Serious illness can destroy or unite families, but for stand up comedian and self-styled ‘Libertarian Anarchist’ Mark Thomas, his father’s degenerative illness led to new insights into their relationship, an appreciation for an art form he once derided and a new touring show Bravo Figaro! which comes to Eastleigh’s Point theatre this week.
Mark originally started his career on radio with The Mary Whitehouse Experience before going on to front his own Channel 4 show The Mark Thomas Comedy Product in which he seamlessly blended comedy, political activism and investigative reportage while turning an acerbic death ray of withering satire on corporate targets like McDonalds and state-sponsored arms dealers for over six series and 45 episodes.
Beyond the lens, he has been a columnist for The New Statesman, a supporter of UK Uncut and the Green Party, has managed to force the government to revise its laws on UK inheritance tax and broken a Guinness world record for attending the most political demonstrations in one day (20).
His latest show, co-devised with film director Mike Figgis, is something of a departure.
Bravo Figaro explores his relationship with his seriously ill father in the context of wider universal themes and how his father’s unlikely passion for opera has proved to be a conduit for conciliation.
The show was a sell out at the Royal Opera House and although half-way through a busy touring schedule – and despite running low on clean shirts -Mark was able to find to time to talk to us about the show, love, sex, death and rockabilly…
This is probably the first time The Point is hosting a show that’s sold out the Royal Opera House! How did it come about?
The show came about because my dad, a working class Tory voting self-employed self-made man leaves school with no education gets into opera.
I hate it, he completely loves it. We have a very problematic relationship and as he gets older he develops an illness called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy which is a degenerative and progressive illness that is incurable. There is also dementia involved so we lose him as a person and as we start to lose him I start to listen to this ‘awful’ opera and I come to treasure some of the most embarrassing moments of my youth, when my dad used to play Opera on a building site, on a cassette recorder and while he was working he would sing along to it.
It was just such an embarrassing thing at the time but now I regard these moments as moments of his individuality and his journey, his idiosyncrasies and his trials. Now I am very proud of those moments and cherish them.
I went on Radio 4 on a programme to talk about “inheritance tracks” – where you talk about music you inherit from your family. It came about because I knew a bloke who used to work for Radio 4 who said “Will you come and talk to us about your story?” and it became the first ever ‘inheritance tracks’ show to be broadcast.
After that my wife – who is an outdoor swimmer and goes swimming at Tooting Lido – is approached by someone who is also a swimmer and she is on nodding terms with who says to her:
“I’ve heard your husband on Radio 4. Does he like opera? Would he be interested in doing something for us?”
So I was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to do a show about opera with Mike Figgis the film director who was curating a festival at the time.
I said I would do the show on condition they lent me some singers. So they lent me these opera singers and I put on a show in my dad’s living room …and he kind of came back to life… and that is what the show is about.
But really it is Mike Figgis and the Royal Opera house I’ve got to thank for the show.
Your father used play recordings of opera, but did he used to go?
My Father loved the opera and he went as often as he could. As a self- employed builder, some years you have good years some years bad and he would go according to how well he did.
When you did the ‘Inheritance tracks’ show did you play an opera track then?
Yes I did. It was Figaro, an aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville in which he sings “Bravo Figaro” it is a wonderful song full of swagger – It is a GREAT song and that’s where the show’s title comes from.
People who have seen the show have described it as moving and profound. What are you hoping people will take away from the performance?
A seat from the theatre! (laughs)
I think the thing about any piece of music or performance isn’t just about filling in time. It’s about leaving imprints. It’s about leaving people with feelings and thoughts. That’s what theatre is all about. That’s what stand up is all about.
You want people to be changed in some way and stand up is about change because it gets someone who is not laughing, laughing. For me in theatre, stand up, all of this, the most basic building block is about changing the way people feel about the big moments; the moments when our parents leave, how we say goodbye to people we love, how we accommodate the nuance of our relationships, how we find the room for compassion and love amidst all the other feelings that might be less positive – these are the important bits.
Someone once asked John Betjeman ‘what do you regret in life?’ and he said “I wish I’d had more sex” out of all the things he could say about poetry and art it’s about the basic things; sex and love and death.
You have grown to appreciate opera and you put on a show for your dad in his living room, did it help you to make the connection you were looking for?
Yes it did. Yet these things are never straightforward. It’s not as if you can say: “Yes we have now had this moment and we can tick it off the list.”
My dad is still alive and the relationship I have with him is now a good one. He has lived longer than he should have. According to the statistics for this disease life expectancy is normally seven years. He is now ten years into this so we know that time is tight.
What is the appeal of opera to people and why does your dad like it so much?
Well he LOVED opera. There is actually is a lot of opera about. There are good and bad operas. There are good productions of bad opera and bad productions of good opera. What my dad loved was the big Italian operas with the big tunes. He liked Carmen and he liked Mozart but it was really Rossini and Verdi for him – Puccini as well –he was very much a classical opera fan. He wouldn’t go near the Russians or anything modern.
The incredible thing about opera is that it is most artificial thing ever. The Magic Flute is Mozart’s most popular opera but the story doesn’t hang together, the characters are all over the place, the ideas of the enlightenment are now dreadful, there is a ‘Queen of the night’ and the bird catcher… I describe it in the show as ‘panto for posh people’…and yet it has the power to move people in incredible ways. It has the power to illicit emotions and that’s all down to the music.
The appeal of it for my dad is that the music of opera can take you into all sorts of different emotions and could take you into moments of sorrow, moments of joy, moments of bombast, of woe and super -thoughtfulness. Opera has all these different intensities and emotions within in it and in a funny old way; it was the only place my dad could allow these emotions to exist.
Music is obviously very important to you. I notice your pre-show play list features music by rockabilly guys like Gene Vincent and Warren Smith…
I love all sorts of music and I love rockabilly music! I adore punk music too and I adore electronic music. My favourite band at the moment is ‘God Speed You Black Emperor‘. You should try listening to some of that – it is absolutely remarkable!
I go by the old B.B King adage that there are only two types of music. Good and bad!
The majority of your work is politically conscious but you just don’t talk about it – you get stuck in – where is this coming from?
I work very instinctively there is no big ideology or ‘grand master plan’.
A mate of mine got threatened with arrest over a cake while in Parliament Square and I ended up doing a two hour show about the right to protest. I found it absolutely incredible that we could end up with this kind situation. They had a law that meant you had to get permission to demonstrate – as a result I end up as a Guinness world record holder for political demonstrations!
You do these things because you are moved by them. You are moved by intransigence or unfairness or stupidity. I’m not one these people who just shouts at the telly, I’ll say “f**k them, I’m going to do something about this” and then I’ll go off and do it.
As we come to the end of our chat Mark enthuses about the tour and urges me to come and see the show:
“ I’m proud of all the shows I do, but this one is really f**king great!”
Bravo Figaro! The Point, Eastleigh Friday November 23 at 8pm.
Tickets: £16.50 / £10 concessions
Box Office: 023 80652333
Mark’s website is here