Political comic and activist Mark Thomas brings new show Black and White to Eastleigh | Big Interview

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The Guide is speaking with comic, activist and journalist Mark Thomas the day after The Queen’s funeral.

We are ostensibly talking about his new show, Black and White, but given the timing, The Guide couldn’t resist asking what someone who has previously described themselves as a ‘libertarian anarchist’ and renowned scourge of the establishment had made of the preceding fortnight.

Mark’s immediate response is laughter, followed by: ‘You do know who you're talking to?’

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He elaborates: ‘I started off thinking, when the Queen died – when Elizabeth Windsor died – obviously she's someone’s grandma, a human being has died, this is sad. People are going to be upset about that and we should respect the fact that they're upset. This is a genuine emotion. Whether I like the monarchy or not, people are going to be upset so I should respect that and give them space.’

Mark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022. Picture by Tony PlettsMark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022. Picture by Tony Pletts
Mark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022. Picture by Tony Pletts

‘By day two, I was like: “Come on, I'm joining Celtic...”’ Fans of the Scottish football club had unfurled an anti-monarchy banner during their Champions League tie shortly after The Queen’s death. It was revealed last week that the club was fined £13,000 by UEFA for the ‘provocative banner’.

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Speaking about the blanket media coverage, he goes on: ‘It just blows the myth of any kind of impartiality from media out of the water. It was essentially a two week long advertising campaign for the monarchy. The most inane broadcasting, the most cringe-worthy of reporting.

‘What has happened in Ukraine is momentous, that is absolutely really crucial, it's really important. I know people are saying: “This is historic”, well no, every day is historic. Don't tell me this is THE most historic day – every day is historic!

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Mark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022Mark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022
Mark Thomas is bringing his latest show, Black and White, to The Point in Eastleigh on October 22, 2022

‘Every day something more important than a 96-year-old billionaire dying peacefully at home happens. Every single day.

‘I started out thinking, be respectful, and I've managed to do that, but actually as someone who’s not a monarchist it's driven me completely nuts.’

It’s safe to say he’s no fan of the new king either. ‘The idea that Charles Windsor is better than me...? And yet he believes that because he's been given a God-given right to be The King. It's so illogical that this person is better than me because a magic man gave him special blood. That's insane!’

Mark’s 2013 show (and resulting book) was called 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – one of these was tutting at Buckingham Palace’s gates as a republican protest. Given the treatment (arrests, assaults from other members of the public) of similarly minor republican protests in the wake of The Queen’s death, Mark has some strong feelings on the matter.

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Mark Thomas. Picture by Steve UllathorneMark Thomas. Picture by Steve Ullathorne
Mark Thomas. Picture by Steve Ullathorne

’That was nuts. Being told that protest shouldn't happen and that there's a time and a place for everything and the state will tell you when. Well no, that's the whole point, actually, that the state doesn't tell us when to protest and we have a right to protest, whatever the state says.’

He recounts the story of a woman holding up a sign protesting the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Queen’s funeral (he ultimately didn’t attend), a regime Mark describes as ‘a human-rights abusing totalitarian theocracy’. But this woman ‘was prevented from holding up her sign by these weird people with no official power who emerged in hi-vis with a printed name on the back of it, and they can suddenly start telling you what to do.’

And then of course there was the 12 days of state mourning: ‘The forced mourning was absolutely hysterical. I went out yesterday and I was rocking the bi-curious football casual look with a big red fur coat. You walked into central London and it was like “Woah, what's happening here?” It’s like the goths have won. Everyone is wearing black. It was like this massive goth convention, but the goths had lost their sense of style and kept the colour.’

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So, did he watch the funeral? The one-word answer is emphatic: ‘No.’

To get somewhat back to the point, Mark is currently touring the UK with his new show, Black and White which is a return to straight-forward stand-up after several more conceptual shows.

‘Some of the other shows I've done have been plays. I can dress them up as other things, but they're essentially plays – plays performed by a comedian.

‘This show is going back to doing stand-up and having fun. The great thing about stand-up is you can just talk about whatever you want, and in that space I feel most whole – I feel most me, I feel most alive when I'm on stage. That's the thing I love doing. You get up on that stage and you can create a world, you can create whatever you want.

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‘Stand-up gives you the ability to improvise, to put in all the latest stuff and ideas, new material, much about, play with the audience – and that's actually what lockdown denied, this thing of community coming together, to celebrate.

‘The idea of having a laugh and being rude, singing songs, being silly, being disrespectful – of being a mob – that's what a community is. And that's what you get a chance to do in stand-up.’

Did he do much in the way of livestreaming or Zoom gigs during the lockdowns?

‘We showed old shows, and then did interviews with people after the show, so we did it as a livestream and we'd almost run it like a gig.

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‘We'd have me introduce it, to compere the event, we'd chat to people before the show, then we'd play the show, and then we'd stay on and have a chat at the end. We tried to make it as much like a gig as possible, but obviously it's not because you're not actually physically there.

‘We also did this stuff where we'd get guests along to talk about a particular theme of music, like “music and my parents”, but that was all fundraisers for the Trussell Trust [the charity working to end the need for food banks in the UK] and The Samaritans.

‘You'd ask people to choose a song, you'd chat to them about why that song was important to them then play it. It was like this weird version of Desert Island Discs involving 10 people.

‘There was a lovely chap called Oliver Lomax who is a magnificent poet who did a poem about the day his grandmother died. She had dementia and didn't recognise him, but suddenly sat bolt upright and sang Once I Had a Secret Love, an old Doris Day song. It's a beautiful song, and when you put it in that context, it's just…

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‘We'd do this and get people to donate as we went along. It was great fun.’

He says he did try a couple of straight-forward Zoom gigs but ‘they were ultimately unsatisfactory’.

‘People tried to find ways to communicate and bring about some normality to the place, but ultimately you were isolated.’

Given that Black and White deals with politics and that life seems to move faster than ever of late in that field (indeed some of the things we talk about are already outdated), has he had to adapt his show on the hoof?

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‘There's new material every day. I love that. I love that stand-up can react to things in a way that no other art form can. You can literally see something on the telly, walk on stage and tell people. That is outstanding – I love that about stand-up.

‘During the first Gulf War for example, stand-up was the only place you could have any dissent – it didn't happen on the news, not on the telly, not on radio, not in any form of the media. The film industry is far too late in catching up, so is theatre.’

Given this ability to react almost instantaneously, he says stand-up ‘becomes a beacon of dissent. That's quite interesting.’

Some have claimed in recent years, given the sometimes ludicrous actions of our political class, that satire is dead. It is a notion Mark has no truck with.

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‘That's just a nonsense. The desire to mock leaders for being stupid never dies. You get someone like Johnson, the fact that he was prime minister in the first place is astounding. And yet, what he did was absolutely remarkable,’ Mark is not being complimentary, ‘it doesn't stop you talking about it or mocking him, or attacking him and the ideas and the values that enabled him to get there.

‘If anything, it's the opposite – the more idiotic they are, the more satire there is because there's more outrage and more dissent.’

When we speak Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are just getting into their stride – the disastrous mini-budget and party conference, Kwarteng’s subsequent ousting and Jeremy Hunt’s return from the cold are yet to happen. You’ll have to see the show to find out what Mark thinks about them...

Black and White is at The Point, Eastleigh on Saturday, October 22. Go to thepointeastleigh.co.uk.

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