Mark Thomas attempts to define Britishness in new show 50 Things About Us at The Wedgewood Rooms
In his new show, 50 Things About Us, Mark Thomas combines his trademark mix of storytelling, stand-up, mischief and really, really well researched material to examine how we have come to inhabit this divided wasteland some of us call the United Kingdom.
Mark picks through the myths, facts and figures of our national identities to ask how we have so much feeling for such a hollow land. Who do we think we are?
It is a show about money, history, songs, gongs, wigs, unicorns, guns, bungs, sods of soil and rich people in the vein of The Manifesto-meets-sweary History Channel.
Mark reveals that the show’s origins lay in the still-looming shadow of the EU referendum and of course, Brexit.
‘I wanted to look at how we got here,’ he explains. ‘But it is and it isn't about Brexit – it's about us.
‘We're quite an odd nation. All nations have their own quirks, but I think one of our oddities is that we forget all the things that make us special, and then remember all the things that don't make us special and claim they do.
‘There's a really interesting rewriting of history that has gone on constantly. And actually, there's lots of interesting things about us.’
As with any talk to Mark, it’s peppered with trivia and anecdotes: ‘Like, do you know how many inhabited islands actually make up the British Isles? It’s 136, with 14 British independent overseas territories, which stretch from Tristan da Cunha, which is somewhere between Brazil and South Africa, in the middle of the ocean and it still has a Royal Mail delivery service, then down to The Falklands, and you’ve got Gibraltar – The Rock.
‘These are British independent overseas territories, so you got the Chagos islands, which is in the Indian Ocean, you've got the Caymans, Bermuda, all of those kind of places, British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos. They're all part of Britain, and actually, there's a real interesting thing there, which is how can you know who you are, unless you know where you are?’
And part of the problem, as Mark sees it, is the contant narrowing of the definition of Britishness.
‘It’s been going on for ages. I think it's about Englishness. Because Great Britain is obviously Wales, Scotland and England. The United Kingdom is Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, which was created in 1922.
‘Scotland became joined to England in 1707, which was the act of the union, which was really based upon the empire, and: “Ah, there's money to be had! And Wales was obviously a separate nation with its own language, its own system of kings.
‘Actually when you talk about “British”, normally it means “England and some supporting regiments from the extremities”.
‘When you talk about Britishness, actually a lot of it is Englishness – and a very peculiar strain of English nationalism that ignores the language differences that exist within the United Kingdom – you have Gaelic, you have Cornish, Irish, Scots, there’s even Ulster Scots.
‘There's all these different things which are marginalised and are lumped into this homogenous thing of Britishness, and by Britishness I mean Newcastle down to about Exeter – and we’re not that interested in Norfolk, so we’ll lob that off. It does get increasingly narrow.
‘And there's this real thing about English nationalism, which is a history that believes that we went alone, that we did it alone, that we are the product of this glorious isolationism.
‘That we're this nation of conquerors, inventors and warriors and political geniuses who can make things happen just because of the fact that we're British. That we’re born on this island and somehow the mixture of blood and soil and intellect and society makes us special.
‘And it doesn't.
‘What it does do is to exclude vast swathes of history.’
He mentions the sinking of the SS Mendi off of the Isle of Wight in 1917 as an example close to home here. While 646 people died in the tragedy, the incident is unknown by most.
‘Six-hundred-and-fifty-odd black servicemen from South Africa died because they were run over by another British ship while they're on their way to go and dig trenches in World War One.
‘That’s an example where you've got local history which is really important, and you question how that is celebrated, you question how long it’s being celebrated for, you question the reach of its impact.
‘You question the fact that actually, there are millions of people who came to fight in World War One, but there’s this idea that we did it, and during World War Two we did it.
‘It is incredible, the way that we've written out black and Asian service people from the history of it.
‘I became fascinated by this idea of how we've done this, and how we've kind of written ourselves as comic book heroes.
‘Do you remember those comics like Victor, and Battle and Commando and all of that?
‘That's really where we are, we've got a nation of people who believe they were some kind of documentary. And Boris Johnson genuinely expected the EU to emerge tattered and beaten out of a bunker with a white flag, with Merkel going: “Ach, damn, der Britishers!”’
While Mark’s brand of cynicism and inquisitiveness about the institutions that have made us who were, he adds: ‘there's also lots of positive things about us.’
One of these is The Charter of The Forest.
‘It was the world's first economic charter, and it was done a couple years after the Magna Carta.
It gave us rights to pick up twigs and berries and leaves and water and soil and peat, and all that kind of stuff. But it was an economic charter.
‘And it was in existence until 1971 when the Tories abolished it.
‘That's an amazing thing. And the original copy is in Lincoln Cathedral.
‘It used to be read out once a year in churches, which is an incredibly political thing because most people couldn’t read if you go back to that time, and the church was one place where everyone attended – from the landowners and the aristocracy through to the peasants.
‘To read out the Charter of The Forest was to remind everyone what their rights were in front of the nobility and landowners. That’s a real political act.’
Then there’s the Skelmanthorpe banner which is in a tiny village in Yorkshire where Mark used to live when he was at college.
‘It's right in the middle of nowhere. If you do a bus route from Wakefield to Huddersfield, the bus doesn't stop at Skelmanthorpe. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the bus stop up the hill to get out to this village. It's right at the top of this hill.
‘And its nickname is Shat. The first time I went there as a student, I walk into a pub, get a pint and this guy goes: “What brings thou t’Shatt?”’ he laughs. ‘It's a gruff, brilliant, vibrant place that's full of real history.’
The banner was made in response to the Peterloo massacre in 1819, when government militias charged a 60,000-strong peaceful protest calling for parliamentary reform. At least 15 protesters were killed.
‘When the Peterloo massacre happened the people of Skelmanthorpe handstitched a banner pledging allegiance for universal suffrage and to fight slavery.
‘This banner used to appear on marches and the authorities hated it. They tried to find it and people took turns in hiding the banner around Skelmanthorpe.
‘This is a brilliant little tiny bit of our history, and somehow it's regarded as not important.’
The show is basically Mark’s chance to highlight and revel in some of these hidden elements of our past – things Mark wants to bring back into the light, and show how they’ve shaped the people and nation we are today.
‘There's lots of really weird things, and you just think: “Why don't we celebrate that?”’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Sunday, December 1