Mark Thomas has adopted many roles over his established and distinguished career; political activist, satirical stand-up, storyteller, theatre-maker, social commentator – all woven and embroiled in a passion for dissecting and experimenting with thorny social issues. His new show Bravo Figaro, which is coming to the Traverse this Fringe, steps more into Thomas’ personal life to explore the complex relationship he has with his father, and addresses how family values, heritage and purpose can have an overwhelming yet mysteriously subtle influence on our lives.
Close to ten years ago, Thomas’ father was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a degenerative disease which debilitates specific parts of the brain. Thomas remembers life as a child, growing up in his family and focuses on the relationship with his father, how his dad’s love of opera rubbed off on him and ultimately how he has communicated with his father as the disease worsened.
We spoke to Mark about how his previous solo work is connected to this new show, but also about the changing role of the stand-up and how political commedy has evolved (or regressed) over the years.
Would you say that Bravo Figaro is one of your least “political” shows?
The show is the most personal show I have done but that doesn’t mean it is the least political. The least overtly political yes but the politics are still there. The decision to do this show now is based on family circumstance and a bizarre series of coincidences rather than a political decision.
How can a show about a man who is working class and leaves school with no qualifications, and then discovers a love of the most elite of art forms (namely opera), be anything but political? The notion of the family being the template for all our artistic endeavours is not a new one either: the family is our first encounter with love, betrayal, power, obedience, rebellion and trust; surely it is the basis – at some point at least – of all performers’ and writers’ work. In America there is a fine tradition of the family being the basis for a ‘state of the nation’ address: Miller, Steppenwolf, O’ Neil, Williams, et al. Although Bravo Figaro is not a state of the nation address, the whole show is steeped in my father’s working class aspiration and about class barriers and art.
Secondly, I would add that the form is somewhat political. Instead of me telling the stories, I have recorded interviews with my family that are woven throughout the show. So my family literally help tell the tale of what has happened to my dad. There is a level of reality that enters the show that is not commonplace. This is not just a story about family; my family help tell it, and in doing so claim the ownership of it.
How does your work as a comic relate to this show (a more theatrical project)?
The show is more theatrical yes. But my shows have been more becoming more theatrical for the past 11 years ever since the Dambusters in 2001 – the show that detailed the campaign against British support for a Turkish dam that would affect up to 78,000 Kurds (which incidentally we won the campaign and the companies pulled out of the project ⅔rds of the way through the tour).
I stopped doing stand up 11 years ago. What I do is: go off. Have adventure. Return. Tell story. My shows have been about Coca Cola, arms dealing, the right to protest and rambling the length of the Israeli barrier, they are increasingly theatrical/story-based shows. The remarkable thing is that it has taken critics up until now to notice.
How do you think the role of the political comic has changed over the years, if at all? How are young stand-ups engaged in politics today?
There are loads of good young stand-ups who are becoming increasingly more political and there are political comedy clubs emerging like Lolitics or Josie Long’s Alternative Reality gigs. Live work is where it is happening. Last year, Westminster Bridge was occupied by protestors against NHS cuts, I did a comedy gig (organised by Chris Coltrane) on the bridge with at least 10 other comics (mics powered by bike generator and audience members who took turns cycling). We performed political comedy on a squatted bridge opposite Parliament and hemmed in by the police. I would argue that is fairly political.
I think comics find it easier to mock politicians due to shows like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, AND because MPs, bankers and press barons are common popular targets. But there are a sizeable group of young comics who are activists or associate with activists and this is having a hugely political impact on their work. It is very exciting.
How has TV political comedy changed? Well from personal experience, when I worked on telly I got tax dodges shut down and Gordon Brown (then chancellor) changed tax law as a result of my TV show. Now we have Jimmy Carr. But that is only TV comedy and if you look for political comedy on TV you will spend a long time searching.
What has happened to TV comedy?
Stand up dominates it: it is cheaper to do a panel show where comics write their own material and have a vested interest in making it work rather than get writers to write scripts, hire script editors, actors, rehearsals, set design and all the stuff that goes into making a good sitcom. There are exceptions – I loved Mighty Boosh, and The Thick of It is a wonderful exception. It is easier if you are a TV executive to buy in a good US sitcom than nurture a British one.
So topical panel shows dominate comedic TV output or topical shows like Russell Howard, but what they tend to do is reflect the media coverage back at us rather than explore an issue. They rely on an assumed level of knowledge about a topical event and make gags about that. Have I Got News For You is brilliant at getting Tory politicians like Louise Mensch and making them look stupid. It is also partially responsible for launching Boris Johnson’s Mayoral career. 8 Out of 10 cats is really good at getting Sean Locke into a subject and pissing about with Carr but you could never say they were attempting to hold people to account or look at ideas. These are shows where one liners rule.
So how do we get more political comedy on screen?
Well, other than a series of benign cultural assassinations, I have no idea. It might be better to just develop political art and comedy at grassroots level before we sell its future down that long dark river of adverts.
An excerpt from Mark Thomas’ Comedy Product.