Mark Thomas has always been a bit too cross to be a great stage comic. His appetite for outrage works better on TV, where his audacious documentaries have transformed him from a competent stand-up into a prolific investigative journalist. This courageous book charts his progression from radical joker to campaigning reporter. It's a humorous yet heartfelt polemic about the British arms industry - the second biggest in the world. After reading his exposé, you end up wondering: is there anyone we won't sell weapons to, if the price is right?
By adopting a variety of implausible disguises, Thomas shows how easy it is to bypass restrictions on selling arms to unsavoury regimes by using middlemen. As he reveals, our Government seems far more interested in selling British arms than saving foreign lives, and in a global market it's almost impossible to stop anyone buying whatever they want. No wonder more than half the world's small arms end up in civilian hands.
Thomas's revelations are riveting. The problem is the tone. His father was a lay preacher, and there's a proselytising to his blokey prose that grates. Some of his intrepid scoops would make more impact if they were delivered with less evangelical zeal.
Ironically, the most strident element of Thomas's book isn't the journalism, but the jokes. When he forgets the right-on wisecracks, he makes witty points, arguing that "the nearest any corporation has to a sense of shame is their publicity department. These departments react to adverse stories only when they feel the company's image is in danger". This, in a Fair Trade nutshell, is what his crusading reportage is all about.
Thomas's moral indignation becomes repetitive, but he's brave enough to risk illuminating moments of self-mockery and self-doubt. In the end, he discovers it's not only gun-runners who have to wrestle with their consciences. "I like my arms dealers to be evil through and through," he says, after snaring a small-time trader in electroshock batons in a dreary south London suburb. "Just as he doesn't want to think about the consequences of his sale, I don't want to think about the consequences of informing the authorities about him." It's a painful flash of self-awareness - awkward and absorbing - and far more compelling than the matey rhetoric that surrounds it.
William Cook edited 'Eric Morecambe Unseen' (HarperCollins)Reuse content