Thomas The Prank Engine
Watch out, Mark Thomas is about. He's burgering up McDonald's, flame-grilling MPs and that's just for starters. Intervew by Sam Beale.
Squall 15, Summer 1997, p.27.
Blackpool. The 1995 Tory Party Conference. A meeting of the Monday Club and Tory MP for Batley & Spen, Elizabeth Peacock waxes lyrical about the benefits of publicly lashing young offenders live on the national lottery. Sat in the audience is Mark Thomas. He stands: "I think it's a great idea, but if you really want it to work you have to put it on at an earlier time so that young people know the implications of breaking the law. I think what you should seriously look at is publicly lashing young offenders on Blue Peter." Mrs Peacock agrees. Thomas goes on to suggest that in addition to bringing back hanging - seeing as this is a Christian country - we should have some form of public crucifixion. Mrs Peacock replies that Thomas is perhaps a little bit more right wing than she but she sympathises with his point of view.
Mark Thomas' comedy series The Mark Thomas Comedy Product was televised last year on Channel 4. It was an attempt, he says, to make television "that was real, that meant something, that was about something and actually tried to challenge... It sprang out of an urge to create things that would throw spanners in the works". What's more, it was very funny.
The show was essentially a series of elaborate set ups a la You've Been Framed interspersed with bursts of stand up. Mark actually cites Jeremy Beadle as "genuinely fucking inspirational". However, as the Mrs Peacock example illustrates, there are notable differences between the Beadle and Thomas approaches. Beadles' targets are, as Mark observes, usually ordinary people who "have the piss taken out of them enough, so I thought it was important to try and get to the people who aren't answerable; who normally get away with it".
Thomas is not adverse to being extremely silly if it helps tease silly behaviour from those who generally bask in the serious glow of image-manufactured self-importance. For one show he dressed as a giant teddy to interview MPs including Gerry (it'll be fucking curtains for me if I put on that giant dick costume) Hayes, David Amess and Sebastian Coe. He tried to convince each of them to draw a map of their constiuencies on a young woman's stomach and then have their (clothed) bums photographed. Terry & June stylee social-embarrassment shudders from all sides of the house.
Each stunt was executed with a home video-meets-Cook Report minimum of TV pizazz and it frequently seemed likely that Thomas or a member of the crew might get punched in the mouth or arrested.
Following an interview with a McDonald's publicity spokesperson - who assured them that at McDonald's the emphasis is on 'food, folks and fun' - the Comedy Product 'folks' were less than convinced so they set up some fun of their own. Firstly they bought 100 burgers from a McDonalds drive-in and attempted to sell them from a burger van parked right outside: "They got really upset about that," recalls Mark. The crew then tried to order burgers from various vehicles including a very large tank; a clown car which collapsed half-way through their order (as clowns ran around asking "is Ronald in?" and dropping their trousers); and, having been asked to remove two cows from the forecourt, they finally rolled in with a low loader occupied by punk band Chaos UK. They were banned by the manager. Any feelings of guilt that they were merely targeting individual managers who were 'just doing their jobs' had been allayed says Mark when the manager, noticing some McDonalds' workers looking through the windows at him and the film crew, became irate: "He shouted, 'get back to work before I sack you'. It was like yes! Comedy gods you have smiled upon us!" At this point, says Mark, "we saw the difference between the reality and the advertising".
The comedy gods' smiles grew wider when the crew attempted to gain access to some of the 18,000 works of art on the Conditionally Exempt Works of Art List. This list, open to people who inherit works of art, means no inheritance tax has to be paid on the specific items on the list providing members of the public can view them. Seeing as half a billion to a billion pounds of tax has not been paid on artworks on the register Mark and his team set out to discover just how easy it is for ordinary people to gain access to the items and their owners.
Their biggest coup involved a large number of people turning up at Rothschild's Bank dressed as all sorts of strange fluffy things asking to see a Gainsborough painting Sir Evelyn de Rothschild had registered on the list. They were refused entry and all wrote letters on the spot requesting to see the painting. After two months they had not heard from Sir Evelyn so they contacted the Inland Revenue. They were informed that Sir Evelyn had removed a number of his works of art from the register. Mark estimates that as a result he had to pay somewhere between £400,000 and £1m in tax: "Basically we were just obstinate letter writers and yet we've made the 43rd richest man in Britain cough up this amount of money. If we can do that just through a bunch of letters then the possibilities before us are completely endless."
"I think what you should seriously look at is publicly lashing young offenders on Blue Peter."
Such antics within the jealously protective worlds of big business, politics, and the stinking rich are not without their risks. During the making of the exempt works of art stunt Mark received a phonecall to his home from MP and then Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, and Channel 4 was threatened with a a government D Notice gagging order forbidding broadcasters and journalists from mentioning a specific piece of information (in this case the Soames' home address). Though the notice was not actually served, Channel 4's lawyers advised the programme not to encourage viewers to contact Soames to request access to works he had on the list. As such it was, says Mark, "a direct act of censorship initiated by the state".
There were a variety of other legal problems during the making of the series including one MP accusing the show of entrapment, and other prey insisting on legal constraints which made broadcasting a number of items utterly pointless. Mark says Channel Four was, overall, actively supportive. Nonetheless he stresses there are inherent pressures on programme makers: "When you fuck off people like Sir Evelyn de Rothschild... they know the head of Channel 4, Michael Grade. They're mates. They go to football together." He is in no doubt what makes these worlds go round: "What you have is a class of people who are working with similar interests and who know each other on a social level." Similarly broadcasting standards regulatory bodies which determine what is and is not 'acceptable' are examples of the same class of vested interests working together. These bodies are, believes Mark, "used by companies and powerful individuals rather than by ordinary people to register complaints or to control content within the media".
Corporate interests also have their role in controlling the nature of an evening's viewing: "You can," says Mark, "always tell what advertisers think of the audience by the adverts they place. If you look at Chris Evans' show, there's car, beer and holidays; that flash, laddish disposable income bracket". He delights in recalling, "for my show it was Canestan thrush cream advertised in between every fucking one! So it's nice to know that people watching were sexually active... and infected!" Whilst fungicidal treatments are not likely to be prey to Mark's curiousity, it is clear that programme makers are beholden to advertisers and it is therefore safe to assume that ultimately TV executives do not take kindly to shows which directly criticise or attack the interests of corporate paymasters.
Despite such pressures Mark refuses to see making a successful TV show as a step on the show-biz career ladder which, for comedians, goes something like this: "You get your twenty minutes; get bookings at Jongleurs and the Comedy Store, go on and do an hour; do Edinburgh and get nominated for the Perrier; get five minutes on a telly show and then get offered your own show; do that for three series. Then you do a light entertainment show, maybe a game show, maybe a chat show; then you play golf, then you die. In between you're advertising beers".
Once you become a 'viable proposition' in the world of mass media, there is a chance that your ethical dilution has begun and, says Mark, "you go from being an angry young man into quite a nice young chap who occasionally writes rather witty columns... there is an assumption that what you have now is a career". The day after the first programme in the Comedy Product series was broadcast Mark received a phonecall from an advertiser. He remembers an agent telling him: "They really like the show. They think it's really radical, really cutting edge and blahdeblahdeblah... would you like to do a voiceover for BisoDol?! It's like no, I'm all right thanks very much. There's this feeling that we've fought for three years to get this show on air so that I can be the voice of fucking indigestion!"
Mark does not accept the decline to 'nice young chap' as unavoidable: "People always have choices. Change is absolutely inevitable and crucial but to see it as a watering down of what you think or what you believe is really awful." He maintains that: "If anything my views have become more defined. By stepping into that world you're forced to define your views."
He wants to 'succeed' on his own terms; if Carlton were to ask him to do their 'new, cutting edge satirical show' he would not accept: "Because their version of what is cutting edge and satirical isn't mine." Nonetheless, "that doesn't mean I have to ghettoise myself. I have seen performers who I regard as brilliant put the knife into themselves in the name of integrity. They have deliberately sabotaged their own ability to remain ghettoised. For me that is as stupid as suddenly appearing with a bowl of cornflakes singing they're tasty tasty very very tasty".
He acknowledges that to be a performer in the first place you must have "an ego the size of an urban conurbation"; his point is that television, success, and a certain amount of fame are not ideological curses if you know why you are doing what you are doing: "If you do have any kind of personal, moral integrity then why are you frightened of moving into another arena? Ken Loach would still be making student films if he had that mentality."
Nonetheless some people, as they say, will do anything to get on telly. Mark Thomas cringes as he explains why he hates to see performers he respects doing this,"for one you look a twat," and more importantly, "human creativity is there to be enjoyed, encouraged and celebrated. Human mediocrity is fucking celebrated enough. We don't need people saying 'fuck it, I'm stupid. Let's join the stupid gang."
He hopes the series he made encouraged people to believe they can effect change: "One of the most important things to do now is to sponsor dissent: to actually sponsor the fact that you can change things. There's a prevalent mode of thinking and a way of behaving which says we live in the world and there is nothing we can do to change it. It's a patently ridiculous idea but one that is enforced all the time." Making this television series was confirmation for Mark that "we can get away with much more than we think we can".
The making of the next series is currently underway with plans for such gems as a nationwide scheme to plant hemp-seed in public places: "We're hoping to act as a seed bank. We intend to distribute low THC seeds to people. We'll supply them with a legal aid kit and ask them to plant seeds in public places...from outside law courts to the Queen's garden." The idea is currently being legally approved at Channel 4...