PAUL BOROSS (00:00:00):
This is part one of the Mark Thomas experience. Enjoy. Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me, Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the world’s of business, sport, politics, and entertainment, who are here to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve every aspect of your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts.
My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is an award-winning comedian, journalist and formerly host of the Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4 where he was well known for pulling political, practical jokes. He revels in combining comedy with political activism as an alternative comic. He’s built a career in this sweet spot between politics, comedy, and investigative journalism. Most recently, he’s the author of the brilliantly enlightening and hilarious 50 Things About Us, – What We Really Need to Know About Britain, where he takes a closer look at lesser-known facts about our nation. Despite winning the Time Out Comedy Award and being awarded the Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour, I believe that his most impressive achievement is his Guinness World Record for hosting 20 political protests in under 24 hours. Mark Thomas, welcome to the Humourology Podcast.
MARK THOMAS (00:01:53):
PAUL BOROSS (00:01:53):
What the viewer and the listener doesn’t know is we see each other every week or so at the football at AFC Wimbledon.
MARK THOMAS (00:02:02):
I rather like that. I like the fact that we have a sort of a… not just that we meet every week, but we know where we are gonna meet and we know when we are gonna meet, and that at halftime we will always meet under the little flyover and that’ll be us. We’ll be just by the bar and that a group will gather and we will dissect and discuss the failures, and occasionally the successes of the team. And I kind of, I think it’s one of my highlights actually. I love our little meetings and just the way that people congregate around.
PAUL BOROSS (00:02:35):
It is, I mean that’s really what it is for people who don’t know. That’s the community of football whereby, and it’s beautiful at AFC Wimbledon, cuz that happens if only the football could match the beauty of those moments.
MARK THOMAS (00:02:50):
Do, you know, I was doing a gig the other night and it is in fact on Saturday night after Wimbledon had lost and I said, I follow AFC Wimbledon and a whole load of people at The Banana Cabaret, which, you know, has got that balcony at the top. Yeah. So “You Dons” and “You Dons”, “You Dons”. All of this was going on. Scared the fuck out of the middle class in the centre. They really wobbled <laugh>. It was just absolutely brilliant. And it was very funny just talking about, I said, I follow Wimbledon, not for the football, but because I really like singing in public and I’m not religious, so all I’ve got is the football. And in fact, I think church would be improved if you put in on Sunday highlights from Saturday over the altar during communion. Cuz you get a whole load of football fans in – the singing would just be brilliant.
PAUL BOROSS (00:03:40):
Well, yeah, and just as the priest was about to do the sacrament, you go, “woo”… <laugh>
MARK THOMAS (00:03:53):
… you’re saved,ah! We are Baptists, Super Baptists. So you’d get all of that going on.
PAUL BOROSS (00:03:57):
Oh God, no. I think there’s, there’s a plan there.
Old man said be a Methodist. I saif f off… Anyway, <laugh>,
I think we found our level.
MARK THOMAS (00:04:14):
I got heckled as well on Saturday night by a woman who just very drunkenly went “I’m an RE teacher at a Catholics girls school” <laugh>. She’s just like, I said, that’s lovely. That’s lovely. Is there anyone else who doesn’t have sex?
PAUL BOROSS (00:04:33):
Oh, what great comeback. Oh, well, we’ll come on to heckles and life on the circuit later on because, I wanna start with, you grew up in southwest London. Yeah with a midwife mother and a, a self-employed builder father. What was humour actually valued at home?
MARK THOMAS (00:04:53):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean it was, I mean really, especially cuz my dad was quite violent and genuinely was. He would… there was a stage where we would turn up in court once a year to see him bound over to keep the peace. It was completely true. And we were just, we were the family. We were the happy family who were put in the courtroom. Do you know what I mean? And my dad, because he was, he was a lay preacher as well as a builder and also foul-mouthed and, and physically violent. He got on very well with the bloke next door who was a Salvation Army captain who loved my dad. He loved my dad. And so this guy who was from Norfolk used to come and used to be the character witness.
And he’d stand there going, I’ve known Colin Thomas for many years. Colin is a family man. Colin is a Christian man. Colin is a hard-working… we are all standing there going, I wish I knew this bloke, he sounds great. So yeah, humour was quite important because not only was it a way of sort of like, it was a very hierarchical, you know, sort of like paternal, you know, literally my dad was Old Testament, you know, he looked like Moses with syphilis and he had this incredible, sort of physical strength to him. And so when you are intimidated like that, the one thing you’ve got is humour. That’s the one thing you have. And humour always had a special place in our house because it was the one place where my dad could relax. It was the one thing you could feel safe.
Um, so, and this is just true, my dad would come in after work and he would… there was a whole ritual of putting away the scrap metal and, you know, cutting up wood and all this kind of stuff. And he would have his bath in the morning. My dad always had a bath in the morning. So he was clean for work, which showed his priorities. <laugh> and, all right, love, let’s just snuggle up next to the concrete dust, come on. But, you know, and he had his old pair, he had his favourite leather armchairs. And what he used to do was he’d come in after tea, after he’d sorted out all the woods and the scrap metal and all of that, he’d go into the living room and he’d sit in his favourite leather armchair, but he didn’t wanna get his dirty builders trousers on the chair.
So he’d drop his trousers around his ankles and sit in the leather armchair in his long johns right and I always used to go, this is, this is great. Cuz he’d laugh at Steptoe and Son some for being uncouth. And it was just like, it was perfect. And on more than one occasion, cuz people used to come round after tea to ring the doorbell and go, all right, Colin, we’ve got a bit of a job on for you. So all local people used to turn up and you’d discuss the business on the doorstep. And more than once you’d hear my dad go, oh, bettter put me fucking trousers on. And so he would, and it would go the door. But that one place, it was that one place. So it was the one place that humour was allowed.
And Dave Allen and Steptoe and Son were the heroes. They were the absolute heroes. Steptoe and Son my dad because they, it was sort of like, it was Gaulton and Simpson. It was written brilliantly. And it reflected some part of his experience. Do you know what I mean? Of working class and a making do – like my dad would never throw anything out. He’d never throw… everything was saved he was an environmentalist before it became fashionable. He used to save everything. My job when I was eight, I used to burn the lead off of brass fittings with the blow torch and catch it in a ladle. And it was all to prepare everything for the scrapyard. Let me tell you the story. We used to go up the scrapyard, right?
And there was a, they had a car crush. Everyone knew my dad. There was, it was where actually the scrapyard is where that that big lovely place in Chelsea is, you know Chelsea Harbour? You know that posh? Oh yes, yes. That’s where the scrapyard used to be. They used to have a scrap metal crusher – car crusher. And we’d get there one day and the car crusher is on fire. Right? And the bloke running, it’s standing there with a fag, a cup of tea. And there’s a few members of Fire Brigade, my dad went bloody. Yeah. He said, yeah, someone left some petrol in the tank. Normally you drain it, but someone must have left it in and a few sparks and bang up it goes. And my dad went Bloody hell. He said how, what? He said, all you can do is just stand around. Just stand around, have a cup of tea and a fag, and wait for it and call the Fire Brigade again. All you’ve gotta do is wait for it to go out. You can’t do anything. And my dad said, how often does this happen? He said, every time I’ve got a hangover!
So Steptoe and Son represented a part of my dad’s existence, you know what I mean? Dave Allen was just a genius.
PAUL BOROSS (00:09:33):
Did you not write for Dave Allen?
MARK THOMAS (00:09:36):
I tried to, I was, I was very bad at it. I was very bad at it. I adored Dave Allen. I thought he was, he was just… him and Billy Connolly are the nearest we’ve got, see you see Dave Allen and you see Billy Connolly. Right? I was talking to mate about this. Peter Cook was described by John Cleese as the gatekeeper for the field that we now all play in. I described Alexei Sayle as the bloke who booted down the squat so that we could all get in and muck about. In that squat on the wall was a picture of Billy Connolly where Jesus should have been. Cuz we could never be like him. We would never, ever, ever, we could have people like Alexei Sayle and Peter Cook and you know, John and all those people who could inspire us, but Billy Connolly, Dave Allen, we would never be as good as them. They were genius.
PAUL BOROSS (00:10:35):
MARK THOMAS (00:10:36):
So this was the story I was gonna tell you, Paul. What it was, was the power of a joke
I’m banished from the doorstep when the business meetings are going on right after tea, doorbell, bloke comes around, I need you to fix the gutters. Is there, do you think you can da da da da da, you have a little natter you have a dance, you do the thing. My dad come turns and says, I’ll put you in the book. Right? That’s how it goes. And there’s a lot of “how’s your missus” and “did you see so and so?” It’s all that kind of stuff. But kids aren’t allowed on the doorstep. Let’s just, when the business is done, kids aren’t allowed on. So we’re watching Steptoe and Son. The doorbell goes, it’s Jim from like three on the other side. Um, Jim Darby, that was his name, and he comes over to talk to my dad and Steptoe and Son is on, and it’s, uh, the time that VAT has just been introduced, right?
Uh, so VAT didn’t exist until the early seventies when it came in and there was a joke on it. And he goes, “when’s he gonna come and visit us?” He said, “what you on about? He said, the Prime Minister. What about it? The Prime Minister visiting us? Yeah. VAT – Visiting All Totters. Now Totters was what scrap metal merchant used to be called. So visiting all… my dad used to call himself, “I’m a totter”, so that’s what, so I heard the gag, thought it was hysterical, ran out onto the doorstep. Uh, Jim Darby goes, all right, little ‘un my dad goes, get out of it, you know? And I said, when’s he gonna visit us? He said, what’s you on about? I said, the Prime Minister. My dad goes, what? I said, VAT. And Jim Darby goes, VAT? I said, visiting all totters. And they both laughed and Jim Darby said, you’ve got a right one there, Colin. And my dad held my hand, let me stay on the doorstep. Power of a joke.
PAUL BOROSS (00:12:17):
Oh man. So, that was the seminal moment. Was it where you suddenly went?
MARK THOMAS (00:12:22):
Yeah. Yeah. And you could see it, you know, something hits you inside and you go, that’s how powerful this is.
PAUL BOROSS (00:12:29):
And I mean, but were you there for then, the, the kid at school who actually thought, I’m gonna do this and well, the class clown classic, you know, um, branding of
MARK THOMAS (00:12:47):
Sort of, I was, I used to be able to impersonate all the other boys really well. And so w it kind of saved me from getting clumped every now and again. Um, yeah. Uh, but also I, I, I wasn’t bad at clumping people. So <laugh> <laugh>,
PAUL BOROSS (00:13:04):
Best of both worlds.
MARK THOMAS (00:13:06):
Yeah, I always like proper creative mischief. Something that would really cause someone some distress. You want mischief to be… my mate once was, was at school, they had these study rooms and my mate once had his nose broken by a bully. And so when he left, we got into his study room and he had all these posters and everything. And we got hold of some, like, some really thick, like a brie cheese, like a soft cheese, like Primulas and stuff like that. And we smeared it all over the walls and then put the posters back on, right. <laugh> for the next six months. He was just going, what the fuck is it here? I dunno what it is. I’ve tried everything <laugh> and it is just that kind of like, I’ll get ya.
PAUL BOROSS (00:14:05):
Yeah. Well, yeah, so that’s the through line in it. I mean was there also what I would call a show-off gene in there as well? Because I think, yeah, we all kind of had it in a certain way.
MARK THOMAS (00:14:19):
Of course. Look, we are just highly evolved showoffs who get paid money for showing off. That’s what it is…. basically is. We are the baboons with the brightest arses. That’s what it’s Right. <laugh> and what we do is show off and we show off in creative ways. And I love that. I love that. I love the fact that, um, like you, you, you know, when you do a gig a lot, I did a gig on Saturday and the audience were half their half night, it’s 40 minutes now. There’s loads and loads of political stuff. Some of it they jumped on, some of they didn’t, but I really fucking rammed them and got ’em and all of that. And it was just like a fucking battle. And at the end of it, I walked up to, and there’s half a dozen comics and they’re mates, and they went, that was fucking rock and roll, Mark. And it was like, that’s what matters.
PAUL BOROSS (00:15:06):
MARK THOMAS (00:15:07):
Those eight people on the balcony, my peers, that’s what matters.
PAUL BOROSS (00:15:14):
But that was always the way, wasn’t it? That we were always much more interested in – going back to the audience should know that we first met in 1985 at the Comedy Store. Yeah, yeah. Which is… and it was always more important that your peers liked what you did. And I remember we used to play a lot of the time to Kim Kinnie and Stan – who was the sound man – and if they were laughing, the whole audience could be quiet, but if they laughed, you’d, you’d kind of won, hadn’t you?
MARK THOMAS (00:15:50):
Yeah. Yeah. And I loved it when you used to be able to get, when they were running gags, when everyone had to try and put a word into the set on the late show or something stupid like that – Kumquat, I remember kumquat <laugh> just appearing, and it would, sometimes people couldn’t put it in their set, so just go, I’m so and so Kumquat, and then leave <laugh> <laugh>. And it was just, and I think you have to have those little things. So, comedy works on all sorts of different levels and it also represents all sorts of different threats. And it’s also, you know, it is as welcoming as it is threatening. It depends who you are. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, do you know what I mean? I’ll give you an example of this.
When… we used to have big Sunday dues, right? So my nan lived with us, so everyone come round and my dad built this enormous table. Everyone would get around this table, everyone squeezed up Sunday lunch, you’d go down the Lord Napier jazz pub, lunchtime, right? All in the builder’s vans bouncing around. And you’d get a few pints in, listen to the jazz, and you’d go back and Sunday lunch would appear, and there’d be all sorts. There’d be uncles and aunts and, you know, cousins. And there’d always be someone you didn’t know. There’d be a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Once my uncle Norman brought back a woman, he said, I met her in the pub. She just didn’t have anywhere to go. And we’re like, thanks for bringing her home. So, you know, there’s all these people turned up for Sunday lunch, and we’re sitting ithere, I used to have a girlfriend called Jo from Manchester, from Urmston
And she always used to try and kind of make herself kind of access to the family by using London colloquialisms. Do you know what I mean? She used to try and just to try and get herself more in with the family. And I remember once we were sitting there, my Norman goes, Jo, do you wanna top up of your wine? And she turned around and went, yeah, just a minge. And my uncle Norm, he thought minge meant a small amount of top up. I mean, I’d just have a minge and mean Uncle Norman just played it straight and went, do you want a minge? Would everyone get Joe a minge? Please? Do you want a red winge or a white minge? Do you want a minge? Okay, get her… would someone get Joe a red minge? And played it for about five minutes before we all just cracked up and told her what it meant. Anyway, ever since that moment, a minge has in our house means a small amount of liquid, right? Yeah. So, uh, and it’s kind of like used as a family thing. So when my, my nephew George bought his girlfriend round once, he goes, Nan, do you want a cup of tea? She went just a minge of milk. And it was just, yeah, you just have to go. So that’s what it means now. So humour becomes this way of inviting you into the gang.
PAUL BOROSS (00:18:35):
Oh, that’s interesting, isn’t it? That it is a gang. And how we relate to people is, do you get this?
MARK THOMAS (00:18:42):
Do you know it? Here’s the initiation ritual. Come and join us.
PAUL BOROSS (00:18:47):
So how important is that in everyday life? Because I think it’s crucial that if you don’t, if you don’t, actually, and this doesn’t… we were just doing an, interview with Helena Kennedy, the Baroness Helena Kennedy, who’s the equal opportunities lawyer. And she was fascinating about this. She came from the south side of Glasgow of tenements, and now she’s in the House of Lords. And that humour is still that conduit that allows her into all these spaces, which she, and I think that you are allowed in any space because of your playfulness, and you are funny. And which is kind of the entry ticket, isn’t it?
MARK THOMAS (00:19:39):
I think it is. It does let you into places that you wouldn’t normally get into. And,
I mean, humour’s used all over the place. Do you know what I mean? And it’s not just the social interaction. It allows social interactions. It allows us to be self-deprecating and pull back the threat of ourselves. It allows us to give someone who thinks they’re better than us, a little slap, you know, gently and just put them in their place. There is the shared thing where you share something, you laugh at something that’s around you or someone who’s near you, and you share something so you bond together. So humour is really, really important for that. But I think there’s a bigger, I mean, it is socially, it’s vital. It’s absolutely vital. You couldn’t exist, you know? Was it Chaplin who said, ‘A day without laughter is the wasted day’, you know, which is beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing. And Orwell actually said, each joke is a revolution, a tiny revolution, which I think is kind of like, yeah, but you’ve, you’ve obviously never been bullied properly because each joke isn’t a tiny revolution. Each joke is, well, you’re either going up or you’re going down, you know, you’re punching up or you’re punching down. You’re making someone the target who’s worthy of being a target, or you’re attacking someone who’s not worthy of being a target and bullying. So that’s the, the essence of satire. Why would you, why would you go after people who aren’t in power? You need to go after people who are in power. That’s the whole gig of it. And, and people in power don’t like it.
PAUL BOROSS (00:21:10):
Well, that’s because they can’t, they can’t play at that level, can they? Because it’s like, oh, any totalitarian regime, the first thing they do is close down theatre and comedy. Because,
MARK THOMAS (00:21:23):
PAUL BOROSS (00:21:23):
They can’t control it.
MARK THOMAS (00:21:25):
They can’t control it. And there’s that great quote, I’m bastardising it, but it’s, the truth is written on the toilet door. Do you know what I mean? That actually, that’s gonna be, yeah. That’s where you find the last bastion of freedom of speech is the back of a toilet door. Um, it’s also where you find some very interesting people, Paul <laugh>. There is something to be said for that. And I think the thing that, that they don’t like is taken away respect. You can rule through fear. This is The Name of the Rose. You can rule through fear, but laughter will undermine fear. Right? Laughter undermines it. And you’ve only gotta look at how many cartoonists are jailed in Turkey, in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, in Egypt. You know, how many, you know, cartoonists are shot dead, not just in Paris, but around the world. In Chile, cartoonists were rounded up. You know, these are people in power don’t like this feeling that we are all laughing at them. They don’t like it cause it spreads. And that undermines their authority, it undermines their fear. And who knows, we might actually take them out of power.
PAUL BOROSS (00:22:48):
Well, and it’s also, they can’t control it. Yeah. And they don’t like anything that they can’t, uh, control. And so, uh, at which point, I mean, in South Africa, you know, I I had a mate who actually was part of a theatre group, but had to leave in the middle of the night because he got word that they were coming after the theatre group. Yeah.
MARK THOMAS (00:23:09):
Well, it says…in Myanmar, The Moustache Brothers are a satirical group. And they were jailed. They were just banged up. You know, they used to appear on demos occasionally, and you could go, you could, you could go and see ’em if you’re a tourist, you could go and see the satirical show. But they’d be banged up if they performed it in public. So let the tourists see it, but don’t let the populace at it. You know, this still goes on. It went on during, you know, Britain actually had the censorship laws, you know, up until the late fifties, I think it was, where everything had to go through the Lord Chancellor. Yes. And you had a blue pencil, right? And so, so radio sketches, tele sketches, anything that… a double act had to go through. The Lord Chancellor – songs had to go through the Lord Chancellor, you know?
And so you ended up with, with people who would have, there’d be blue pencil marks through the things you couldn’t say. And in fact, one comic used to use the word blue pencil instead of swearing. I was walking down the Blue Pencil road the other day, and this right blue pencil comes. So, it was like a way of undermining the censorship as well as acknowledging it. So you get people like…you’d also use, you get lewdness, people were accused of lewdness. Harry Champion was taken to court. Harry Champion did Bob Beef and carrots and in the old I and was taken to court for singing lewd songs. And in court he was, he stood on, he stood up and said, your honour, I ain’t paid to step upon the musical stage and sing hymns <laugh>. It’s just such a lovely thing. People don’t, people in your authority want you to keep the authority. They want to keep the respect. So actually humour undermines it. And it’s brilliant. That’s what it’s fantastic at.
PAUL BOROSS (00:24:52):
Well, I think you’re, you’re quite right. And you’ve used it as kind of a battering ram to actually find the truth, haven’t you? A lot of the time.
MARK THOMAS (00:25:05):
Well, I think it’s not just find the truth. You want to, I mean, it, it is changing things. You wanna change things. We did a thing, I’ll tell you. Can tell you a very quick story’s an old… right? And it, this actually happened. There’s a law called the Condition Exempt Works of Art List where if you inherit works of art, you put ’em on a list and you don’t get to pay tax. Right? It applies to land and buildings and all of this. The thing was, you couldn’t find out what works of art were there, who had ’em, where they were, how you could see ’em. So you had a theoretical right to see them. We allowed you not to pay tax, but you had to let the public in, but the public weren’t allowed to know where it was or who had it or how to get there, right?
So, we did a campaign. We found out some of the people who’d got, we found out a few bits and pieces about people on the list. One of them was Nicholas Soames, Nicholas Soames was ex-Armed Forces minister and good friends of Charles Windsor and was once described by a girlfriend – he’s a very large man – he was once described by a former girlfriend in Private Eye, she said, making love with Nicholas Soames was like having a large cupboard fall on you with the key sticking out. Now he had a lovely Three tier mahogany buffet table with partially reeded slender balister upright supports of which I’m incredibly fond. And he hadn’t paid tax on it. So we had a right to visit it. So I wrote saying, can I come and see your Three tier mahogany buffet table with partialy lreeded slender balister supports said, yes, you can, uh, make an appointment.
So we made an appointment a couple of days before. I said, I got in contact and said, look, some mates of mine have heard about the Three tier mahogany buffet table with partially reeded slender balister upright supports. We were talking about in the pub. It’s very popular, they’d like to come along. You don’t believe how popular it is. And he said, well, they can’t. I said, well, they’ve got a right to see it. He said, yes, if they wish to see it, they should make individual applications. So we got about 300 people to make individual applications to see the Three tier mahogany buffet table with partially reeded slender balister upright supports. He goes, nuts puts it in Christie’s auction house over two weeks and people can go in, right? And so we arrived to see it and we were encouraging people just getting loads of people come and see it, come and see it.
And we, we dressed up as works of art. So my mate came as the Mona Lisa, another friend of mine came as a Salvador Dali painting. So they had a clock falling out of them. My mate Paul came as Robert Mapplethorpe in a bold move in chaps and a leather thong. So we, we are queuing up and they said, you can’t film, you can’t take photographs cuz they’re frightened to put it on the tele show. And it’d get more people on. Said, you can’t film no photography. So we had bought every other method of recording an image. We had got clay modellers, we got pipe modellers, we had got courtroom artists, we had got sketches, we had got etch-a-sketches, we had got everything. We had got people with very good memories that were going at six three long and, you know, it was all of it.
So, anyway, we encouraged people to go and see him. And a little bit later, mates of mine phone up and said, look, we’ve tried to get to see Three tier mahogany buffet table with partially reeded slender balister upright supports but he’s not replying to us. I thought, well, that’s not the game. That’s not how it works. So I phoned up the Inland revenue and dobbed him in and said, look, I wish to report a crime <laugh>. And they said, well, he might not show you the coffee table for several reasons. I said, what reasons? And I said, well, we can’t tell you his tax affairs. And I said, well, no, but what are the reasons? He said, well, one is he might not show you it because he had had it destroyed. And I said, I have heard of no such tragedy befalling the House of Soames.
He said, neither have I. He said, the other reason is someone might have stolen it. I said, I’ve heard of no such act of vandalism. He said, neither have I. He said, the third and final reason is someone might not let you see it because they’ve paid the tax. I said, has he? He said, I can’t possibly disclose personal tax information, however that is the third and final reason. So years passed by, and I see I’m visiting an MP in Port Cullis house. I’m walking past the atrium where they’ve got all the coffee shops and all the like, MPs and secretaries and lobbyists are all sitting around. And I see Nicholas Soames and I rush over and just sit in front of him very rudely and go, Nicholas Soames, do you remember me? Mark Thomas, Channel 4 He goes, yes. I said, you’ve got Three tier mahogany buffet table with partially reeded Slender balister upright mahogany coffee table. Yes. I said, I hope you’re looking after it. He said, yes. I said, did you take it off the list? Said yes. I said, did you pay tax? Yes. I was like, fucking gotcha!
Gotcha. And we changed the law on that. We’re mentioned in the House of Commons of changing the law, tightening up the loopholes, you know, and that’s really exciting that you can use it like that, that you can use comedy like that, I’ve ended up giving evidence before the select committee on three a select committees on three occasions, right? Once was before privileges the privilege committee that were looking at public office people, people in public bodies. And there’s quite strict rules on public bodies about what you should declare. And we found loads and loads of cases of people who hadn’t declared things. So what we did, we got Howard Marks the convicted drug smuggler and Jo Guest, who is a female model, and Jo Guest turned up, she was great. She turned up, she goes, I’ve got the kit on if you want me to wear it.
No, we’re all right. We’re all right. And we got Howard Marks and Jo Guest to photo up all these people going, you’ve made mistakes on your entries over your public bodies and the requirements. We’d like you to apologise for it. <laugh>. So we were getting, you know, glamour models and drug dealers to, to phone up and have a go at them. The funniest moment. I thought Joe Guest arrives with all this stuff. And the production manager goes Bloody hell cuz she’s got these enormous pair of stiletto’s, got perspex stilettos. And Catherine says, how’d you walk in those? And she went, I don’t <laugh>.
So you can use humour in all sorts of way, Joe guess. Use it to deflect what she does and to get an upper hand in a situation. You know, we were using it to deflate the great and the good by getting nefarious nado wells to expose them. We then got the mob joining in to go and see rich people’s, you know, works of art that they were supposed to let us see. All this stuff is humour. All of this stuff is about challenging people. We, we used to sell up front arms companies and just say, look, we’d like to, and, and you know, we just, we we’d get in touch with people. Just say, I’m an arms dealer, I wanna buy some weapons. And they would tell you what they’d sell and and they’d give you the grey areas. And the grey areas are the interesting bits cuz that’s the bit where you can catch ’em, dobb ’em in and lobby the government to change the law.
PAUL BOROSS (00:31:54):
So do you, well, I think you obviously do, but the, the old adage about the truth goes down easier with a joke attached. Can you, can you actually get to the nub of the problem with a joke attached easier?
MARK THOMAS (00:32:08):
I really think you can. I think it is one of these things – there’s this idea about can you laugh about anything? And the answer is yes and no. It depends who’s laughing. It depends who’s laughing at. And it depends who’s experience you’re mocking. You know, can you laugh at child abuse? No. Can you mock Gary Glitter? Yes. Do you know what I mean? That’s the difference. Yeah. And I think it’s a really important should we laugh at Prince Andrew? Yeah. Yeah, we should. Because, you know, that’s what’s pushed him into the back room somewhere, you know, the threat of people, just someone shouting out he’s a nonce at a funeral possession. You know that was like a… that’s amazing. Yeah. People would say, you know, well that’s disrespectful maybe, but actually bringing him along is disrespectful to be honest.
PAUL BOROSS (00:33:08):
Yeah, but it, it’s that thing whereby you are able to prick the bubble of pomposity.
MARK THOMAS (00:33:14):
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I can I tell you a couple of quick stories? We were after the export credit guarantee department. What they do is they bankroll medium to high risk exports. Okay? So if you are selling weapons to a dictator, you can get the government to provide underwriting to provide insurance. So the bank will lend the dictator the money to buy your guns. And the government provide the insurance to the bank in case the dictator doesn’t pay. This meant the UK government underwrote arms sales to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The banks lent Saddam Hussein the money, Saddam Hussein bought the guns, then he stopped paying the repayments. The government paid the banks, the banks paid the people with the guns. So everyone was square apart from Saddam Hussein and the British taxpayer. So we literally paid for the bullets that were fired at British troops.
We literally paid for them. And we went after this department quite a lot and we had people who would leak stuff to us. And we exposed corruption there. We exposed wrongdoing. At one point we chased a civil servant who was, cuz we used to bushwhack people just to come up with the most inventive bushwhacking techniques. Once we just followed a bloke, he was going to a, a formal dinner at the guilds hall and we just followed him in from the street. We saw where he was coming out and we followed him in from the street firing questions at him. And then the doormen were there and we just walked in after them because we were wearing dinner jackets. And so was the the camera crew. They just let us in. So we followed him in. I ended up in the bog with the senior civil servant asking him questions about arms deals.
Right. And, and we couldn’t use that footage. But, you know, that was, that was where we were going with it. And we would bushwhack them all the time. The great moment for us, the moment it wasn’t just the fact that we got them, the fact that we exposed, we had front page exposeés. Do you know what I mean? In the Guardian, a minister actually asked civil servants, and I know this is self-aggrandizing, but he said, I’ve actually got it somewhere. We got all the stuff on, on data protection. It’s got, the minister wants us to dig for dirt on Thomas so he can rubbish him.
Literally, we have that cuz we were going after this department. Anyway, some people I know who are trade unionists went in for a meeting with these senior civil servants. And it was at one of these towers near Canary Wharf, and they had the top floor and they were all there on the top floor with all the windows looking out over the city. And they were about to talk about terms and conditions with the senior management. And they heard this noise. I went, eh, and they looked around and it was the cradle used for window cleaners, you know, from the top. Yeah, yeah. That would go down the side of the buildings. And they turned ground and all the civil servants were under the table going, get under the table. It’s Mark Thomas get under, get under the table.
PAUL BOROSS (00:36:25):
<laugh>. But they were really worried by you. I mean, genuinely, weren’t they? Because I love the fact that you actually got access to the police records at one stage and you were described in an official police document as a general rabble rouser and – I love this bit – alleged comedian.
MARK THOMAS (00:36:51):
I I am putting that on a poster. “Alleged comedian” – The Met <laugh> Comedy Review. The Met <laugh>. I love it. I mean there’s stuff… I’ll find you. One of one of my favourite ones was – give me a second cuz I’ve got the Yeah, yeah. I, can I give you a copy of this? Uh, let me have a look.
PAUL BOROSS (00:37:15):
Yes. I’ve got copies of the book. Which one? A hundred acts? Yeah,
MARK THOMAS (00:37:21):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we got a hundred acts, here we go. So there we go.
PAUL BOROSS (00:37:25):
Look, two people doing the same thing,
MARK THOMAS (00:37:27):
<laugh>. And it was where we did I mean basically they had to hand over you because under data of protection, you write in and you say, I want all the information you’ve got me and everyone can do this on a public body. The police originally were able to avoid it because it was part of the, it was run the unit that gathered information. I was called a domestic extremist. The unit that, that gathered information worked out of apo, which is the Association of Chief Police Officers, which I dunno whether you know this, but it’s a private company. So APO didn’t, it didn’t apply. The data protection, they would argue didn’t apply to them. So when all the spying stuff blew up, the police had to admit, uh, had to take it in hand. And that’s when you could get your information.
This is one of my favourite ones. 24-02-2007, Stop The War March, Trafalgar Square, about 14:08 hours, the most useless use of the word. About about 1408 hours <laugh>. We spotted Mark Thomas, who is a comedian, so-and-so was on a Silver Mountain bike with Yellow Forks and Orange Bi with protester written on the back of it and a white cycle helmet. He said hello to us as he passed and seemed very happy. I mean, <laugh>, you know, that’s on my official file, that’s on my police file. It’s… what have we got here? Um, oh yeah, we’ve got all sorts here.
PAUL BOROSS (00:38:59):
How scary is it? Is that there are official police files, of a comedian.
MARK THOMAS (00:39:07):
Well, yeah, here it is. It’s got, oh, this is another one. This was from… we had a demonstration on May Day and we did a thing. I wasn’t the organiser of it, I just went along. People called for gorilla gardening. You would go to Parliament Square and plant fruit and vegetables right to plant a garden in the devil’s patio. And, this is what it says on that day, 1st of May, 2000 event, Parliament Square, Mark Thomas brackets TV presenter and activist stops to stand in the way of the camera has a quantity of cress on the rear of his cycle.
PAUL BOROSS (00:39:48):
You crazy guy.
MARK THOMAS (00:39:51):
Fresh! as I said, the ISIS of garnish – cress
PAUL BOROSS (00:39:55):
MARK THOMAS (00:39:57):
But I mean, what I think is interesting about that is, is actually, I mean, I laugh at it, but I mean there, there is an element the laughing is, is coping with it. Because, you know, I’ve had 2, 3, 4 court cases with the police, right? Two of which I’ve won, two of which are ongoing, one of which they’re about to settle. Mates of mine were spied upon… the, once you appear on one list, you’ll start to appear on another list. And it, this isn’t me, you know, this is just true. I appeared on the construction blacklist, right? Which was a blacklist that stopped workers. If you all tried to organise – and this is well documented – if you tried to organise unions or you complained about health and safety, you could be put on a blacklist.
And there are people who, who were in the middle of a building boom, didn’t work for decades, you know, and this is dreadful. And I appeared on that blacklist. It was a raid by the information commissioner on this bloke’s house who ran the blacklist. And it was funded by all the major building companies, you know, Skaska, Balfour Beaty, MacAlpine, Taylor Woodrow, all of that lot funded it. Now you might say, oh, Mark, this is just, you know, this is self-aggrandizement and fantasy. Well, it’s not because my name appeared on the list and I was one of the least important court cases that came up with that. And I got 10 grand worth of compensation from MacAlpine, Shanka, Balfour, Beaty, Taylor Woodrow for being on their lists. Right. Other people got rightly so, more money for being, you know, they admitted it in court. And actually, the thing about this is you do have to have, you know, to, to be able to go, oh, well, people have stolen my litter bins – stolen my bins so that they could go through it and try and find stuff. You have to have a little bit of a sense of humour about that.
PAUL BOROSS (00:42:07):
Well, yeah. But it’s a coping mechanism at that point, isn’t it? Yeah, of course.
MARK THOMAS (00:42:11):
It’s, but that’s it. But also it is a, it’s not just a coping mechanism, it’s a way of reclaiming something. Right? Ah, in a way that, you know, the word queer used to be used as a pejorative word, and actually the L B T Q plus community of claimer and, and start to use queer, not everyone does, but a, a, a significant p group of people who use the word queer as theirs. It’s our word. We take this thing away from it. It’s like the N-word and rappers, do you know what I mean? I don’t have a problem with not being able to use the N-word. Right? I don’t have a problem with that. And I don’t have a problem with people who are people of colour being able to use it. It’s a way of claiming it, if you like. And so I think when you do this stuff, it’s a way, you know, we had t-shirts and teatowels with Domestic Extremist printed up on it. Right? My mate made me a cup and saucer with Domestic Extremist, and it had a cupcake with a fuse coming out of it, you know? And it, it’s a way of claiming it and going, this is, you use this against us, but we will take it and we will run with it because we’re not frightened. We’re not afraid.
PAUL BOROSS (00:43:25):
So therefore humour aids resilience in that sense.
MARK THOMAS (00:43:30):
Oh yeah. Of course. Humour is ultimately about resilience. Anyone who’s got a shit job will tell you that. You know, anyone, anyone who would, would tell you that. One of my favourite, I used to work on the building site. I know someone who dropped a scaffold pole off the roof through the roof of a convertible Mercedes, walked off the job, he just walked off the job, didn’t bother to say sorry, didn’t bother to collect his money. Just fucked off. That was it. Fucked. Absolutely fucked. But from that point in, he was known as Vlad the Impaler.
PAUL BOROSS (00:44:12):
MARK THOMAS (00:44:17):
And I love that. I love, I love that, you know, the, the, the people have that sense of, you know, I think the tea room is one, this is what it is. Really interesting. Tea rooms are where you, you used to be able to meet and talk and talk shit and fuck about. And you know, just create bonds with each other. And actually, that’s one of the things, you know about zero-hour scontracts and, and all of that kind of stuff, is that you don’t have tea rooms. You don’t have fixed-term contract, but people always meet up because you have to. People always, you look at Deliveroo, there’s always a spot where the riders meet. There’s always a spot. And that’s their tea room, if you like. That’s the place where they meet and they swap stories and they take advice and they say, don’t do this one, do this one. And that’s where they form bonds that then go on a form a trade union.
PAUL BOROSS (00:45:12):
No, that, that’s really interesting. I want to go back to you. You worked with your dad, Colin on building sites, as you said, prior to working at the Comedy Store. Was that good grounding for what was effectively a tough school at the Comedy Store and The Tunnel and all those clubs?
MARK THOMAS (00:45:34):
Well, I mean, I should, so I went to drama school as well. I didn’t just go… I went to drama school, to Brenton Hall College, and I was, um, my dad was very, ah, my dad was brutal approval, right. He literally, I went to uni, he was very pleased that I was the first pen person in our family to go to university. Gutted – it was drama school, <laugh>. And I came back after the first term and he goes, so what would you get up to? And I described, you know, dance movement classes and then, you know, how we do improvisation. And then we’d do study of classical text and modern playwrights, and then we’d go on and do people’s assessment plays. And my dad’s only comment was, these dance classes; do they make you wear tights? <laugh>. It was just like, you know, I don’t understand this. And so he tried somehow to connect. I remember once we went to see – when I got a place at drama school, he was like, yeah, well, well done. And I went to, we went to see The Importance of being Ernest at The Old Vic, and it was a proper like son and father bonding thing, you know, we went down and it was fantastic production. It was really fun. It’s a great play. After about 10 minutes *snoring*
PAUL BOROSS (00:46:57):
MARK THOMAS (00:46:58):
Do you know what I mean? So there were no prisoners with him. It was just kind of like you got, you just got done in, that was it. And especially on the building site, because, you know, if any of the lads were working around us, they were like, oh, you’ve got, you got your boy with ya. And I was, you know, I wasn’t the,I wasn’t really interested in working there, <laugh>, you know what I mean? It was, it was a way of earning money. I’d always done it. I started working. People sometimes say to me, where did you become aware of? When did your political awareness grow? And I used to load skips for 10p an hour when I was eight. So I used to take buckets of rubble and shut on the thing. And this bloke came up to me and goes, that actually paying, I said, 10 p an hour. Anyway, that’s child exploitation. That’s slave labour. Colin, this is slave labour and he was like, fuck off out of it., fuck off out of it. And I was like, hello, <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (00:47:58):
But this, you’ve had this extraordinary background with one part building site, one part Breton Hall, and the theatre arts degree. I mean, how does that coalesce into sort of the Mark Thomas? Cuz you’ve been doing it for a long time now, you know, and it, it’s a very ephemeral thing, comedy, but you’ve managed to stay relevant. How does that happen?
MARK THOMAS (00:48:26):
38 years. I mean, I’ve always… a comedy has always… Stand up I’ve always, always loved, but it’s always been stories. I’ve always said stand-up is stories. People have gotta understand that; a joke has a rule of three. That’s why it’s a story, a beginning, a middle, and the wrong ending. That’s how it works. Yeah. Do you know what I mean? So that’s your, your rule of three. So standup is a story. It’s just a really small story. What I, what I love are those stories that the, the great thing about theatre is it’s an empathy machine. Oh, right. It allows you to see something from someone else’s perspective. It allows you to experience an emotion. And I love stand-up. I adore it, but the ones that I love are the ones where they let you in a little bit into something more like Steve Wright, remember the great Steve Wright and the American comic? Yes.
PAUL BOROSS (00:49:21):
A very deadpan American comic. Oh, listeners, look him up. He’s you know,
MARK THOMAS (00:49:27):
He used to say that, some people are afraid of heights. I’m scared of widths.
PAUL BOROSS (00:49:39):
MARK THOMAS (00:49:42):
And he just had this incredible, I put instant coffee in the microwave, went back in time, <laugh>. It was just this beautiful, beautiful delivery. And just gag after gag, after gag, after gag, after gag. And after 40 minutes you are like, oh, show me something of yourself. Do you know what I mean? You want you, you just wanted to see some flaws. Something, some something.
PAUL BOROSS (00:50:10):
So is that where the, the, the Thea theatricality, because I mean you, you do shows now as well as stand-up. Yeah. You know, like Cookooed is a brilliant show. It’s a disturbing story, but you make it very, very funny. You know, The Red, Shed is a story and and you kind of are acting it out.
MARK THOMAS (00:50:34):
PAUL BOROSS (00:50:36):
And but I suppose that goes back to, I think the best comedians are storytellers. We talked about Connolly, you know, it’s come along with me on a story. Let me change your state.
MARK THOMAS (00:50:49):
You’re absolutely right. Comedy is always about change – always. And people, no, it is always about change. You start not laughing, you end laughing. There’s your fucking building block of change right there. That’s the change. So it’s always been about change and it’s always been about per it’s about feeling something, be experiencing something. You go in and, and you feel something and you feel different when you come out. You might feel emboldened, you might feel alive, you might feel more vi, you know, all these things. That very basic thing is about change. For me. It’s about going, okay, can we get people to feel things? Can we get people to experience something which they might not have experienced, to see it from a different angle and I love that. I adore them. There’s something beautiful about it. And it’s also a shared thing. It’s about sharing. Right.
PAUL BOROSS (00:51:49):
It is about sharing. But I was going to, I was just going to interject there because you, you, you hit on something that really resonated with me, which was in psychology there’s a saying that if you want anyone to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. And I think a lot of the real skill is about embodying that state first and then getting people to come along with you on that story or that journey as well.
MARK THOMAS (00:52:22):
I think you’re absolutely right. You know Robin Williams was a fine example of that, you know, if you ever saw him live, which I did. And
PAUL BOROSS (00:52:30):
He, I also worked with him at the store. When I say worked…
MARK THOMAS (00:52:35):
I mean, he’s an amazing performer. I mean, absolutely. Transform standup.
PAUL BOROSS (00:52:41):
MARK THOMAS (00:52:42):
You know, and, and, and I always loved Alexei Sayle, said he said, I once worked with Robin Williams. I was introducing him in the Store and, uh, you know, it was at the end of the show, you know, I said, all right, go on and do 10 minutes. He did half an hour. He did half an hour. And then he came off, pinned me up against the wall and did the other half hour <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (00:53:03):
Well, I have to say that he, you know, he used to come to the Store and come into the dressing room. He was very polite. Even when he was coked out of his head, he was, uh, very polite. And he go, do you mind if I just come on and do a little set? And I remember me and Ains going, No, of course. Yeah. Go on and everything. And he went on and did this 10, which lasted 40, and we had to follow it. And by then he had sucked every bit of laughter out of that room.
MARK THOMAS (00:53:35):
It was you know, those, Charles Fleischer was another one who did it, who was the voice of Roger Rabbit. Go and do a tight 10, 40 minutes later. And so basically the audience have had a first half, that’s an hour and a half, and it is now the interval is turning up at half past one. So you’re back on stage at two, and the last act is on half past two in the morning on a Friday. Do you know what I mean?
PAUL BOROSS (00:54:02):
So they’s all been on the piss.
MARK THOMAS (00:54:04):
You know, just like worn out alcohol. And those were the sort of like initiations of fire. If you could get through those gigs, you were alright.
PAUL BOROSS (00:54:13):
Well, that’s why, you know, I think there is still that sort of bonding from all of us who started at that era because it’s war stories as well, isn’t it as well, you know, I mean, we had the lovely Jo Brand on and, you know, Jo’s war stories about it because it was harder for her. Yes. As really the only woman who was, could take them on in the late show in the early days.
MARK THOMAS (00:54:43):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, she was remarkable with Jo. I mean, I loved her. I loved her. I loved gigging with her in the early days. She was brilliant. I think there’s… I wanted to just go onto this. It is war stories, but it’s more than that. It’s kind of like we’ve all seen each other without our dignity.
PAUL BOROSS (00:55:03):
MARK THOMAS (00:55:04):
Having had it stripped away from us, we have seen each other in triumph and in utter, utter humiliation. Bob Boyton always used to say, if you’ve died your worst death, which is really horrible, really horrible, and you’ve gone home and felt like topping yourself, and the next day you think, no, I’ll give it another go. You said you might be a comic. You know, and there is that kind of like, there is that there, there’s a shared experience. I wanted to mention one thing though, about audience, which is, which is we laugh more as an audience. We, we, we share, we share cuz laughter is about sharing. And a very simple thing, if you’ve ever seen, uh, The Big Sleep, right? Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, amazing film, right? Raymond Chandler, original novel, bit of a mind to get through and go up. What was the plot by the end of it?
But if you’ve ever seen it at home, it’s a good film. If you’ve ever seen it in a cinema that’s packed. It’s funny, man. It’s really, really funny. The sharp dialogue between Lauren Bacall and between Humphrey Bogart is funny and it’s full of sexual tension because they couldn’t have sexual tension. You had to have it in dialogue, you know, and that rapid fire, same as Carrie Grant, you know, Bringing Up Baby, you know, with Catherine Hepburn. She’s just remarkable. Do you know what I mean? It’s just, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful stuff. Um, if you watch Jackie Chan movies, early Jackie Chan movies, go and see the stuff he made in Hong Kong. Jackie Chan is, is basically Kung Fu’s. Buster Keaton. That’s what he is, right? He is one of the most remarkable and funniest performers you’ll ever, ever see. Him and Sam Hong, who we often worked with in the early days, the most remarkable.
Sam Hong was quite a bus big guy. They both trained, uh, in the Chinese state. .. I’ve forgotten. There’s a state performing school where they, it might be in the opera where you learn tumbling and clowning and kung fu and all this kind of stuff. Dance. And in fact, Michelle Yo went there as well, if I remember correct. She changed as a dancer. Michelle. Yo, before getting into martial arts. What’s fascinating about someone like Jackie Chan is, and you can see, you can see the tips and the winks all over the place. There’s a film called Project A, in which he is – there’s a scene, it doesn’t matter. There’s a scene where he is hanging off a clock tower in the most remarkable homage to Harold Lloyd ever. It’s full of it. It’s just full of it all the time.
In one film, there’s a film called The Police Story, which I saw at the Prince Charles Theta. And it was a Hong Kong film that Jackie Chan directed. It’s very funny. There’s a scene where he answers telephones in an office and of course they’re all corded cuz it was done in the early eighties. And he’s flipping it with his feet and catching it. And he’s covered in chords. And it’s like this monumental bit of clowning that you would expect to find in a Charlie Chaplin film. There’s one scene, there’s, there’s one bit though, which I think is really telling, which is he does a stunt and it’s kind of replicated in later films, but never as well. He’s at the top floor of a shopping mall and he runs and jumps and grabs hold of the lights, the big column of lights that go down and he falls down it and they pop as he goes.
And he goes down and, and bang, he lands on the ground. And it’s such a good stunt. They show it three times in the film, <laugh>, they cut away, show again, they cut away and show it again. And they do that because they know the audience think it’s a great stunt and wanna see it again. But also they know that it’s in a cinema and it’s gonna be packed. And when I saw it in the cinema, everyone was just like, wow. And the place was alive. It was electric. People were clapping and cheering and laughing and just, it was brilliant and, and Jackie Chan made those films knowing they were gonna be seen in a cinema, knowing that people were gonna be cheering and laughing and mucking about. That’s a wonderful thing.
PAUL BOROSS (00:59:30):
Well, that takes us back to going to football, doesn’t it? It’s shared experience. Yeah. And a really good comedy crowd. A really good theatre crowd, a really good football crowd. It’s that shared experience. You know, we go and see AFC despite the fact that we come away disappointed more times than we do it. But it’s funny and it’s a bonding experience with those around us anyway.
MARK THOMAS (00:59:58):
I mean, I also go to try and get a linesman to give up their job. <laugh>, I told you another week that linesman at the Sutton game, I told you at the Sutton game. Yeah. He did a really crap decision. Everyone’s sharing and screaming. Anyway, the play continues. He starts running up the pitch. He goes past my mate who goes, don’t let the divorce get to you, you’ve got this lino. And it was this perfect heckle. The perfect heckle. It was just great.
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:30):
Oh God, no, no, we love it. No, we won’t go into the song that was sung about him for the rest of the match.
MARK THOMAS (01:00:37):
No, don’t, don’t do that. But I mean, he <laugh>. Yeah, no, yeah. But the point being is, if you look at what laughter does, it brings us together and it challenges people in power.
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:52):
That was part one of the Mark Thomas experience. Part two will be coming soon. The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, produced by David Rose. Music by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.