IN his new tour show, mischief-making activist comedian Mark Thomas is pondering “how we have come to inhabit this divided wasteland that some of us call the United Kingdom”.
On the road since January 23, the South London satirical writer, political agent provocateur, TV and radio presenter, journalist and podcaster is bringing 50 Things About Us: Work In Progress to The Crescent, York, on March 4.
“The Crescent has a certain ramshackle charm, and it’s run with absolute integrity,” says Mark, breaking away from cooking up a pot of a very British winter warmer, leek and potato soup, to take this interview call.
Introducing the show’s theme, he explains: “I was really struck by one thought: how on earth did we get to the point we’ve got to, and part of the answer is that we’ve never come to terms with who we are.”
Was he referring to the English or the British here? “Well, Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales; the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland too, and it’s been England that’s driven the creation of the union,” says Mark, whose show combines storytelling, stand-up, mischief and typically well-researched material.
“All these places have a very distinctive identity and culture, and it defies this binary, simplistic definition.
“The Irish language was kept alive by Presbyterians when the English buried it, and now the Irish language is being taught by Unionist women on the Falls Road [in Belfast], so it’s a fascinating place that defies your normal expectations.”
Mark notes how “English culture is seen as part of the British empire, when Britain was ruling the world with this bombast, without understanding the implications of that”.
So, it may be a generalisation, Mark, but why is that people think the abiding negative aspects of the British empire are defined by Little Englander characteristics, not British ones?
“That’s the weird thing. Scotland joined England in the union in a time of fantastic prosperity, so Scotland doesn’t get out of its role in the empire,” he says. “It’s fascinating that it’s about England adopting the empire as its nationalist cause, with everyone else slipping off.”
50 Things About Us is billed as “a show about money, history, identity, art, tradition, songs, gongs, wigs, guns, bungs, sods of soil and rich people”, as Thomas picks through the myths, facts and figures of our national identities to ask how we have so much feeling for such a hollow land”.
Summing up his night of story-telling, stand-up and subversion as a “sort of funny national edition of Who Do You Think You Are?”, Thomas says: ” It’s another slightly odd show, a sort of sweary, History Channel with laughs and creative mischief. If you’ve seen my shows before, this one’s in the vein of 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent.”
As a work in progress, the list of 50 Things is not set in stone. “It’s always being added to. You always do that. You keep going ‘b****y hell’ when you discover new things,” says Mark. “I found out the other day we’re the only nation that doesn’t have its name on its stamps.
“We have a picture of The Queen, not even a picture, but a silhouette, and there’s a certain weirdness about that. We won’t even say where we are! We say, ‘here’s The Queen, we’re better than everyone else’.”
Thomas, 56, has made his mark down the years by stopping arms deals; creating a manifesto and bringing the winning policy to parliament; walking the entire length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank and setting up a comedy club in the Palestinian city of Jenin.
He has hosted six series on Channel 4, alongside several television documentaries and radio series; written books; grabbed a Guinness World Record; sold out numerous tours; won awards aplenty; nabbed himself a Medal of Honour and succeeded in changing some laws along the way.
In other words, he is a man of both action and words. How are his latest words going down on tour? “People say, ‘can’t you say something positive?’, but there’s a load of positives in there, like Britain being one of only five countries that doesn’t have a [codified] written constitution. New Zealand is one other, Canada another,” says Mark.
“We have the Charter of the Forest, our economic charter that came in in 2017, which recognises that idea of shared assets of the country [the charter re-established for free men rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs] .
“It was there for our mutual benefit and no-one else has ever produced anything like it. It used to be read out four times a year in church, when the squirearchy were at the front, the peasants at the back.
“It was the statute that remained longest in force in England, but they just got rid of it in 1971 [when it was superseded by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act]. But it’s something to be proud of as part of our history; there’s an historic part of our character that, since 1217, says we have the right to run things for our common benefit.”
Where does Brexit fit into Mark’s exploration of who we are? “I think that notion that we are a country that can go it alone is really that characteristic of English exceptionalism, where we believe we’re different, we’re superior, because we’re the cleverer than anyone else, reckoning we won two World Wars and a World Cup by playing fair, which is nonsense,” he says. “Just looking at who we think we are, this idea we can stand alone is completely myopic.
“I’m not a great supporter of the European Union, but I did vote Remain reluctantly, as I don’t want a move to the far right, which is what we’ve ended up with.”
Mark continues: “I’m a Socialist and I think massive changes are needed but when you ignore democracy [the Brexit referendum vote], it will bite you on the backside. If I were a Leave voter, I’d be b****y angry. This idea that people got it wrong, and we should vote again and again until we get it right is extremely patronising. The way they’ve been treated is pretty awful, though I’m not defending the far right.”
Why does Mark call Britain “a hollow land”? “The fact that masses of our history is ignored at the expense of our identity, like the history of the NHS…that sense of absence, because we don’t tell parts of our history, is wrong,” he says.
And now for the big question, after all Mark’s research, can he define who we are? “It’s an important question to answer, because we’re changing all the time, as a collective, as individuals, as parents, grandparents, how we see ourselves,” he says.
“Though interestingly, who we think we are is not who we are.” Let’s leave that thought hanging in the air, the perfect enticement to find out more at The Crescent on March 4.
Mark Thomas’s 50 Things About Us: Work In Progress tour also takes in further Yorkshire gigs at Sheffield Memorial Hall, March 1; Wakefield Theatre Royal, March 5, and Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, April 9.
Box office: York, 01904 622510 or at thecrescent.com; Sheffield, 0114 278 9789 or sheffieldcityhall.co.uk; Wakefield, 01924 211311; Leeds, 0845 644 1881 or cityvarieties.co.uk.
Did you know?
Mark Thomas also broadcasts 50 Things About Us as a podcast.