing in the first place, and kept me and my family with our heads above water. We’ll have performed to 50,000 people, the program will probably sell something like 10,000 to 15,000 copies, which have got articles by Jamal [Juma’], Zaytoun, Stop The Wall, Ben Yeger from Combatants For Peace, War On Want on boycotts and divestment, we’ve published the BDS call from Palestinian civil society on the back of the program, we’ve got the maps that show the reduction of Palestinian land since 1917, y’know there’s all sorts of stuff that’s quite exciting for people to take away, it’s also like intellectual ammunition to take away with you so you can come out fighting at the end of it. And the book, well I don’t know how many people the book will reach, maybe 50,000 maybe 100,000 copies, I don’t know. And who knows what will happen with the film. They’re still quite good figures. It’s not as much as telly, but I’ve got complete control over the thing. I seriously had a producer, someone at Channel 4 had suggested a program for me to make, it really sort of symbolised the end of our relationship, the program that she asked me to consider making was Celebrity Guantanamo Bay. Now at that point you have to question whether there’s anything viable there. And I’m really pleased with this work that’s going to get out to 50,000 people, that’s gonna go to Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds festivals and y’know all those places where it’s not just the usual suspects, and that’s exciting. I don’t really wanna get into sort of the state of play of TV comedy cos that’s just… [long pause]

KS: Depressing?

MT: Some of the people in it are really good, some of the people are really, really great. And there is some great stuff, like Inbetweeners, Phone Shop and stuff like that are really great programs, really good programs. I was doing a benefit the other night for the Linda Smith [Tribute Fund]…

KS: What’s it now, her fifth anniversary?

MT: Yeah. It was great cos there was lots of us in unions who were all mates with her, and she was a righteous drinker. And so there was Jo Brand, John Hegley and myself and Andy Hamilton and Rory Bremner as well, and a jazz pianist called Ian Shaw who really is quite remarkable, and so there’s some of the most creative and original voices of my generation are on this stage and they’re still doing their stuff. Rory is brilliant, really sharp as a dart and the two Johns [Bird and Fortune] are incredible. So on one hand you have got 8 Out Of 10 Cats saying ‘my cock is bigger than yours’ or whatever, and on the other hand you have performers like Rory and you have programs like Inbetweeners which are genuinely brilliant, really fantastic TV, and there’s also the sort of like, I love all the state of the nation stuff that comes out of HBO. I adore y’know all the stuff like Breaking Bad which is a really incredible state of the nation declaration about this is what happens when you take money out of the public sector and these are the consequences of when we go down this route, when we don’t back teachers, when we dump them. There’s lots of good stuff coming from HBO. There’s loads of amazing theatre as well, stuff like Black Watch which was a show about Iraq which really was quite an amazing piece of drama, this is stuff that moves people and affects people in a very profound way. Does it get a little complacent? Yeah it all does at times. Does it need a kick up the arse? Yeah of course. But with television [becoming] a kind of awful freeview satellite [thing],  I now say ‘this is shit’ about eighty times a day!

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Mark’s new book Extreme Rambling was published by Ebury Press on 7 April. The live show is touring Britain until 25 September 2011. Mark’s website is www.markthomasinfo.com

An edited version of this interview, combined with a review of the book and show appeared on the Electronic Intifada website on 13th April 2011.

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