Comedian Mark Thomas on breaking barriers with political comedy, the NHS and his latest project
Mark Thomas is an English journalist, activist, comedian and political satirist best known for his investigative journalism work on TV show The Mark Thomas Comedy Product. Mark is currently working on a show called Check Up: Our NHS at 70; a biting and humorous political commentary on health care. After running at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show will move to London's Arcola theatre in Autumn. Here, Mark tells Mandy News about his impressive career, gives insider info on his latest show, weighs in on the NHS and explains how he got started in political comedy.
Tell a little bit about yourself and your background
My name is Mark Thomas. I’m 55 and I’m an Aries. I was born in St Thomas’ Hospital, on the banks of the river Thames, opposite parliament.
I lived in a house which valued comedy as a space of freedom. By which I mean, my dad was very, very authoritarian, a great patriarch and very moral. He was a self-employed builder and lay preacher, so a deeply religious man, but also the filthiest, rudest man in the world. He was a fighter.
There was a stage in my life where he was bound over every year to keep the peace. When you live in an environment like that, you notice strict rules and regulations and dos and don’ts – they change when you’re watching Steptoe and Son, or Dave Allen on the telly. Everything is suspended. That was the world I grew-up in.
If you grow-up in that world, you value comedy because it’s a space where you can be yourself.
I was always a precocious comedy fan. I directed a Goons Show script when I was 12 and loved Hancock’s Half Hour and things like Monty Python. We adored Spike Milligan and Dave Allen.
When I was 16, I knew I wanted to be a stand-up, but didn’t know exactly what it was. I also fell in love with theatre because I saw a Berthold Brecht play. I was gobsmacked that you could go to a play, go in thinking one thing and think another thing when you came out. I thought that was absolutely remarkable.
Then I fell in love with punk rock and all these things combined.
I went to drama school at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire where Yorkshire sculpture park is. It’s beautiful. There were 800 students doing education, arts, drama, music and running around. It was brilliant and we used to write and put on shows. We would write a show in a day, rehearse it and then put it on at the miner’s social to raise money. It was called armchair theatre and that’s how we’d rehearse. We’d write in an armchair. We actually had a ban on rehearsing. We believed it to be a bourgeois affectation.
We had this amazing sense of experimenting, so when I left college, I knew I wanted to do stand-up. I didn’t really know it was stand-up as such, because the alternative scene hadn’t kicked in but I wanted to do comedy, so I finished my course and went down to London. There I worked with my dad on the building site during the day and, in the evening, I’d do gigs. Looking back on it I think “bloody hell, I don’t know how I had the energy.”
Did the upbringing with your dad and the miner’s strike make your comedy more political?
It was always political to an extent. I declared myself an atheist at age nine. When you come from a religious family and declare yourself an atheist at the age of nine, that’s quite a thing.
So it was always political for me and I think what’s interesting is that as I’ve got older, that interest in politics has never diminished.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve just started to be more understanding of human beings and all of our foibles as well as perhaps a bit less quick to judge some of them, but it’s still political.
Your new show is based on the NHS; can you tell us about that?
I’m lucky enough to be working with director called Nick Kemp, who used to run the Tricycle Theatre in North London. His shows are legendary because he invented the enquiry format. He took the Stephen Lawrence enquiry and the Bloody Sunday enquiry and turned them into plays. The Stephen Lawrence one not only appeared in the West End but toured all over black communities in London. Nick is really interesting. He even got us a month’s residency at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
The show is based on the month I spent shadowing consultants, doctors and nurses. We did a whole series of interviews with academics, practitioners, policy people and economists about the NHS and where it could go; and these were public interviews that were recorded in front of an audience.
I used my demise to see where the NHS might go. I got a doctor to tell me what might happen to me and we listed everything that could go wrong. What we do is use those three things to tell the story of what the NHS is, what it needs and what it might become.
What is it that made you think “the NHS is what I need to make the show on”?
The NHS is the greatest institution we’ve ever created in this country.
I was talking to my grandmother, who was born in a mining community in the North East, and she told me how her family used to save a penny a week in a cup for the doctor. If someone was ill, there was always a debate about whether they should spend the money now, or wait until it got worse later on.
When the NHS was created, Nye Bevan said the NHS was created in place of fear. The NHS doesn’t just treat illness, it fights fear; the fear that when you get old you won’t be able to afford treatment, the fear that you’re going to have an injury and you won’t be able to afford to get treated, the fear of illness and pain without respite because you haven’t got money. Those were real fears and they are returning into society.
The more money you put into the NHS, the better the health outcome. It’s as simple as that.
Britain is about average for a European country. We put in an average amount of money, we get an average result. Germany puts in an above average amount; they get an above average result.
We need to start looking at the NHS as this amazing, brilliant institution that is going to care for you no matter what. Everyone experiences illness, because we’re humans and that is what happens and, when it does, you want to make sure you’ve got the best possible NHS to pick you up. Not just you, but everyone.
I think a great discovery for me was talking to this economist who said ‘The NHS is not just a matter of you put a slug of money into it and everything’s sorted. We have to understand, the more money put in, people get better, people live longer – that means more people, which means you need more money. We need to be putting more money in, year on year – forever’.
Understanding that is a brilliant thing. We have to come to terms with it.
There are countries like Germany who put in more money, but their care is better.
Well there’s a state insurance system and things like that, so it’s not exactly like for like. If you look at the amount of money that’s put in as a percentage of GDP, France and Germany spend more and get a better outcome.
And then you look at problems in the States. Michael Moore’s Sick Note at the start had someone deciding which fingers they could keep, because of the insurance they have... the NHS is held-up as a beacon of light all over the world to show what free healthcare could be.
Well Britain had the first National Health Service and created the concept. I adore the NHS. The people who work for it have a sense of public duty that goes above and beyond what you would get in a private company. They do it because the NHS is an enterprise that believes in the greater good for everyone.
However, the NHS used to be a beacon. It’s average now, and we need to fight to make it brilliant again. We’re really s*** on cancer care. For a rich country, we’re dreadful. We come about 24th on the league table globally for survivors of cancer below Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. That’s awful. We need to be putting more money into it.
It’s simple. The NHS was amazing and it still is amazing because of the staff who hold it together. But if you want to get better health outcomes, we need to put more money in. It’s the poor who suffer. It’s a disproportionate effect. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be prone to ill health and die younger. That’s a proven fact.
There’s a guy called Professor Michael Marmot who issued reports on health inequalities and is lorded on government health sites. He managed to scientifically prove that if you are rich you’re going to live a lot longer. When the NHS is underfunded, it’s the poor that disproportionately suffer.
How do you feel about Richard Branson and Virgin Health Care suing the NHS?
I don’t think he should run trains nor health. Our slogan is ‘Branson: Neither Train, Nor Health – But The Occasional Pickle’.
Branson is able to do this because of the structure of the NHS. The NHS created what is called a mimic-market. NHS England has a marketisation, so bits of the NHS say what operations they want and other bits of the NHS have to bid for tender.
They’ve done to the NHS what they did to the market and what they did to the railways. We have a market in the NHS that allows corporations like Virgin to bid. Virgin has got about a billion quid’s worth of NHS contracts and it costs us about two billion a year to run the market.
Every single academic we’ve spoken to says we shouldn’t have the market. If they were designing it again, they would just chop it out. One of them said there is no discernible advantage to having the market at all. What we can see is a huge amount of money being spent running it.
You can blame Richard Branson all you like, I do, but it’s also Simon Stephens, Lansley, Hunt, Tony Blair, Frank Dobson, Milburn and everyone else who continued to turn NHS England into this market.
In Scotland, the structure’s completely different because we have devolved health. In Scotland, the structure is nearest to the old NHS, so the Health Minister gets money, gives it to the health board and they give it to hospitals and doctors.
The show deals with all these aspects of the NHS?
Yes, it’s a great old show actually. We’re really having a laugh doing it at the moment. I spent an evening in major trauma and witnessed some of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
All the time spent with doctors and nurses and the brilliant technological advances barrelling down the pipe at us inspire the show. Whether is genomics, or robotics, nanotechnology. Whether it’s bio markers, anti-microbial resistance, the failure of antibiotics, all that kind of stuff.
At the end of it all, I remember sitting down with a nurse who works at a dementia unit and they’re just amazing. I sort of fell in love with the dementia nurses – they’re just brilliant. I asked, “what do you think about genomics and robotics and all that?” She said “that’s great, but at the end of the day, you’re going to get old and you’re going to need care. Care is people.”
Of all the things that I witnessed this month, the presence of care and the administering of care, is the most moving and memorable thing.
What are your plans for the show? Are you doing it in London at the moment?
We just finished our rehearsal period and we’ll do a few progress shows, where we see what works and do a couple of tryouts to see where we are in terms of development. Then we go back into rehearsal.
How can people find out about these tryouts?
Just go on my website. The show will premier in Edinburgh at the Traverse Theatre, then it will come down to the Arcola in autumn. We pick it up again next year and I’m working on a new project in September, so life’s quite busy, which is fun.
Any plans to bring this show to TV, or anything like that?
No, I’ve got as much respect for television as television has for me. The stuff I do now is more theatre. When I started, I wanted to be away from a desk job because I didn’t want to be nine till five. I look at some of the people I’ve known and their whole career is now sitting behind a desk doing nine ’til five for a panel show.
I paid for Bohemia, I didn’t pay up for this.
The Mark Thomas Comedy Product was the first time I came across political comedy and realised I could be punk about things. Do you feel like you were part of that movement towards informative, political comedy?
Thank you, for me it was an amazing adventure. We just started asking, “what can we get away with?” We ended up becoming accidental journalists and breaking stories. We were on the front page of The Guardian with our stories and it was really, really exciting.
For everything you see, there are things we don’t get away with. Once I wanted to try and get a teddy bear into Iraq, to show that the sanctions were really puerile and stupid. At that time nothing could get in and out of Iraq unless it was approved by the UN committee.
I was going to take a teddy bear in, which would have technically broken the law and Channel Four said ‘no you can’t do that, you’re breaking the law’ and we were like.... ‘yeah, that’s the reason’. When they said no, it was a real hammer-blow to me.
I loved doing it. I lived and breathed it. I didn’t work on anything else. It was just campaigns and two week holidays and then the show. I adored doing it.
The funny thing about being up against Channel Four and the whims of commissioners is you’re always fighting those people. I remember once going into a meeting and they said They wanted me to do a programme called Celebrity Guantanamo Bay.
At that point you just have to go “goodnight, we’re finished” and walk away. I’m very glad that the decision to finish television, was my decision, rather than theirs.
Every series felt like we were girding our loins to fight a war back then. It was absolutely great. We used to start the research period and it was like calling an army together. It was bloody great.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into stand-up, comedy or theatre?
My advice is always create what you want to create, rather than what you think the audience want to hear.
Also create your own opportunities and your own space to work in because no one is going to give you anything.
We just did a show about starting a comedy club in Palestine earlier this year. It’s taken us four years to do and cost 75,000 to organise. We’ve got two Palestinian performers who came over to work with me and you just have to get-up and go “OK this is how we’re going to do this”.
I value working with people I trust. If I want to something to be a certain way, I am going to find a way to do it.
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