When the call from Mark Thomas comes through, it sounds like he’s dialling from a wind tunnel. “No, I’m outside the BBC and it’s looking like they might move me on.” This is a man who would recognise the signs. Known as much for his political activism as he is for the award-winning comedy (often fuelled by the former), Mark isn’t on a mission today. Unless you count telling as many people as he can about his tour.
Following another sell-out Edinburgh Fringe last summer, the 51-year-old – referred to as an ‘elder statesman’ of stand up in the tour blurb I’ve received – has been taking Cuckooed to the wider UK masses since he kicked off the tour in Durham last November. Later this month he’ll return to the region – Northern Stage in Newcastle to be specific on February 20.
As anyone who caught the show at the Gala Theatre will know, Cuckoeed sees Mark telling the true story of how Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, came to spy on a comedian (him). Promising a tale of “hubris, planes, demos and undercover deceit”, it has garnered five star reviews aplenty, so it’s fair to assume there should a cracking night of comedy on the cards too.
“I was delighted with how the show went (in Edinburgh). I really adore the festival,” he says. “What’s brilliant is you get to take part, but also get to witness this amazing arts festival where you will see things you wouldn’t see anywhere else. One year this bloke came into a coffee shop I was in and says: ‘Come and see my opera, it’s based on the interview Melvyn Bragg did with Francis Bacon when they got pissed and talked about the human form’. I was in,” he laughs. “I remember going to see a medical student revue which was so bad, I went back to see it twice… then this year I saw a stunning piece called Sister, which was one of the best things pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful.”
Much as I’d like to hear more about the Bragg/Bacon opera, we’d better get back to Cuckooed. As is often the case with a new show from Mark Thomas, this one is very different to what has gone before in his particular comedy catalogue.
Via his stand up and associated TV series, he has stopped armed deals; created a manifesto (and brought the winning policy to parliament); walked the length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank; and completed 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, (including taking the police to court over surveillance and finding a new definition for the word ‘Farage’).
“This story dates back to 2003,” he says of Cuckooed. “That’s when Martin was first exposed as a spy, but there was a group of us (from Campaign Against the Arms Trade CAAT) who were very good friends with him and wouldn’t believe it. It took a year for me to go and look at the evidence and see that he had been spying.” It was another three years before court documents rubber stamped the fact that someone Mark considered a close friend was no such thing. “He was aware of the accusations and he played us all for a year,” says Mark. “He denied it… and we thought it would be an act of betrayal to consider that he’d been a spy.”
Since finding out the truth, Mark says he has often thought about making a show out of the story. “There’s a group of us involved who were very good friends with Martin and took the decision together to tell, what is in many ways a communal story – not least because I’ve interviewed other members of the group and we play clips in to help tell it.” Mark says although he didn’t anticipate any kind of catharsis from making the show, it has helped him and his CAAP comrades work some things through.
“We were completely shocked and humiliated by what happened. It turns out, for all of us involved in making the show, it was really good to bring this out and declare it publicly. The weird thing about it all is that we’re closer than we’ve been in a long time. In the end you’d be mad to work as a campaigner and not consider the possibility you’re being spied upon. But equally, you would also be mad if you let it obsess you,” he says on what the experience has taught him.
Onwards and upwards, after the tour, Mark is excited by plans to take the show to New York as well as taking a previous triumph, Bravo Figaro, a moving show about his opera-loving dad, to Australia later this year.
“But I’m sure we’ll be able to find time to write something for Edinburgh as well,” he assures. Maybe he’s heard on the grapevine the Med-Student Revue is making a comeback.
February 11th 2015