Comedian Mark Thomas tells Julie Marshall why a little red shed in Wakefield will always have a place in his heart.
Mark Thomas likes to make waves. Throughout his career, the London-born comedian, satirist and author has badgered heads of multinational corporations, staged protests inside cinemas and even impersonated a weapons inspector to try to uncover British and American weapons of mass destruction.
But this year he is concentrating on a far less controversial subject, albeit one that is particularly close to his heart – the 50th anniversary of Wakefield Labour Club. Fondly referred to as The Red Shed, (it’s an old red-painted army hut) it has stood in Vicarage Street, a little-known backwater in the centre of the city, for half a century. In that time it has played its part in any number of historic political battles – not least the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85.
It was also where the young Mark Thomas, a student at nearby Bretton Hall college, sharpened his wit and developed his political conscience. Throughout this year, alongside touring his latest show, Trespass, billed as “an odd mix of theatre, stand up, activism, a dash of journalism, activism and dollop of mayhem’ he’s putting together a show for this year’s Edinburgh Festival – its central theme, what The Red Shed means to the men and women who frequent it.
Linked to this is a year of celebratory lectures and social events, which include a visit from Guardian columnist Owen Jones (Feb 16) and a rendition of the Red Shed Players’ political pantomime, Corbyn Hood and his Merry People on (Feb 20&21). Actor and comedian Robert Llewellyn, best known for his role in Red Dwarf, is also on the bill for March 8.
Thomas, 52, who was born in south London, admits that coming to Wakefield was a complete culture shock. “The area of south London where I grew up was working class but by then was showing signs of gentrification. In our street there were railway workers, craftsmen (Thomas’ father was a self-employed builder), a Salvation Army captain and a couple of teachers who rose up through the ranks of the Labour Party and went on to sit in the House of Lords. It made for a weird political mix of dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters and those who saw Thatcherism as a way to get rich quick. People there had individual aspirations for themselves and their kids but when I moved to Wakefield in 1982 I got a real sense that the community as a whole wanted to improve itself.”
Thomas ended up at Bretton Hall as much by chance as design. “My mate got a place and I thought, ‘if he can do it why not me?’ I’d wanted to be a comic from the age of 16, although I had no idea if I could make a career of it.”
Alexei Sayle, Dave Allen and the Yorkshire playwright Trevor Griffiths were early influences on his political consciousness and his desire to entertain. “I saw the play Comedians by Trevor Griffiths on TV in which he discusses working class life and working class politics. I thought he was an absolute genius, and it was a sketch by Dave Allen that my dad used to explain to me how apartheid works. I declared myself an atheist at 12, an anarchist at 16 and a Marxist at 18, I spent a year as a Trotskyist and then went back to being a Marxist again. I’ve always been an atheist though.”
But it was Alexei Sayle’s 1982 album Cak!, that made Thomas take stock. At Bretton Hall, soon to be transformed into a luxury hotel, he joined CND and the students’ union. It was also where he came across the Labour Club for the first time. “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 I performed in public, 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.
“Jack Smart was the right-wing Labour leader of Wakefield council for 11 years and was responsible for forcing through swingeing cuts to social care. 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 Red Shed is fantastic. By its very nature it should only have been a temporary structure, yet it has stood in the same place for 50 years – largely unchanged.” After graduating with a degree in theatre arts, Thomas went back to south London to work with his dad on the building sites, touring comedy clubs at the weekends and taking any offer of a five-minute stand up spot that was available.
Before long he was starting to make a name for himself. His dad, ever supportive, gave him Fridays and Mondays off work so he could concentrate on his writing and research. “This was crucial,” says Thomas. “It enabled me to spend time working on material and still keep paying the bills. My first gig was on November 19, 1985 at the White Lion in Putney and by the end of that year I had 20 booked – that’s how it all started.”
After honing his craft on the comedy circuit he was offered a guest slot on the Radio 1 show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, but it was his six series of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product for Channel 4 between 1996-2003 that fixed him more firmly in the public’s consciousness and proved he was prepared to take radical action in support of his convictions. Thomas and the team investigated a number of high-profile companies to expose wrongdoing and in certain crucial instances were instrumental in forcing changes to be made
“I’m really proud of some of the things we achieved. We forced Nestlé to change their packaging on baby milk and exposed Labour politician Michael Meacher who was a buy-to-let landlord. In one episode we descended on Sellafield and set up our own exhibition in the visitor centre to highlight the fact that the local seagull droppings contained radioactive isotopes that could only have come from the nuclear power station. They were forced to admit liability and it cost them £1m to clean up their act.”
Eventually, Thomas and Channel 4 agreed to sever connections due to budgetary restraints and differences of opinion with how far the broadcaster was prepared to go. Since then he has concentrated on writing books and on his live shows, writing and touring a new show each year; still no stranger to controversy. In 2013 he gave himself 12 months to commit 100 acts of minor dissent, which ranged from asking a group of women to race remote-control Barbie cars outside the Saudi Arabian embassy to covering up estate agents boards in London with slogans.
“I am also hugely proud of the part we played in achieving the living wage and union recognition for the Curzon cinema workers after we staged protests and asked audiences to email the management and I’m equally proud to acknowledge the fact that it all started, so many years ago, in Wakefield’s amazing Red Shed.”
Trespass, Square Chapel for the Arts, Halifax, Feb 13, 01422 349422; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, Feb 23, 0113 213 7700 ; Memorial Hall, Sheffield, Mar 16, 0114 2789789; Unity Works, Wakefield, Mar 17, 01924 831114.