British TV comedian Mark Thomas uses pranks and stunts to expose questionable government and business practices. Thomas says this is democracy in action, but his victims don't always agree
Like many or your generation, you trace your political awakening back to the UK miners' strike of 1984-85. But surely it stems back to your childhood, growing up in a working class family but attending an elite school on a scholarship. You were part of the "deserving poor", deemed worthy of a first-class education.
This kind of experience gives you a very rapid education about class. . . . All your mates at home think you're posh and all the people at school think you're common. So you find yourself caught in the middle. I think you'll find that many comedians, in particular, have this sense of being an outsider.
Two heroes of mine were both outsiders: Oscar Wilde, an Irishman who lived in the cream of English high society, and Dave Allen, a brilliant comedian in a similar position. Allen did this wonderful routine which I think sums it up.
He's on stage in London and says, "Well, I tell Irish jokes. And I get in trouble for telling 'em. But I think 'sod it! If you cannot laugh at yourself, what's the point?' A round of applause from the studio audience.
So he starts telling Irish jokes. "Two paddies leave Dublin to go to work in London. The collective IQ of Dublin halves overnight." A big round of applause. "You've got to be able to laugh at yourself, haven't you?" he says. Another big round of applause.
Allen goes on. "When the two get to London, the IQ there doubles overnight." Smaller round of applause. "I thought we agreed that you're supposed to be able to laugh at yourself."
This catches the audience completely unaware of their own bigotry. That's the eye of the outsider.
Your brand of stand-up comedy seems to mean getting up on a soap box to denounce wrong-doing. Why?
My tour manager always used to say, "It's in the genes, mate." You see my dad was a lay preacher and my great grandfather was a Baptist preacher which I think is funny. I'll start to worry about it if my son decides to be a stand-up.
Seriously, do you have to focus on political issues in your work?
Every single thing that anyone says on stage belies their world view. It's a political decision to believe that people just want a good night out without having to think. The person on stage who tells jokes portraying women in a certain way has made a political decision to reinforce stereotypes instead of challenging people to think otherwise. That performer is saying, "I want the easiest ride possible. I want mass adulation on the back of you (the audience) not having to think." The difference is that I want mass adulation on the back of people having to think.
How do you design a TV comedy show to make people think?
We look at the series as our own "state of the nation" broadcast. It's our interpretation of where Britain is and where we are in relationship to the world.
We try to get in a position where we can ask questions that will illuminate the nature of power in that situation. With Sellafield nuclear processing plant, the first thing we did was to prove contamination (see box) by having samples of earth from around the site analysed. We could then ask, "Is there a problem with the trains running through that area to transport the plant's nuclear waste? Or is there a wider problem? Is the site irradiated?" The authorities won't answer. This is a brilliant situation in which we really get underneath the mask of public relations. The officials' silence actually says that they're frightened of the answer.
In the last three years, you've evolved from merry prankster to political satirist and now you're an information junky. What happened?
In the beginning, the show was about us taking risks - turning up at a cabinet minister's home at a quarter to seven in the morning in a tank asking if he could help us export it to Iraq. …