More Mark Thomas interviewy stuff
Below are two pieces for Socialist Voice and LookLeft that I wrote, based on my lengthy interview with comedian and activist Mark Thomas earlier this year (yeah, I milked it for all it was worth…. I’m lazy journalist scum!)
Making trouble for all the right people: An interview with comedian Mark Thomas
Socialist Voice, May 2011
In March leftist comedian and social activist Mark Thomas was in Dublin with his new show Walking the Wall, in which – in his own inimitably hilarious manner – he relates his experiences of walking the 723km length of Israel’s illegal apartheid wall in Palestine. I caught up with him for a short interview about modern topical comedy. Mark was once a familiar face on British television, but now finds himself consigned to BBC Radio. He says his break with his long-time Channel 4 collaborators came when it was suggested he host a show called Celebrity Guantanamo Bay. After that, there was no longer “anything viable there” for him. Nor does he expect to return to TV any time soon, “there is no ice in Hell yet”, he quips.
When it comes to the state of contemporary topical comedy, Mark doesn’t really “want to discuss the state of play of TV comedy ‘cos that’s just…”. “Depressing?” I venture after a long pause. He smiles sadly, and says “some of the people in it are really good. There is some great stuff like Inbetweeners and Phone Shop”. He also has praise for the “sharp as a dart” Bremner, Bird and Fortune and HBO output like Breaking Bad which he describes as an “incredible state of the nation declaration about what happens when you take money out of the public sector”.
His distaste for the “proliferation of very cheap panel shows” is palpable. He describes them as the comedy equivalent of neo-liberalism; “economically viable to make, because you don’t need a scriptwriter, an editor, 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.” He also mourns the advent of “awful freeview satellite” (“I now say ‘this is shit’ about eighty times a day!”), but points to the live comedy circuit and theatre as places that remain creatively exciting and socially engaged – singling out Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch for special acclaim. Yet he also sees the panel show disease infecting the live circuit too, as “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! You buy a Frankie Boyle ticket and you’ll have seen all the stuff on television already!”
However, when it comes to his own work, Mark is far from complacent. His new show and tie-in book Extreme Rambling (Ebury Press, April 2011) are both brilliantly funny while remaining politically engaged and empowering. He modestly says that he “is really pleased with this work that’s going to get out to 50,000 people”, and so he should be. Thomas 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.
Socially engaged comedy – an interview with Mark Thomas
LookLeft #6, April 2011
Campaigning activist-comedian Mark Thomas was in Dublin with a new show, Walking The Wall, about his exploits as he ‘extreme rambled’ along the 723 kilometres of Israel’s apartheid wall in Palestine. LookLeft met him for a short interview about his latest work, and the state of topical comedy more generally.
I began by asking, not at all originally, what inspired this mad undertaking? Mark’s answer was a love of rambling, curiosity and Operation Cast Lead which he describes as “Israel dropping banned weapons on a captive civilian population in Gaza”. He admits that although he never stopped working on issues around the arms trade with Israel, the “bloody mess” that was the second intifada, especially the “horrendous suicide bombings” largely turned him off the Palestinian issue, but the “hugely cruel” attack on Gaza “switched me back on”. He saw walking the route of the wall as a natural way of meeting people – Palestinian and Israeli – hearing how it has affected them, “finding out things, working out how things are, and coming back to tell the story”. Through this story he hopes his audience “will sort of get to understand it as well”.
However, Mark is at pains to point out that “what I do isn’t stand up. It has a foot in theatre and a foot in comedy. But it’s not stand up. It’s about getting out, telling the stories and taking people on a journey, somewhere they didn’t expect to go”. Nevertheless, both the show and the accompanying book, Extreme Rambling, are brutally funny, and horribly tragic.
Eight weeks walking the wall from north to south and he’d seen much to depress him – not least his constant detentions by the Israeli military – but also much to inspire. “The non-violent resistance movement that is building there is incredible. I mean, the national leadership is fucked, on both sides but the grass roots stuff, the community leadership and community action that’s coming out is just superb. It really is brilliant!” He was pleasantly surprised by the Israeli activists whom he found to be “absolutely morally on the money”. One thing that stayed with him was, “on day one, somebody told me the thing that they were most proud of was the fact that ‘my people are still here’. By the time I got to the end of the walk I kind of understood a little bit about that – it’s actually stunning that people have withstood the onslaught that is going on. Quite amazing.”
We then discuss the state of contemporary topical comedy, but Mark doesn’t really “want to discuss the state of play of TV comedy cos that’s just…”, “depressing?” I venture after a long pause. He smiles sadly, and says “some of the people in it are really good. There is some great stuff like Inbetweeners and Phone Shop”. He also has praise for the “sharp as a dart” Bremner, Bird and Fortune and HBO output like Breaking Bad which he describes as an “incredible state of the nation declaration about what happens when you take money out of the public sector”. But his distaste for the “proliferation of very cheap panel shows” is palpable. He describes them as the comedy equivalent of neo-liberalism; “economically viable to make, because you don’t need a scriptwriter, an editor, 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.” He also mourns the advent of “awful freeview satellite – I now say ‘this is shit’ about eighty times a day!” He points to the live comedy circuit and theatre as places that remain creatively exciting and socially engaged.
Finally, I ask will we see his good self back on TV anytime soon? He laughs; someone else asked him that yesterday, his response was “I looked out the window this morning and there is still no ice in Hell!” His break with Channel 4 came when a producer suggested he host “Celebrity Guantanamo Bay – at that point you have to question whether there’s anything viable there.” But he remains upbeat. “With this tour, 50,000 people will see the show, including at the big festivals like Glastonbury and Reading. The programs have articles and information on boycott, divestment and sanctions, they are intellectual ammunition and 15,000 have been printed. And the book will reach between 50 to 100,000 people.” He also reveals that he hopes to release a film of Walking The Wall in cinemas, which is something to look forward to. All things considered, Mark is “really pleased with this work.” And so he should be.
Extreme Rambling is published by Ebury Press on 7th April 2011
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