Comedian Mark Thomas took a call from an advertising exec’ who wanted him to appear in a series of TV beer adverts, offering at least £75K for the job.
Mark says, “I don’t drink” and the exec’ says no problem, you do not need to drink it. Mark says, “I do not drink, and I have no wish to encourage others to drink”. Exec’ says, no problem. But the fee and residuals will give you £75,000.
Mark still says no, no no and ends the call. His builder dad was in the house doing some renovation work and asked his son who that call was from. He tells him, “Dad, I just turned down 75 grand for a beer advert.”
Mark’s dad had a very succinct two-word response……You can read what that eye-watering response was later on in this article! Mark’s anecdote has us both laughing out loud during an inspiring 45-minute chat on the dog and bone with the comedian, author, investigative journalist and “libertarian anarchist”.
Mark Thomas started off his comedy career 37-years-ago, whole working with his father on building sites. He first became known as a guest comic on the BBC Radio 1 comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the late 1980s. He is best known for political stunts on his show, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4.
He has penned seven books and four play scripts. He has won at least eight awards for performing and three for human rights work. He has taken the police to court three times and has won twice. He made six series of the Mark Thomas Comedy Product (later changed to The Mark Thomas Product) for Channel 4. He made three Dispatches programmes for Channel 4. Five series of the Manifesto for BBC Radio 4.
He was a Guinness World Record holder for holding 20 protests in 24 hours (It was 21, but the record was for 20). He has given evidence to Parliamentary select committees on two occasions. He has been credited with changing the law on tax avoidance bringing in millions for HMRC.
He has performed on four continents and in 10 countries, one liberal synagogue, a squatted MP’s second home, on the roof of a multi-storey car park and outside a US military base. He has cost one councillor and one government minister their job. He has tried to get the government into court over the Iraq war. He cost BNF more than £1m in clean-up operations after exposing irradiated pigeon sh*t.
He was a columnist for the New Statesman magazine for five years. The 100 Acts of Minor Dissent campaigned successfully for trade union recognition for cinema workers, which prompted a multinational to change their practices and brought four court cases. He started a comedy club in Palestine with Dr Sam Beale. Mark has an honorary doctorate from Bradford University, and he is an online pastor legally able to perform weddings and funerals in America.
During 2010, Mark decided to go rambling in the Middle East and walked the entire length of the Israeli Separation Barrier – 724km – crossing between the Israeli and the Palestinian side. His touring show entitled “Walking The Wall” (2011) was shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, and his book Extreme Rambling recounted the story.
First Light Festival
The peg to hang our verbals upon is comedian and political satirist, author, investigative journalist, columnist, TV presenter, human rights campaigner and “libertarian anarchist” Mark’s headline spot at this year’s First Light Festival in Lowestoft, the UK’s only festival on a beach.
So, first off, is there a difference in festival audiences and normal one-nighter club gigs?
“Yes, there is. Festivals aren’t one lump; they are very different. You can be doing a show at say Leeds Festival or Reading Festival and you’ve got a room (sic) full – quiet and listening to what you are saying.
“Suddenly it rains, and you get a whole load of people whose sole interest is keeping out of the rain, who just want to chat and drink beer.
“What is different, is you get people slightly more up for it, but paradoxically, slightly more willing to walk away and go see something else. So, you have to work a little bit harder. But the rewards are potentially bigger.”
The theme of his spot at First Light Festival? “It is time to celebrate being together. The big thing at-the-moment for me is the thing that I missed… The first gig I did after lockdown, I went off like a rocket because I’d missed it so much.
“I’d missed being on stage so much. My partner used to joke that during lockdown, I’d open the fridge door, the light would go on and I’d do 10 minutes!
“I’ve missed that communion, that community of an audience. Festivals are about communities; about coming together to celebrate in a way that is actually more pronounced than going to a club to see someone who you really like.
“Festivals are about celebration. In a way this is what the show’s about, celebrating being together, mucking about, having a laugh. But also saying, we are in the shit and how are we going to get out of it. Here’s some ideas… We could change the way this country works, overnight if you embraced PR (proportional representation) and voting at 16.”
Church, magic tricks and me…
Curious to hear when and what shaped Mark’s political persuasion and surprised to hear him say it was when he was kid in church.
“A lot of my politics come from church. We used to go to a happy-clappy church, in Clapham Junction. All this stuff was about, you can do good or you can ignore bad. You have a choice.
“I’m an atheist…. My party trick used to be to recite the books of the bible as a kid. Something I can still partially do, probably. It’s learning partly through the idea there’s a better way of doing things.
“But also… my nan who comes from North Seaton up in the North East (Northumberland), an absolutely wonderful woman from a mining family, and she was a huge influence on me. My uncle David and my nan; these two people were amazing forces in my life.
“I tell this story about how they used to have Sunday school pastors for kids, and the pastors used to have tricks. One of them did magic tricks and it was literally; ‘look, I put the blue handkerchief into the box and I tap it three times and say the magic words, ‘I let Jesus in to my heart as my Lord and Saviour’, and I pull it out and the hankie is now red like the blood of Jesus.
“He did this trick where he just produced all this money, suddenly, in a chalice and we all ran to him and said how do you do this. And he said it’s just faith. All you need is faith.
“I said, do you need a magic wand? No. Do you need a magic cup? No. All you need is faith in Jesus. I ran home to my dad’s workshop, my dad’s a self-employed builder. I picked up a tin from the workshop, and a bit of wood from the wood box and sat for an hour having faith.
“No money appeared, and I left an atheist. So, when you ask where do you get your politics, I think you get it from a mixture of things; not just stuff you inherit.
“Very practically I learned that Jesus really didn’t require just faith, there was nothing there, and that was at the age of eight or nine.”
That beer ad’ and my dad…
Re: The afore-mentioned beer commercial Mark turned down. Tell me more….
“My dad was working round my house. We’d bought this house, me and my ex, it was just f*cked, it was done in, and my dad was working it and I got a call, years ago…
“I want to talk to you about doing adverts. Would you like to come up and audition for a beer advert’. I said, I don’t do adverts. He said, six ads you’d shoot. I said, well I don’t drink. He said, you would not have to drink it.
“I said I am not going to encourage drinking. I don’t drink. He kept on. I said I don’t drink mate, what can I say? I asked how much would this be for? He said well with residuals, you are looking at £75,000.
“I said, well, this is the best ‘no’ that I’ve ever said. No. I don’t do adverts and I put the ‘phone down, and I started to laugh. My dad walks in the room and asked me, what are you laughing at.
“I said I’ve just turned down 75 grand to do an advert for beer, dad, and he said: ‘You c*nt”. Mark and I both laugh.
“I walked him round the house and say, right, see this room here, that was paid for with jokes about Margaret Thatcher. This one here, that was paid for by lightbulb jokes.
“Walked him round the whole house, saying this is how it works dad. This was like 30 odd years ago, but I love the idea of my dad thinking, you what? You’ve turned down how much?”
South London-based Mark is back at Glastonbury Festival this month (June 2022) to appear on the Speakers Stage for a one-hour spot. He has done that famed festival and that very stage countless times and loves the place. Telling me his set will be a mixture of ‘soapbox and stand-up.’
“The first time I went to Glastonbury years ago, oh man, I remember thinking this was the greatest place ever. The travellers built their own little section, with windmill generators. Their first band was on the Wednesday.
“There was one year where they built their own bar and it was so long ago, no one had ‘phones then. They had got a telly and a windmill generator, and it was the World Cup, so you could drink in their bar and see the world cup at Glastonbury. The money they got from the bar paid for the travellers’ school bus. I love that.
“I thought it was so exciting and so wonderful. I remember my mates finding me at the end of the Sunday and I was wearing an Afghan tribesman’s hat, an Indian Lungi with images of Vishnu on it and holding a peace candle! They just went, come on it’s time to go home Mark!” He chuckles at the memory.
“I’ve taken my kids there over the years. The people who run the speaker’s tent, I’ve known them for years. I’m an old fart, I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I’m one year off my London bus pass.”
A mention of the C word, or to be accurate, two C words, and Mark’s hackles are raised. “CANCEL CULTURE!” Adding fuel to his fire by mention of the topic of comedians being physically attacked over a joke.
There are two recent incidents. Chris Rock being hit by Will Smith live on TV during the Oscars, and US comedy legend Dave Chapelle attacked on stage at the end of his set at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. in May.
A man in the audience leaped up on stage, grabbed Dave Chapelle, and knocked him to the ground, armed with a replica gun and a blade. The 23-year-old has since been charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon. Risky business then, cracking a few gags these days!
“I remember being in Montreal for the comedy festival when a bloke got up on stage and punched Jerry Sadowitz in the face. This was years ago, 1989/90. Jerry had a joke: ‘I can’t believe Montreal; half of you speak French and the other half let them!’ His opening gag and the bloke got up and bang!
“This idea that suddenly something has happened out of the blue, with assaults on comics, that’s got nothing to do with cancel culture. People have always been subjected to these sorts of things.
“I recall a female comic performing at an old club in the East End of London, and somebody got on stage and pulled her skirt up from behind while he was walking across with a pint of beer.
“She walked off distressed and next thing she knows, the bloke’s being pushed out of the bar and pummelled in the parking lot (sic). These are the exceptions to the rule; there’s always been stuff like this that has happened, it’s not this sudden phenomenon that some think it is.
Racists and misogynists beware….
“People are reacting to it in way that says, oh, it’s cancel culture and no…. What’s happening is, there’s always been this thing of, ah well, this is Leftie censorship. Why can’t we have XXXXX XXXXXXX (name withheld for legal safety!) and Bernard Manning back on the tele.
“Well, I would argue that they’re racist misogynists, and actually the most important thing is they’re really out of date and people want new comics that reflect their values. There were articles: ‘Ben Elton causes Benny Hill to be cancelled.’ That was ridiculous. Cancel culture. I don’t have much time with the concept of it. The people talking about cancel culture have got a series of shows on Netflix, talking about cancel culture!
“OK, tell me how you have been cancelled? You’ve got a series of shows on Netflix. The notion of it is overplayed. You hear people talk about cancel culture, but actually, you’ve got a right if you’re…
“People go, maybe you should join the debate about this. But I think some things – and I’ll give you an example… if someone’s drowning in the Mediterranean or the channel, you just f*cking help them. You just put them ashore, it’s not a policy debate.
“It’s not something that should be discussed on Question Time. You help put someone on shore. But it’s managed to turn into a political issue that needs to be discussed. F*ck off, you help them ashore. It’s not for debate or policy.
“People say, Oh I just want a sensible debate about immigration, and you think, what you really want to do is to be able to use the ‘N-word’ without consequence.
“Should other people be forced to sit there and endure your bigotry? Why should they? Why can’t they say no, this is sh*t and walk out, or not come back.
“On cancel culture, I always remember I criticised a comic and said their attitude towards women was a little bit like The Daily Mail, and someone said, Oh no, not you as well Mark? How can you attack…
“Comedy is coming under attack, freedom of speech is coming under attack; I said mate, he said something and I replied, that’s how freedom of speech works!
“Often the idea of cancel culture is actually the idea of someone just answering back.” Amen to that. That old saying, let’s agree to disagree, to diffuse an argument is pretty much redundant these days.
If you have an opposite view, you may get cancelled on (anti) social media and in person, when the other person takes great offence. Oh dear, don’t get me started….
Current comics Mark admires includes Josie Long, Bridget Christie, Shazia Mirza, Jen Brister and Imran Yusef.
Mark appeared on one episode of the comedy panel show, “Have I Got News For You” some years ago, but rejects invites to those kind of programmes ever since.
“Yeah, I didn’t like it. I get invited onto these things, but I say no, I don’t really want to do them. Much happier working by myself.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working to avoid having a proper job; to avoid a nine to five where you sit behind a desk and suddenly, that’s your career opportunity, sitting behind a fu*king desk.”
Boris and Trump…
I bring the chat around to the fact that Boris and Trump must be manna from heaven for material for comedians and political satirists. The mere mention of Bojo and Mark’s fuse is lit….
“I don’t want to wake up and have my day dominated by what some idiot f*cking tw*t has said. I would much rather not talk about Boris. He’s there. He’s hard to f*cking avoid.”
OK, point taken. So, who’s on your radar once Boris and Trump are out of the picture. “Everyone. Whoever is in power and has more power than most people. It’s not a case of, oh, what shall we do now, there’s no one to mock.
“Major went…and now there’s Tony Blair. There’s plenty to go on, plenty to go round. It’s not just about attacking whoever is in power. It’s the idea of you want to play; you want to create ideas and you want to get to places where the audience didn’t think they’d go to.
“That’s the exciting thing about it; comedy gives you a chance to take people on a little journey, and they go, aww, f*cking hell, we laughed at that, that’s unbelievable.”
The spark to inspire Mark toward a comedy career cropped up when he heard a recording of Alexi Sayle back in the day. Mark was also inspired by his old boss, Irish comedy legend Dave Allen, as a writer on Dave’s team. “Dave Allen was light years ahead of so many people. He was genius.”
Would Mark change anything about today’s stand-up scene? “No. I wouldn’t. There are more black performers, more Trans performers, more women performers, more gay performers, more working-class performers and there has been for a while. There are loads of new and great comedians coming up…”
He is currently touring the UK with previews of his new show, “Black and White”, trying out new material prior to the tour proper starting in September. What’s the theme with that one, Mark? “Fun, mischief and bringing down international capitalism.” Standard!
Mark Thomas M.P.
We end our stimulating natter with this little question: Would he ever run for office? “I’d never run for office with any serious intent. I did stand for Parliament back in 1996, I stood in the by-election.
“We found out that you could get a free delivery of all your manifestos; if you go to the post-office they have to deliver it to every constituent. So, we did a manifesto, and at the time Yorkshire Water were about to introduce standpipes….and they’d just privatised it.
“So, my first policy was, if elected, I’ll make it law that all executives of Yorkshire Water, executive and non-executive, should be forced to donate a minimum of one kidney for charity.
“That went round every house, and in the street, people would say, loved your manifesto. I said, are you going to vote for me? No!
“Whoever you vote for, the Government always gets in! Real change happens from below. Parliament is the last bit to put the stamp on it.
“Suffragettes; it all happened from the grass roots up; match girls’ strikes, women becoming involved in politics, the suffragette movement. All of that was massive and it happened from the grass roots.”
Final word: what is Mark’s biggest achievement? “Nearly getting my bus pass and I am still breathing!” (You get a bus and tube pass at 60 in London).
- Catch Mark Thomas as part of the 24-hour arts and science festival, ‘First Light’ in Lowestoft, on the First Word Zone stage on 18th June 2022 as top of the bill.
- Taking place on Lowestoft’s sandy South Beach – the UK’s most easterly location and the first place to see daybreak – First Light begins at noon on Saturday 18 June and runs continuously until midday on Sunday 19 June.
- Other acts appearing include drum and bass DJ LTJ Bukem and jazz star Andy Sheppard. Most of the festival is free entry. Select events are ticketed, including Mark’s headline set. More info and tickets here: firstlightfestival.com
Words: Steve Best