Interview - Mark Thomas: Intrepid reporting from the front line of comedy

Mark Thomas must be the only comedian to have won both a Sony comedy award and the Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour.

They are an unlikely pairing, but then Thomas isn’t your run-of-the-mill comedian. Over the past two decades through a string of sell-out tours and The Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4, he has established himself as a polemic comic and a thorn in the side of the establishment.

“A lot of the stuff I do tends to involve me going on a journey to find something out. Whether it’s about stopping dam building in the Kurdish region of Turkey, or pretending to be an arms dealer, where I actually ended up giving evidence to the House of Commons select committee,” he explains. “Plus there’s curiosity and a little bit of devilment.”

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His latest escapade took him on a rambling journey the entire length of the Israeli separation barrier crossing, with the Israelis on one side and the Palestinians on the other. It is one of the most dangerous places on earth and during his nine-week 466-mile trek he endured six arrests, one stoning and, as he puts it, “too much hummus.”

The journey provides the basis for his latest comedy tour, Extreme Rambling (Walking the Wall), which includes gigs in Harrogate and Leeds. “What surprised me was the level of courage shown by the Israeli activists, but I was also heartened by the growing sense of non-violent resistance among the Palestinians. Whether this will take root I don’t know, but to see it slowly starting to sprout was exciting.”

As well as being detained by the Israeli army, he and his guide found themselves being pelted with stones. “We were walking along the border when these Palestinian kids spotted us and thought we were Israeli soldiers and started throwing stones. The irony was that I was with an ex-PLO member, but you suddenly thought it must be terrifying, even for the soldiers, and I had this tiny glimpse of what it must feel like, which I hadn’t considered before.”

Thomas possesses the resourcefulness of an investigative reporter and the observational musings of a stand-up, but although he’s gained a reputation for being an activist as much as a comedian he doesn’t see it that way. “I wanted to be a stand-up from the age of 16 and I’m a performer first and foremost, although I don’t know what my job would be described as now. All I know is it’s definitely a good one because it’s allowed me to avoid doing proper work for 25 years.”

He made his name as a founding member of the London Comedy Store’s hard-hitting Cutting Edge show, but it was earlier during the 1980s while studying theatre arts at Bretton College, near Wakefield, that he first cut his teeth as an entertainer. “I had a great time there and because it’s quite isolated there was an incredible sense of focusing on your work and we spent all our time rehearsing and performing, it was brilliant,” he says.

“I was there during the miners’ strike and the college was twinned with the pits so we performed for miners at gala events and on the picket lines and places like The Red Shed in Wakefield. For me, that’s where it all started and this is where I’ve ended up.”

Mark Thomas is appearing at Harrogate Theatre, March 18, 01423 502116, www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Theatre, April 11, 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk