Mark Thomas: the comedian who took the police to court over surveillance
No one likes to feel nervous; when your hands are shaking, your mouth is dry and your stomach hurts from the fear of failure. But Mark Thomas, a journalist and a comedian, says it’s good to feel nervous. Even after 29 years on stage, he still feels nervous.
Being a journalist and a comedian might be an odd combination; fighting for human rights and the freedom of expression at the same time as making fun of what is happening around the world.
His job is a mixture or journalism, theatre and comedy. He enjoys doing it, and for him it does not break off into sections.
Nowadays many people go to comedy shows to relax, to laugh, or simply forget their daily routine, and we start wondering if they are more likely to believe stories told in comedy shows than articles.
Mark said: “In the last decade the tabloids damaged themselves by phone hacking, expenses scandals and the banking systems collapsed, so in some moments we lose faith in major institutions such as banks, police, politicians and tabloids and find belief in theatre.” For him performing on stage is a chance to do something good and get people re-evaluating their point of view.
By creating empathy and individualism, Mark engages with an audience emotionally, but you have to feel those emotions and you have to feel empathy. The Herald Angel Award winner said: “For me it’s always about the story and to move people emotionally.”
When he talks about his dad, Colin Alec Todd Thomas, Mark’s voice becomes tighter and quieter, like talking about his father teleports him to another world, or maybe just in the past, to them both listening to Rossini and Verdi. Mark recalls his embarrassment because even the neighbours were listening to the opera his dad loved so much.
This is why he wrote Bravo Figaro, in an effort to reach his dad before he vanishes. Colin Alec Todd Thomas was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy.
Bravo Figaro is about love, loss and problematic relationships. To be on stage and talk about a lost one is a brave and very admirable thing. After the death of his dad, and after being on a stage a few times, Mark left the show behind and moves on, but now and again, when he is rehearsing, he hears his dad’s voice. Looking at the photos on-screen he feels a lot of love: “I cherish hearing his voice and feel good things.”
“He was very grumpy, and maybe, from him, I have got my stubbornness and refusal to be beaten up. I just cannot understand why would you avoid conflict, why would you run away if the police attack you?”
The whole idea of creating a manifesto, stopping arms deals, bringing the winning policy to parliament and completing 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, including taking the police to court over surveillance, is to change the world. In his performances, Mark Thomas gives a voice to the public, to the audience and to the resident. In Bravo Figaro, he gives the voice to his parents and in Manifesto he gives an ownership to people to come up with an idea for that change. In Cuckooed he has conversations with people who know the whole story about betrayal and spying. He says unless people have experience of spines they think you are a slight conspiracy theorist.
With Cuckooed, his second theatre piece, Mark was awarded his second Scotsman Fringe First, as well as the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award. He reveals how BAE System – the Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer – spied on him and five other journalists with the help of his friend Martin. BAE Systems admitted in court and signed legal undertaken not to do it again. A document sold to Sunday Times by a whistle-blower had linked Martin to the people spying and there are a lot of evidence that this had happened.
At first Mark refuses to believe the news about his friend’s betrayal: “At the beginning you blame yourself for the betrayal of trust.” Mark asks himself how he missed it. “When personal stories are told you feel shame and vulnerability and you have to prove this is not who I am, those are lies about me. The story I say is the truth.”
Even though he has helped the police many times they still call him a domestic extremist, Mark struggles to understand what they mean by that, he doesn’t believe he is one. In regards to the incident that happened in Paris, Mark says it is a terrible thing, and it had a chilling effect on all of us. The journalists had the right to say what they said and it is not fair to be murdered for a cartoon. However, when a leading Palestinian peace activist and theatre director, Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered no one really cared. The Guinness World Record holder says the support of Freedom of Expression is selective and it needs to extend to Arab cartoonists and bloggers in Saudi Arabia. The boundaries have to be expanded and more rules to be made.
The journalist and comedian has two pieces of advice to all creative people who have a passion for comedy: you always have to do what you want, not what other people tell you to do and you have to just get up and do it. If you fail and have felt the pit of despair, if you are humiliated and flinching of the memory on your way to home, go to bed, wake up and then give it another chance. Maybe then you will become a performer.