David Griffiths talks to one of the finest and least compromising conceptual comedians we have in the United Kingdom, while we have a United Kingdom… which is where his latest show, 50 Things About Us, comes in.
Mark Thomas is finally bringing his 50 Things About Us tour to Cardiff. Having been postponed twice, it’s taken his tour a while to get here – the ongoing pandemic having put slightly more than a kink in everyone’s plans – but he’s raring to go and eager to tell me where he thinks the UK may have a problem.
“For me, it seems like the United Kingdom is having an existential crisis. The UK is not going to exist as an entity for much longer. I can’t see how it survives.”
Bloody hell, Mark! Most performers start an interview by saying how much they’re looking forward to playing Cardiff or why it’s different to the other 50 or so stops on the tour. Has he had any thoughts about where the threat to the Union is coming from?
“English exceptionalism is the most toxic piece of fucking nationalistic shit going. England uses the national anthem of the UK as its national anthem. The only time we sing anything different is at the rugby, where we sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which is a fucking slave song.” He spits these last three words, venomously. “As if these fucking betweeded shitsters from Twickenham are somehow oppressed. It’s fucking nuts.”
He quickly pivots, contrasting his negative conception of English identity with a more positive view of Welsh identity.
“Language rights have always been an incredibly potent force in Welsh identity. Surely if we’re talking about language rights, it might be a hint that actually we’re talking about a different culture. There’s something in Wales that’s different and independent from the English.”
50 Things… is Mark’s attempt to take apart an England-centric idea of the UK and see what’s left. Like his previous tour and book, 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent, it’s based around a numbered list. Is this approach to structuring his comedy one that he finds particularly productive?
“It gives you a discipline of structure. You can go ‘OK, let’s find out lots and lots of different things,’ and in that process, we can find stuff of interest and there’s stuff you can discard.”
Speaking with Mark, you might notice that there are lots of “you” and “we” but not much “I”. He’s a comic who’s looking for shared experiences and what we have in common – not using the stage to lecture his audience so much as trying to involve them in his process of discovery. Thinking of this communal aspect to his performances I ask him if there’s a way to feel good about where you’re from without the toxicity of nationalism. Postwar UK was orientated towards the future, building a new country from the ruins of the old. Is that type of optimistic national identity possible today?
“Yeah, yeah you can. You need to get rid of exceptionalism. The idea that we are innately better than everyone else because of a quirk of birth is insane. But you could have a national identity based on community work and caring and building a more fair and equal society. Community is what it’s always been about. Grassroots communities and grassroots change.
“What’s been exciting recently is Black Lives Matter. Absolutely thrilling. These are working-class Black people who have, by and large, been off the lefty radar.” He sounds genuinely excited as he talks about recent manifestations of this community spirit. “You look at how people looked after each other during the pandemic. You look at how people came together to look after their neighbours, to take care of each other.”
He starts telling me about how his neighbour went skip-diving to find him new steps for his back door, and how the family across the road came round with a card for him that the kids had made. He’s happy now talking about these things.
In the course of half an hour, we’ve gone through English exceptionalism, Welsh identity, BLM, the effect of the pandemic on our communities, whether the UK can survive, and how we can create a new national identity based on positive values. But I still want to know: is he looking forward to playing Cardiff?
“Yeah. ‘Course I am!”
Mark Thomas: 50 Things About Us, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Tue 15 Feb. Tickets: £19. Info: here
Mark is also touring his live cinema show Product – a recollection of how his 90s/00s TV show The Mark Thomas Comedy Product was made – in March, including dates at Volcano, Swansea on Thurs 24 Mar and The Magic Lantern, Tywyn on Sat 26 Mar. Info: Swansea / Tywyn
words DAVID GRIFFITHS
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