Mark Thomas

talks about calling his watermelon radishes Herbie Hancocks and spending lockdown with his mum....

Comedian Mark Thomas is hugely witty and as savage as a rabid dog when it comes to putting hecklers in their place. His latest touring show, 50 Things About Us, is a fast and furiously funny journey through our national memory. Expect gongs, bungs, guns and unicorns... 

Tell us about 50 Things About Us, Mark...
The show is about things that do or should influence who we think we are. A state-of-the-nation address following Covid 19 and Brexit. But it’s also a big old celebration of being together. There are gags, stunning facts, quiz questions and singalongs, as well as me running around like a mad thing doing my funny stuff. 

How did you decide on the 50?  
I did one show called 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be, so I thought I’d cut down the work load on this one and only do 50 things. It didn’t work out as planned.

What’s the most fascinating fact you discovered when researching for the show?
The UK is an archipelago. 

And the most surprising?
The most surprising fact is a very personal one. I was brought up in the church, and the family used to go to the Wilberforce Church on Clapham Common - it was regarded as the anti-slavery church and is celebrated for it. I didn’t know until recently that one of the key movers behind keeping slavery going and making sure compensation was paid to the slave owners, George Hibbert, also worshipped at the same church. In fact, he donated to the church, which was in receipt of money from slavery. His home on the Common, again built on slavery, is now a hospice. I have lived in this area most of my life, born and bred, but strangely none of that was mentioned in school, church or local events and history.

Tell us something about you that even your most devoted fans wouldn’t know?
I grow my own watermelon radishes and call them Herbie Hancocks… after his seminal song Watermelon Man. Also I love foraging, especially during wild garlic season.

How do you foresee the future of the UK?
The UK has 20 to 30 years. A united Ireland is going to be a force to be reckoned with; likewise an independent Scotland. England… we’ll have to see.

What could change the country for the better? 
If John Betjeman’s friendly bombs did not fall upon Slough but landed to the south…
Come, friendly bombs and fall on Eton, 
The rich must not remain unbeaten.*
* please note this refers to the class system rather than individual pupils, who I am assured are regularly beaten. 

Are you ever concerned that the serious political and social issues you discuss might outweigh the comedy element of your shows?
Don't be daft. I’ve been doing this for 36 years - well, 35; like most of us, I’ve had a forced year’s sabbatical recently - and I’ve managed to earn a living during that time and picked up loads of awards, so I’ve not f*cked up too badly.

It’s unusual for a comedian's touring show to lead to an art exhibition. How did that come about?
Ah, the 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent exhibition. It was part of the bet that started the show. I would commit 100 acts of minor dissent in a year, and if I managed to do so then I would put on a free art show featuring the artworks, posters, sculptures and weird rubbings that helped create the show. If I lost and didn’t commit the 100 Acts in a year, I would donate £1,000 to UKIP as a forfeit. I did actually send a cheque to UKIP for £1,000 but from a bank account with no money in it… it was the 100th Act. 

Do you see the pandemic influencing your material in the future?
If you’re a satirist then having a lying, overblown, freeloading oaf leading a country through a crisis is going to influence your material. 

Have you found much to laugh about during the past 12 months?
No. I’ve walked around looking like a dour Victor Meldrew zombie (*sarcasm alert*)  You’re going to find out if you come to the show, but I spent the first five months in lockdown with my 85-year-old mum. It was like an episode of Mrs Steptoe And Son, except she didn’t bathe in the kitchen sink. 

Who made you laugh most growing up?
Dave Allen and Steptoe And Son. My dad was very strict and quite the patriarch. The only times we could really relax and let our hair down was watching those programmes. My dad, who would finish work on the building site, would have his bath in the morning… and in order to keep his favourite leather armchair clean, he would undo his belt, drop his trousers and sit watching Steptoe And Son with his trousers around his ankles, laughing at how common they were. How could that not impact on a young comedy mind.

Best heckle you’ve ever received?
“Get on with it!” Shouted before I had even opened my mouth at the start of my first ever one-man show. The heckler was my dad.

Worst moment on stage?
Being asked up to be the volunteer when I’d been performing for only a year and ritually humiliated by a double act that doesn’t exist now. 

Finally, which fellow comedian would you pay to see in 2021?
So many. Kitson, obviously. Josie Long, Bridget Christie. Shazia Mirza is my favourite. Imran Yusuf, Tez, Johnny And The Baptists, James Acaster. Always Mark Steel. Can’t wait to see people like Bryony Kimmings, Victoria Melody and all the fab performance artists too. Plus my favourite writer-performers, like Gary McNair; top, top performer. 

Mark Thomas’ 50 Things About Us visits Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa, on Sat 9 October, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, on Sat 15 October, Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton, on Sat 13 November, and MAC, Birmingham, on Wed 24 & Thurs 25 November.