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Flouting Thomas

A bit of politics goes a long way in Mark Thomas's TV show.
So far, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product has provoked a complaint to the ITC, the threat of a D-Notice, menacing letters from an eminent banker and two different MPs, and legal correspondence from the Ministry of Defence, a multi-national and a privatised utility. "And," Thomas licks his lips with relish, "we haven't even broadcast yet. That makes me feel exceptionally happy. After every episode of Saturday Zoo [a riotous C4 variety show], I used to read the Duty Log. When I did a routine about legalising drugs, there was only one call, and I was gutted."

This is a man whose middle name is Troublemaker. A magazine psychologist, reviewing Thomas's extremely rude video, said he had "a missionary zeal to say the unsayable", which pleased him no end ("I can retire now," he smiles, "all my Lenny Bruce fantasies are fulfilled"). Coming across as the bastard son of Jeremy Paxman and Dennis Pennis, in his series Thomas performs such stunts as: asking MP Jerry Hayes to dress up in an eight- foot penis costume; donning a bear outfit and persuading MPs such as David Amess and David Martin to draw the shapes of their constituencies on the bare stomach of a shapely young woman, and to allow their (clothed) rear ends to be photographed; and dressing up as a rabbit to kidnap L!ve TV's News Bunny. In a stunt proving that people will stop at nothing to publicise their programmes, he stood in the Hemsworth by-election as the candidate for the Mark Thomas Friday Nights Channel 4 Party - and won 122 votes in the process.

Seamus Cassidy, Channel 4's head of comedy, is robust in his defence of the man whose series he commissioned. "He is going to get complaints, but he's making a legitimate comment in an oblique way on matters that concern us all - whether it's the standards of propriety held by MPs or safety standards in nuclear power-plants. He approaches it laterally. You could have a Dispatches or a Panorama on this subject, why shouldn't you have Mark Thomas?"

The man in question picks over a curry in a vegetarian restaurant in the West End of London and admits that "there is a certain childish preoccupation with upsetting people, because people don't do it enough. You can get away with a lot more than you think. As long as you can justify something and do it legally, I don't have a problem."

Thomas is bracing himself for accusations that he is the Tsar of the Stitch-Up, but contends: "At no point is it unfair. At any moment the MPs can walk out. If they claimed they'd been entrapped I'd say: `What by? A man in a bear costume? You're an MP, you should be able to handle this.'"

The iconoclastic Thomas does not hold our political masters in especially high esteem. "I despise them all," he says, stating the obvious. "I don't belong to any party. It's the old Groucho Marx thing - I have an innate ability to hate anything that wants me in it."

Thomas is something of a rarity on the circuit: a comedian who is prepared to use the P-word. "There are not a huge number of people who do political material now. Comedy has become incredibly sexy and is suddenly a mainstream force. Even six years ago a newspaper editor said he wasn't going to run comedy listings because `They're all Trots'. The rougher edges have fallen off."

Thomas's are still there, though. "Some people will go, `Oh God, a political comedian, there's going to be a lecture, and those who don't know the sugar statistics in Cuba are going to be told to go now'," Thomas laughs, self-mockingly. "But everything's political. If I do a routine about shopping in Tesco's, people will say, `That's not political at all', but to an extent it will be. I don't see a contradiction in talking about that and East Timor. It is an eclectic church."

Looking cheerfully combative with an earring and spiky black hair, Thomas rejects the charge that he has sold out by going on telly. "You couldn't accuse me of that because of the content of what I do." True enough. Following a campaigning Tory MP, shouting "I love the smell of bullshit in the morning" at him through a megaphone, does not really constitute a sell-out.

But where will it all lead him? Where will he be when he is no longer an angry young man? "In 15 years' time, I'll be doing a British Nuclear Fuels Limited ad," Thomas says, with a twinkle. "When I sell out, I'm going to do it really big. I'm going to ride around in a pink Cadillac that chews up leaded fuel, sniffing cocaine off immigrants' backs."

`The Mark Thomas Comedy Product', tonight 10.30pm C4