The tank driver
Mark Thomas may be our cheekiest comedian. Nicholas Barber meets the foul-mouthed scourge of William Waldegrave's doorstep
Sunday 14 April 1996
After The Young Ones, every comedian more alternative than Bob Monkhouse was stamped "anarchic". The term was misused until the arrival of Thomas, the Guy Fawkes of Light Entertainment, and the star of Channel 4's Mark Thomas Comedy Product. The classiest of class warriors, he assesses the impact of the show: "We've had complaints from Jerry Hayes, David Amess, Simon Hughes, Waldegrave, DTI, Customs & Excise, McDonald's, Yorkshire Water, couple of random politicians who we did stuff with which we didn't manage to broadcast. We had an injunction threatened against us, we had an 'intention to serve a D Notice' served to Channel 4, we've had Sir Evelyn de Rothschild's solicitors, we've had ... some others that I've forgotten."
Despite the chubby face, the earring and the gelled-up hair, the 32-year- old who sits before me might not be recognised by fans of TV's cheeky- grinned imp. He is courteous and funny, and he rambles, pauses, and sometimes even gets serious. He is tired out. In the past few days he has been setting up an Internet site (http://alt.venus.co.uk/markthomas/), preparing for a national stand-up tour, and finishing the Comedy Product. The show is bound to win awards, and even if it doesn't, how many other programmes can boast a list of complaints as long as the one above? And how many others have offered a tanker of water to Yorkshire Water as a gift from the people of Ethiopia; kidnapped Live TV's News Bunny; and allowed MPs, including those honourable members Amess, Hughes and Hayes, to show up their hunger for publicity on what they believed to be a children's programme? Amess sketched his constituency on a woman's bare stomach; Hughes obligingly cheated in a pop quiz, assuming (wrongly) that the sequences where Thomas fed him the (wrong) answers would be edited out; Hayes offered to dress up as a bear, but drew the line at donning a giant penis costume. He did, however, acknowledge it to be a "brilliant idea". He was more right than he knew.
The Comedy Product was the product of a shelf-full of books on Situationism, and Thomas's love of pranks: "It all started when I was off my chump one Christmas Eve, and I tried to write 'Virgin Mothers Demand the Right to Choose' on the wall of the Catholic church." More fundamentally, it was a product of his being the son of a builder and a midwife, and winning a scholarship to Christ's Hospital at the age of 10. The leap from working-class Clapham to upper-middle-class public school taught him about social divisions, "the art of revenge, and how to bear a grudge". More prosaically, he admits, it taught him how much fun it was to put on shows in the school theatre. At 18 he knew he wanted to be a comic, and his gleefully irreverent "mixture of silliness, filth and politics" took him from the live circuit to Radio 1's Loose Talk and Channel 4's Saturday Zoo. The channel paid him to script a pilot show of his own, but Thomas decided to spend the money on actually producing a low-budget pilot instead. "You can't write down, 'We're going to drive a tank into McDonald's'," he reasons. Which is why, while the programmes of Jo Brand and Jack Dee are half-thought-out translations of their stage routines, Thomas's completely televisual dare-devilry is unique.
He laments the way TV has made some of his colleagues unwilling to take risks, and is nostalgic for the comedy scene he started out in more than a decade ago, which he remembers as a burning hotbed of eclecticism and rebellion. It is safe to assume that he doesn't pal around much with the comedy establishment. He has denounced Comic Relief's Red Nose Day, and Tony Blair might think twice before inviting him to a Labour rally. He would like to write children's books, inspired by his and his wife's 11- month old son, but he is not enticed by the accepted stand-up's retirement plan, becoming a straight actor/playwright/novelist. What does the future hold, then? As a radical, iconoclastic comedian, it stands to reason that he will either sell out to the mainstream, or drown in a mire of drink, drugs and depression. "I don't drink and I have a fear of needles, so drink and drugs is out," he chuckles, extremely undepressed. "And I'm not going to go mainstream because I can't, I just haven't got what it takes. The nearest I could get is a vegetarian guest spot on the Food and Drink programme."
This may yet be on the menu. Just a "fun-sized celebrity, a celeb you can have between meals", perhaps, he is already too well-known for his own good. Towards the end of the Comedy Product's run, undercover pranks were getting more difficult because Thomas was getting more famous. "If we get a second series, it would have to be different. This is a one-off show. That's what spurs us on. When you're parking a tank outside Waldegrave's house, it is quite frightening. You think three things. One is, my trousers need changing. The second is, we only get this chance once, so just do it. And lastly you have to remind yourself that the people you're going after are scum. I don't think we went for anyone who didn't deserve it."
! Hemel Hempstead Old Town Hall, 01442 242827, Fri; Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, 01705 863911, Sat. Mark Thomas tours Britain until June.
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