One morning recently at 5am, Mark Thomas and his friend Tracy were pasting posters over the top of estate agents' signs. "The posters just said: 'Estate agents, everybody hates you'," says Thomas matter-of-factly. "So we're pasting this stuff up and somebody walks past. I say, 'It's just part of an arts project.' The bloke doesn't even look at me and says, 'I don't want to know.'"
There are two kinds of people, in Thomas’s view: those who want to know and those who don’t. The latter group, he suspects, would prefer to watch classic comedies on the television channel Dave than engage with something challenging. “And I don’t want viewers of Dave. My stuff isn’t for them. Anyone who watches Dave more than three times a week: it’s not for you.”
For 30 years Thomas has been plying a form of comedy rooted in political activism, journalism and situationist pranks. He has written books, helmed television programmes and fronted documentaries. His last show, Bravo Figaro , was a deeply personal exploration of his late father's degenerative illness and love of opera. His current show, 100 Acts of Minor Dissent , recounts a year spent performing rebellious acts (the year ends on May 15th) and an invitation to the audience to do likewise.
Pro-choice rally in Belfast
As we talk he has just returned from a pro-choice rally in Belfast. During our conversation he references Brecht, Breughel and Lenny Bruce, and deploys rhythmical swear words and confidential asides. Thomas, son of a self-made builder, was the first in his family to go to college, and always found artistic outlets for his rebellion. "At the age of 12 I was bunking in to see London contemporary dance. If you want to sum up my career, it's that. It was so exciting. When you see stuff like that, it's thrilling and changes your view of what art is. I love that feeling and still crave it all the time."
He chased that feeling through the alternative comedy clubs of the 1980s. "I loved every second," he says. I remember a guy called Andy Johnson going on stage in a small pub room with loads of soft toys and a tennis racket and just batting them really hard. Glasses were smashing. It was just absolute chaos – a medieval siege with soft toys."
Live comedy, he says, is still filled with such anarchic creativity, but television comedy is staid, apolitical and conservative. “I know comics who became comics because they wanted to escape the drudgery of office life, but they ended up working behind a desk doing a nine-to-five on a panel show. That is a supreme irony to me.”
His long-running Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4 ended in 2002. "I've yet to meet someone who's been on TV and for whom it's ended happily," he says. "I kind of like the fact we got out before it ran itself into the ground. We weren't getting the budgets and time we needed to do the research. The comedy department didn't want it because they couldn't control it and didn't know what was going on. The current-affairs department wanted it but didn't understand the comedy. We were this weird hybrid that no one quite understood. We got two million watching our programme on torture in Indonesia, and in every independent assessment of Channel 4 we were weeded out as something which fulfils the remit. But they kept chiselling away at the amount of control we had and the budget we had and the time we had to research."
Then somebody asked him to do a show called Celebrity Guantánamo Bay . "That was the point I decided: I can't work here."
Did he see it as a choice between compromising and doing what he wanted? “Yeah, except it wasn’t quite couched like that. It was more: if those poncey f***ers think they can boss me around I’ll kick them in the arse.”
He has, since then, toured, contributed to documentaries and written witty, heavily researched works of journalism such as Belching Out the Devil , an exposé of Coca Cola's business practices; and Extreme Rambling , a travelogue about walking along Israel's separation barrier "for fun".
Only occasionally does he feel endangered. “When we were walking the wall, we were stoned by Palestinian youths who thought we were Israeli settlers,” he says. “We were trapped in a gully. It was really, really scary because these big rocks were coming down very, very fast and you get about three seconds to work out the trajectory and get out of the way. I was with two guys, one ex-PLO and the other ex-Israeli army. They said: ‘Just stay looking at the rocks and then move slowly out of range.’ If we’d tried to run we’d have been hit.”
But his career isn't all about death-defying political stances. His 100 Acts of Minor Dissent show, he says, is an attempt to show people they can make a difference. "I don't want people to regard culture as something that's passive. Why would you do that? Forget telly. Get up and do something exciting. I got a lovely note from someone who said: 'I'm agoraphobic so this doesn't look like much to you, but it's a deal to me.' She'd written a critique of Harry Potter and put it in a book in a bookshop. I felt very moved by that."
The demonised poor
He dislikes how the authorities conspire to make people feel small. He hates the Conservative Party's demonisation of the poor ("What a nasty, evil, spiteful way of viewing the world"), and, in 2010, successfully took the police to court for an illegal search when highlighting their divisive "stop and search" policies.
Does he ever question his choices? “When the tax bill comes in, I think, s**t, I could be advertising bread and beer by now. But after you die do you really want people to say: ‘He paid his mortgage on time and, by golly, he advertised bread?’ I once did a telly programme where we flew a hot-air balloon over a US air force listening base on the Yorkshire moors and nearly crash-landed. I said to a mate of mine: ‘If you advertise bread and biscuits you might make a few quid in the short term, but you’ll lose your dignity and you won’t get to fly hot-air balloons over US listening bases.’ ”
Mark Thomas appears at Dublin's Sugar Club on Thursday . More Irish tour dates at markthomasinfo.co.uk
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK: THREE ACTS OF MINOR DISSENT
Here are some of the acts of dissent Mark Thomas has engaged in thus far:
Campaigning for union recognition for some cinema workers. “We’d shimmy up ladders and rearrange all the letters outside on the board so it would spell out messages for the union. We’d hold demonstration in the cinema with Day-Glo banners. We mass emailed the chief executive. Four weeks ago the management recognised the union.”
over their pay rates. “Waitrose have this little scheme where you get a green coin at the end of your shop and you put it in a Perspex box to indicate whether you want a donation to go towards a pension or a child or an animal. We made coins exactly like those, except instead of saying ‘Waitrose’, they said ‘pay the living wage ’.”
Decrying tax avoidance. “We brought a céilí band into an
store, to highlight Apple’s Irish-based tax structuring. Various parts of the world act as a financial Guantánamo Bay for finances . Apple had billions of profit but [ has ] managed to pay [ relatively little ] tax anywhere.”