Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Mark Thomas - Walking the wall interview

I thought I'd put some of my old bits and pieces on my blog and the first port of call has to be the fabulous Mark Thomas. Not only is he a brilliant comedian and a trail-blazing political campaigner, he's also a top bloke and I've been lucky enough to meet him a few times.

I didn't meet him on this occasion, but with many, many thanks for the lovely Catriona being busy, I got to interview Mark on the phone ahead of his visit to Newbury...

Multi award-winning comedian and activist Mark Thomas is back in Newbury this week with a show called ‘Extreme Rambling-Walking the Wall. For Fun’ about the separation barrier between Israel and Palestine.

It’s not the most obvious source of material for a comedy show but despite the subject matter, the audience can always be assured that Mark will find humour where lesser comedians fear to tread, as evidenced by his previous shows and books on the international arms trade, MPs’ expenses, civil liberties and tax havens, all of which have been rendered alarmingly funny.

His new show tells of his 750km walk from where the 8ft high fence starts at Bisan (although he argues that as you can’t buy anything like it in B&Q, it’s not really a fence) down to where it ends, as yet unfinished, at Beit Yatir.

As I speak to Mark on a rare day off during his intensive touring schedule, he’s ‘relaxing’ by preparing for a benefit gig in aid of the Fire Brigades Union.

A hugely popular and recognisable political comedian, Mark’s last visit to Newbury’s Corn Exchange saw a sell-out crowd contribute new laws for consideration for ‘The People’s Manifesto’. Memorably, the winning policy was that people with OCD should be put in charge of cleaning the country’s hospitals.

He remembers the policy and the stack of correspondence from people with OCD that followed and adds: “Newbury is a sweet old place and the Corn Exchange is a great little venue. Arts centres in towns outside London, but within commutable distance of London, can be undervalued by local people, but they’re amazing places with genuinely challenging and interesting performances and are treasure troves for comedians like me.”

Therefore, the venue is perfect for Mark’s performance. “It’s an unusual show. I love doing it and sometimes I look at the early days of my stand up career and wonder how I got here! It’s story-telling really – it’s one foot in stand up and one in theatre.”

In an evening of huge laughs but also sad truths, between which Mark can fluctuate in a heartbeat, (I’m a bully, aren’t I?” he laughs), Mark gives a gripping insight into what life is like for the 250,000 people who live in the West Bank, having met schoolchildren, Israeli soldiers, a diplomat from the British Consulate, farmers, locals and also, rather pleasingly, activists dressed as clowns, on his nine-week journey.

Walking is, he says, the best way to experience a country and its people, adding that despite its reputation as one of the most controversial parts of the world, the landscape is incredibly beautiful.

“I was inspired to do it out of sheer curiosity and also a love of rambling. I guess part of the charm also was that no one else was going to do something like this and that always appeals to me. I love that reaction from people; ‘you did what?!”

“You get to know about a place far more by walking and you really get to see the place. Driving through or being on a tour, you get a resemblance, but this is life lived on the ground.

“There are hundreds of tours here; religious tours, UN tours and so on, but they’re all propaganda really. Walking along the wall gives you independence and a sense of freedom. The scenery is spectacular, you know what it’s like when you live somewhere urban and you see hills as invitations to walk. It’s funny – I said that in Cambridge and then had to describe what hills were like to them....”

Whether you think the wall represents a barrier to protect Israelis from suicide bomb attacks, or that it’s there as a ‘land grab’ to annexe the West Bank; whatever side of the fence you’re on, pardon the pun, it’s Mark’s description of the effect on normal people’s day-to-day life, such as workers who have to wait at the checkpoint at 2am in order to join the queue at 6am before starting their working day at 8am, that are startling.

“The show is driven by people and their stories and I’m lucky that I can share these with people who will pay to hear them. Life is short so I try to inform and give as much information as possible –stories are so important as they change lives and the way we look at things.

“And the things that they live with can be dangerous at times. Sometimes you find yourself sitting with a group of Palestinian activists and think to yourself that you could be facing a weekend in jail. Running away from tear gas was another thing we encountered for the first time, but we were surrounded by people who have learned to cope.”

His nationwide tour goes on until the end of September and there’s a film and book on the way, before the possibility of extending the tour to Europe and even the US.

And what then?

“Some serious sleep!”

Words: 831

First published in the Newbury Weekly News on 7th April 2011 along with this message with Mark when the gig was cancelled:

To the staff and people who were coming to see the Extreme Rambling show; I am extremely sorry I have had to cancel the show on the 7th at Swindon and 8th at Newbury. I have gone down with a throat infection and currently sound like Barry White with asthma. It is impossible to do the show in the state I am in, so I hope you will be able to bear with me and make it to the rescheduled dates. I know some of you will have baby sitters organised, dates lined up and a whole host of travel arrangements in play and I do know how annoying it is to cancel at this late stage. Sorry. I will make it up by bringing chocolates for everyone on the rescheduled date. Love