Image: Steve Ullathorn

An interview with comedian and political activist, Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas, a comedian, journalist and political activist, is bringing his show Check-up: Our NHS at 70 to the Warwick Arts Centre. His blend of theatre, comedy and investigative journalism, which has garnered critical acclaim in Edinburgh and London, takes a critical look at the state of the NHS.

I’ve been reading a few articles about your history. In one, you describe yourself at school as a “half-Herbert, half-arty boy”. From what I’ve read, this innate rebellious tendency runs through a lot of your work. So I’m wondering, why do you think theatre so often finds itself in opposition to authority?

Well, that’s a good question. I think theatre should naturally ally itself with voices that aren’t normally heard. You want to hear different voices and you want to hear and see things that you haven’t seen before. There is a performer called Dickie Bird, who cues these magnificent audios, and he will stand on stage and act it but mime the language. He lip-synchs beautifully. In one of the pieces he does, someone is talking about the shape of a human ear and the shape of a theatre in Greece and how they are very similar. You stand there to be heard. Whenever people talk about Greece, nine times out of ten, they talk about the great democracy, and it was a great democracy if you were male, if you weren’t a slave, if you hadn’t gone to jail. But what’s interesting is that most of the plays are named after slaves and women and people with criminal records.

I mean, I studied Antigone recently, so I see what you mean!

That’s a brilliant play. Fantastically beautiful. What’s interesting is that theatre has always had the voices of those who shouldn’t be heard, who don’t count, centre stage. They stand there in the middle of this thing shaped like an ear saying “listen to me”. And that’s amazing! That’s very powerful. And that’s where theatre’s always come from. The upper class don’t need a way of expressing themselves because they’ve got government.

And political power.

They’ve got political power. Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t need to go on stage and show off about how he’s oppressed because he clearly isn’t! Because he has access to the Daily Telegraph editorials. The point is that theatre has always had its roots in displaying unpalatable truths and I think that’s where it works best. If you just want to hear the same old, there are shows where you can go and see that and they’re good shows. I always say that Shakespeare belongs to the masses apart from the Tory party, who get Henry V and that’s it. Look at what’s happening with drill music at the moment! They’re actually going to jail young musicians! They’re using anti-gang violence, anti-gang legislation (which has a lower burden of proof than anything) and they’re using that and that’s amazing! So, drill music, that’s a voice that doesn’t have access to mainstream culture. And I think that that’s actually where theatre and performance and art should have that element of challenge and should have that element of trying to upset people’s ideas and represent communities and voices that aren’t normally heard. Phew, that was a long way round, wasn’t it?

That was a very good speech, you’ve got to work that into your show, I think! I actually completely agree with you. The idea that theatre is (although not always) the perfect forum to provide an opportunity to tap into the collective consciousness of society, for lack of a better word.

I started out as a stand-up, but what I do now is a mixture of storytelling, theatre, journalism and stand-up. It’s a mixture of things and I’m very glad that of that because one of the great things about stand-up is its brevity and mischief. One of the great things about that sort of journalistic approach to it is just making sure we get it right. And I think one of the great things about theatre is empathy, you get a chance to see things through other people’s eyes. You get a chance to experience things through other people’s feelings and actions and you create empathy, you create understanding. And those are fantastically powerful things. So, that’s what I like doing.

A review of your production of Check-up: Our NHS at 70 says that you use a mixture of “reportage, interviews and storytelling”. You spent a month shadowing doctors and that’s where a lot of the stories that you incorporate into your show come from. Where did you get the inspiration to merge theatre and journalism and what made you want to focus on the NHS?

So how do you move from stand-up into telling stories and journalism? Good journalism will tell a story. I actually love the Daily Mirror because it has got an amazing ability to tell a story, to represent the other, to get a load of factual content and to make it accessible and interesting to people. The way that I came at it was, I’ve always loved storytelling and I think they’re much more fun to tell than just doing one-liners, you know? My favourite performers are people like Dave Allen and Victoria Wood who are genius, and Billy Connolly who is amazing at telling stories. That’s what they do. I love the fact that you can tell a story and root it in journalism. I suppose part of it has been activism because you want to engage with people. You want to play and part of that is storytelling. I guess we ended up doing the journalistic bit by accident. When we got asked to do the Channel 4 show, I thought let’s show things that people haven’t seen before. So we did The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, dressed up as a bear and invited Tory MP’s on to talk to us and took the piss out of them.

Now I wish I could’ve seen a clip of that!

Well, I’m sure you can find it on YouTube. We did all sorts of stuff and at the end of it, we thought, what if we could up the factual content here? And so we started to do investigations. One of the first ones we did, we got scientists to do tests on seagull shit on Satterfield beach and they came up positive that that shit was contaminated with radioactive isotopes. We then campaigned against that and did programmes against it and cost Satterfield one million quid in their clean-up operation. And we were like “Wow!” we can do that, let’s try and do our own investigations. So we did things like, we hired a stall at an arms fair in Greece and pretended to be media consultants and get people along and it was really interesting. What we found there, we got credible admissions of UK equipment used in Indonesia, we got admissions of torture, all sorts of stuff. And on the back of that, we’re just like “Fuck, this is great!” and, I suppose it was by accident, the route coming through from the telly programme was by accident. From that point in, really, I became slightly obsessed with it. You want to document things and you want to document them well and there needs to be a journalistic integrity to it.

So why the NHS? As a creative person, you want to do as many different things as you can. You want to create and come up with new ways of performing and presenting ideas. You don’t want to get stuck in a rut. The whole point is to be creative. So, when I did the show with the two Palestinian performers, that was a departure for me and it was great fun. I loved it. This time around I wanted to do something on the NHS because it is the most important institution that we will encounter in our lives.

Which is impressive because it’s not actually that old, it’s only 70. And yet it’s so ingrained in the culture.

It’s not just the culture. It is ingrained in the culture but more importantly, it’s ingrained in the fact that everything, from our inoculations through to asthma inhalers, through to cancer check-ups, through to A&E, through to our end of life, it’s all of those things. It is literally a cradle to a grave institution. And it’s the one we rely on the most, the times when our friends and loved ones are most vulnerable. It’s an incredibly important institution and I wanted to see where we are with it, what its future might be. Because, from a very selfish point, I’m going to need it much more as I get older. It’s the institution that we’re all going to need. The point is, whether it is an inoculation or a broken arm, you know you need the NHS. And you need it to function in a way that means we can go in there and get free treatment. Ultimately it’s not free because we pay for it with tax. So it’s not a charity. And that’s one of the great things, the contract that we have with the NHS, between ourselves as citizens and the institution.

I’m paraphrasing Jeremy Hardy, but the NHS is socialism in action. We take tax from those who can afford it and if you can afford to pay more, we take more. We put it into the NHS and then those that need it, need it. You take from those that can give, you give to those who need.

And what would you say is your objective behind the show? Are you hoping to, say, criticise certain policies regarding the NHS to inspire social change?

My first job is to accurately reflect what you see. And your second job is then to go: is what I’m seeing worth it? There are lots of things that I want people to be seized by. Whether it is the fact that the inequalities in health, which are class-based, are enormous. And the NHS is our way, or one of the ways, to address them and we need to do that. Education is another way. Housing is another way. There’s a famous case of a Norwegian minister who was made health minister after being housing minister and somebody said, “What’s it like to be health minister?” and he said, “Well when I was in housing, I was working on health”. And bad housing creates bad health. So I want people to look at it from that perspective that, actually, it’s not just the NHS. We have to look at the NHS working within cuts in social care, within austerity, within cuts in housing, all of those things have an impact. Somebody asked me, “What did I want people to feel when they left?” and I said “shock and awe”.

We’ll be looking forward to seeing that! I think you’re absolutely right there. It’s such a great institution and the sacrifices of the people who run it – there was that junior doctors strike not that long ago and it seems we’ve almost forgotten about that.

The one thing that I took away from this is that people work longer and harder than they should and commit themselves in the face of pay freezes and in the face of staff shortages, and they do it because they believe in the public service of it. And, actually, they’re only going to do it for so long and we need to address those issues with funding, we need to address the issues with pay, we need to address the issues with staff shortages.

Well, I think you’ll find a lot of common ground with the students here. Thank you for the interview and good luck with the show!

Check-up: Our NHS at 70 is at Warwick Arts Centre on 13 February. You can buy tickets here.

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