Published on December 5th, 2017 | by Kiran Archaya0
The Smell of Burned Bridges: Mark Thomas on Northern Ireland, Forgiveness and Terrahawks
Mark Thomas is on the loose once more, bringing not one but two new shows to Belfast and beyond. In a wide-ranging interview he explains the futility of occupations, considers the chances of Theresa May being taken back into outer space, and remembers embarrassing encounters with Ulster politicians.
Words by Kiran Archaya
The Danish broadcaster Børge Rosenbaum said that ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’. It’s an idea that Mark Thomas has taken to heart over the course of his unique and provocative career, combining political activism with shows that take audience participation to the level of communion.
“How do you actually create community?,” he asks. “How do you actually make unique events which bind us together?” His new performance A Show That Gambles on the Future, at the Black Box in Belfast for two nights this week, does so by asking for predictions and actually gambling on the outcomes. Next March, Showtime from the Frontline arrives at the MAC to tell the story of setting up a comedy club in the Palestinian city of Jenin.
The shows will keep the celebrated comic on the road until Spring 2018, giving him a street-level view of the UK at a time of unheralded crisis and intensifying political division. He has been performing in Belfast for 20 years, developing and uncommonly-informed take on the relationship between Northern Ireland and England as the border question threatens to destabilise not just the United Kingdom, but Europe.
And although he says that his career is ‘built on the smell of burned bridges’, he’s particularly attuned to the Milliganish absurdities that arise when you draw political lines between people’s lives, as in Puckoon or Pettigo, where bringing vegetables from the garden into the house was once considered an act of international smuggling.
What springs to mind when you hear the words ‘Northern Ireland’?
Mark Thomas: I first started coming to Northern Ireland to perform in 1987, so I’ve come for a long time, and I’ve got good friends there. What’s interesting is to see the changes. I always used to tell people that they should go to Belfast and they should come to Belfast because it’s a great city, they should perform there, and people like my Mum would go, ‘You be careful – you be careful when you go over there.’ It was very funny, because I remember once her telling me to be careful, and there was a car bomb in London. I phoned her up and said, ‘You be careful now, you be careful in London…’
I’m really fascinated by the place, because the place is huge fun. It’s enormous fun. There’s incredible culture, and there’s a subculture and an alternative culture in Belfast that is beginning to be heard more. I’m talking about women’s voices coming to the fore on issues of abortion, and gay voices coming to the fore on issues of equal marriage. The last couple of times we’ve done benefits; a pro-choice benefit and an equal marriage benefit. I’m quite at home in the Black Box.
It’s part of the Cathedral Quarter, which is, to an extent, under threat of that terrible term ‘regeneration’, and increasing corporatisation.
MT: That’s the really amazing thing, you’ve got that great big building, that tower block in the middle of Belfast that no one’s moved into, with bits of it being bought up overseas. That is, of course, the tale of of London. You go to bits of London and there are tower blocks which are virtually empty because they’re all bloody owned by people in Malaysia and the Philippines. That’s one of the interesting things about ‘regeneration’. People use the word ‘regeneration’ when they mean gentrification and enrichment of the wealthy. But in Belfast I remember meeting David Ervine, who was just great. I really liked him. What happened was – it was years ago – I got into a van as part of the Belfast Festival, picked up by the festival and they asked, ‘Who has impressed you, politically?’ And I said David Ervine, that fella. They said, ‘Oh aye, would you like to meet him?’ I said yeah, that would be great.
Later, I was doing a sound check and this guy bounces into the room holding a phone shouting ‘It’s David Ervine on the phone for you.’ I picked up the phone and this voice just goes, ‘Mark Thomas, what do you want? You’ve just bounced into my life.’ I said, in a bit of a panic, ‘I wondered if we would meet for a cup of tea?’ Which we did, the next day. But I have this habit of saying the wrong thing. The words come out wrong. Which is good for being a performer, because saying the wrong thing is funnier, and that’s how it works. But David Ervine comes up to me in this hotel and says, ‘Mark Thomas: I recognise you from your poster.’ And I said, ‘David Ervine: You’re shorter than you look in the murals.’
He was someone who really opened my eyes in many ways, and I found him an amazing man because, from the left, you traditionally have a kind of automatic support of the nationalist/Republican cause, which, y’know, in the ’80s and when we started going over, one of the first gigs we did was in the Parador down on the Ormeau Road which used to be – I don’t know what it is now – but then it was a nationalist pub. What was really interesting was to get away from that a little and look at the class perspective on it. I thought Ervine was just amazing on that. Increasingly, people like Dawn Purvis, I think she and David were really principled people and really interesting. And I don’t know if that’s made any sense at all to you…
Totally. I remember growing up feeling there was a broad category, ‘Northern Irish Politicians’, which were just generalised villains in my political consciousness, pursuing complex and bewildering agendas. But if you found anybody that was truly principled and had an egalitarian outlook you tended to pay attention.
MT: I thought it was amazing, talking about about the poverty in Belfast, and actually, the suicide rate in young men. Incredible. If this had been in the south of England there would be screaming newspaper headlines and a task force. I genuinely believe that Northern Ireland, as far as mainstream English politics goes, is still regarded as a punishment place that you send wayward ministers.
MT: Exactly. And that’s deeply, deeply classist and deeply, deeply divisive and just vicious. And actually there’s tinges and whiffs of racism in there as well.
What do you think the everyday English person misunderstands about Northern Ireland, given that it’s a far more progressive and peaceful place than most people appreciate?
MT: This sounds like a contradiction, but it’s the simple idea that actually lives are complex, and rich. There’s a complexity. People just ignore it and they put them into categories. It’s that little Englander awfulness which goes, ‘Well, the Argies just want our islands, and Europe just wants everything from us.’ It’s the dreadful victim mentality of the underdog that insists on being a victim and therefore classifying everyone else in that two-dimensional way. What is it that the average English person misses about Northern Ireland? It’s the fact that actually it’s part of Britain [laughs]. Northern Ireland creates an existential crisis in the minds of English people, because on the one hand it’s Ireland and on the other hand it’s ‘ours’. It’s an intellectual pawn to be moved around in a pub argument. And again, I don’t know if that’s made any sense…
Well, there are all sorts of problems in Northern Ireland; still the division, still an instance of the victim mentality you mention, a hierarchy of grief. But the idea of identity politics, which has defined politics in Northern Ireland, is now becoming widespread and everyone’s becoming polarised in places from America, to England and across Europe.
MT: One of the interesting things is that people can use Jeremy Corbyn meeting Sinn Féin as proof that he is therefore a supporter of terrorism. Without any understanding of the peace process, any understanding of Stormont, or any understanding of where Northern Irish politics are, to actually go back to that regressive thinking is absolute madness. If you want to see what the average English person thinks of it, that’s where it is. It’s the politics of a football chant.
Is it true that the Mary Whitehouse Experience was at one point going to be titled the William Rees Mogg Experience?
MT: Ha! I have no idea. I genuinely have no idea, but it was good fun, I have to say.
What are your favourite memories from the time?
MT: The thing that I really enjoyed was, on the first series there was Jo Brand and Rob Newman and David Baddiel and me and Skint Video – I used to love working with Skint Video, who were a musical double act – and it kind of drew down the middle, that there was the Oxford and Cambridge gang on one side, and then the rest of us on the other. What I loved was the thrill of trying to write right up to the wire, jokes or gags that we could put in right the last minute.
Was that an effort to be up-to-the-minute, or were you able to push more contentious jokes because you were doing it so close to the deadline?
MT: Well, they still had the power of the edit, which was dreadful, but although it was the BBC there was a feeling that we could push things a little bit, that we were allowed to push things a little bit. Not too far, but a little bit, certainly, and that people made the odd exception for us. But the bit I’ve always loved is the creative bit: how you spark an idea and run with it, and watching it flare and fire for the first time. Once you’ve got it into a joke and it becomes an established part of the routine, that’s the bit that becomes least interesting, to me.
How does Channel 4 compare as a broadcaster in terms of restrictions?
MT: Do you know, I couldn’t rightly tell you now. We finished work with them in 2002-2003. But my career is built on the smell of burned bridges. A friend who I’ve worked with for seventeen years, she said, ‘Do you remember phoning up the head of Channel 4 and leaving a message screaming, ‘You’re a cunt! You’re an utter cunt!’? I said, ‘No I don’t.’ She said, ‘It’s probably just as well that you don’t, but you did.’
It’s because they tried to stop us doing things, all the time. It was like a continuing battle. We had a stupid thing, when the sanctions on Iraq meant everything that went in and out of Iraq was controlled through the committee at the UN, we tried to get a teddy bear in and Channel 4 tried to ban us doing it.
What was their reasoning?
MT: They said it was breaking the law, and we’re saying, ‘Yes. We know it’s breaking the law, and we want to show how stupid the law is.’ It was infuriating, and they eventually backed down said yes, we will roll on that. But to be fair, we just pushed as hard as we could. There was a whole load of people sitting there looking at their pensions disappearing every time I opened my mouth.
More broadly, do you think we’re living in a particularly censorious time? I’m thinking of the extent to which people are policing one another and identifying wrongthink on social media.
MT: My wife refers to it as ‘the tonal police’: people who police the tone of your argument. Yeah, I think people have established various political shibboleths, which are the hills on which they choose to die. And actually what’s interesting, is because of Twitter and because of Facebook and because of all those other social media things, actually what we have is an increased opportunity at dialogue with each other, and conversely, an absolutely shrill decibel level of monitoring that actually just prevents debate. It just puts people into their little boxes. I find that incredible.
Which topics are taboo, dangerous or too hot to handle from the point of view of a comedian or performer?
MT: For me it’s not about necessarily about taboos. The thing that interests me – if you’re talking about stepping over the line or being controversial or anything like that – the art of it is not to charge over the borders of accepted thought and accepted social norms, but to dance around that border, to play around that border, to take people with you and make them feel safe, and then unsafe, then safe again. It’s about a journey, going together. For me what’s important is creating communities when you perform. How you actually create a community of people and how we create things together.
So all the shows that I do have an element of the audience joining in. So whether that’s in The Red Shed, where literally most of the audience came and sat onstage and had to play the parts, or whether it’s in the case of A Show That Gambles on the Future where the audience put the suggestions and forecasts for the future in and then we discuss them and debate them. For me, these are the most important things. How do you actually create community? How do you actually get people joining in, how do you actually make unique events which bind us together? Once you do that, then you can look at the other stuff.
Talking of borders and communities, what have you learned from your work in the Middle East that you’ve brought back to England, or indeed to Northern Ireland? What can we learn from the Middle East?
MT: I think the one thing that you can learn is very, very simple, which is that military occupations don’t work. They don’t work. They breed the seeds of their own destruction. And one of the important personal things is that people who do cross-border work, working together, are often doing some of the most interesting work. But it’s about how you collaborate together and how you work together without actually losing the political dynamics. There’s a real, incredible complexity to the journeys that people have to make.
There’s a simplicity in one sense: the military occupation of Palestine has to end. It is an apartheid system; it does have to finish. There’s a settlement which is beautiful; I spoke to the people there and it was like some Steven Spielberg Tuscan Hill suburbia. Bougainvillea hanging off the the garden walls. I talked to the mayor who said, ‘People come here because of the schools. We’ve got really good schools.’
If you go down the road to the Bedouin village, which is technically on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, but on the Israeli side of the wall, they’re not Israeli citizens, they don’t have Israeli passports, they’re not allowed to vote, their village can’t have roads, permanent structures. When it does end, there are going to be journeys where actual people will have to get used to living with each other. It’s impossible to forget – you shouldn’t forget – but forgiveness is something that all of us desperately need, and we’re so fucking loathe to give it. It’s something that human beings need to relearn. This sounds vaguely crazy and spiritual – I apologise for the Bono-esque moments.
It’s that Kurt Vonnegut thing: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ That message bears repeating. How important is humour in giving people resilience when living in repressive conditions?
MT: Oh, it’s really funny – the thing is, people do have humour and people have this private humour. You can laugh at things in private with your friends, and maybe with your family, but you are not allowed to say them onstage. And of course stand-up is prevalent in saying all the things onstage that maybe you can’t say with your family and your friends. So it’s a really interesting thing because humour is vital – when you say ‘How important is humour?’, it supposes that it’s some kind of component or a part that could be taken out or put in. It’s not. It’s intrinsic to being a human being. The ability to laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of ourselves is great, just as the ability to mock other people while ignoring our own faults is another foible that human beings have.
How important is mockery or satire as tools to puncture or undermine authority?
MT: It’s so funny – somebody yesterday, as their prediction for the future, said, ‘At long last a team will be sent down from the Terrahawks to take back Theresa May.’ I suddenly thought, she is, she’s a member of Terrahawks. She is Zelda.
Moreso than ever, the one thing that politicians can’t control is the laughter that is levelled at them. They can control a whole load of things – they can control stuff that gets out to the press, they can control what is said, what is dictated – but they can’t control the contempt in which they are held, and that it is truly the great leveller. It’s the thing that echoes around their minds at night and will bite deep into the soulless fucking pit of their stomachs.
Do you think people need to be reminded that it’s okay to laugh at our so-called betters?
MT: It’s absolutely crucial to laugh at our so-called betters. If you don’t you’re nothing but a serf.
Is there a kind of subservience drummed in to people from the UK, a deference towards authority, which begins in the education system?
MT: It’s not that we’re deferent to authority, because I think people are naturally rebellious. It’s the limitations that are placed upon individuals and communities for what they can be, and what they could do. It’s the limitation of their own aspirations, and the aspirations they’re allowed to have. That’s the most corrosive thing.
Mark Thomas brings A Show That Gambles on the Future to the Black Box for two consecutive nights on 7 and 8 December, continuing nationwide until 17 December. Showtime from the Frontline begins in January, arriving at the MAC in March. See www.markthomasinfo.co.uk for full dates and information.
Photos by Jane Hobson (top) and Lesley Martin