HERE IS one moment for Mark Thomas that not only shaped his political outlook but also his future career.
It was during his student days at Bretton Hall College, near Wakefield, following the end of the bitter Miners’ Strike in 1985.
“I joined the miners as they marched back to work and I remember as we walked past a village school the children were singing Solidarity Forever, and that had a profound impact on me,” he says.
If this moment symbolised the togetherness of Northern working class communities, it was his time spent at the Wakefield Labour Club, better known as the Red Shed, which indelibly shaped his political conscience.
The wooden shed, painted red in the early 90s after the club’s committee thought this would be a more appropriate colour, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and Thomas, one of our best known campaigning comedians and writers, has used it as inspiration for his Red Shed tour, which comes to Leeds and Halifax this autumn.
At the heart of the show is the Red Shed and what it means to the men and women who have walked through its doors over the years. Thomas spent time at his old stomping ground talking to everyone from dinner ladies to political activists, and from this he’s created a tapestry of stories that not only knit together the club’s history but which are also bound by camaraderie, friendship and love, charting a community’s struggle for survival.
“It’s a mixture of stand-up, theatre and journalism,” he says. “I wanted to find out what had happened to these people and where they are now. It’s about their memories and it’s about working class history and the story of the Labour movement which I think is very important.”
For Thomas, who grew up in south London, making the trek north to West Yorkshire in the early 1980s was a big culture shock but one that had a profound impact on him.
As well as joining CND and the students’ union he was also drawn to Wakefield’s Labour Club where he cut his teeth as a performer. “It’s where I did my first public gig. There was a group of us and it was great fun,” says Thomas.
“Sitting on the Trades Council we came across real people talking about real struggles that affected ordinary, everyday people’s lives. It became a social club for me, as well as a political club and was the first place where anyone paid to hear me do stand-up.
“We’d write sketches during the day about what was going on politically and then perform them that night. We had one in particular, Jack Smart’s Flying Circus, that went down a storm.”
Thomas became immersed in local politics during his time at Bretton Hall during the mid-80s. “I got involved in my first political campaign in Wakefield when we marched and staged sit-ins to try and save two local day nurseries from closure.”
The Labour club was a constant backdrop to all this. “The Red Shed was part of the fabric of the community and it still is. It’s an important place for people to congregate outside of the mainstream to talk about politics and share their ideas and aspirations – we need places like this.”
West Yorkshire Playhouse November 2-4, tickets 0113 213 7700. Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax, December 9, tickets 01422 349422.