Mark Thomas: As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela...

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Mark Thomas is well into his identity crisis, admitting that he just doesn’t know what he is any more: Comedian? Activist? Investigative journalist?

In truth, he’s a bit of everything. This show, a live version of his recent revelatory book about his adventures in the arms trade, is indeed frequently hilarious, and he’s forgotten none of the stand-up arts of timing, emphasis and exaggerated reaction to ensure the anecdotes pack a punch.

But equally he’s not afraid to step back from the comedy to inform, to campaign or just to give a good yarn the space it needs. Throughout it all, his intense, genuine passion is more than enough to keep the interest.

We start, however, not on the arms trade, but on Thomas’s recent attempts to subvert the anti-Brian-Haw law cackhandedly drawn up to curb protests near Parliament.

Bad legislation is Thomas’s playground, and he gleefully recounts his successes in swamping police in the red tape any malcontent needs to stage a demonstration in this insidious new regime.

His talent is in reducing the big issues to petty games, with the comedy flowing freely from his cheeky banter with weary officialdom and his increasingly inventive and audacious ways of pulling one over on them. This is the Mark Thomas known to Channel 4 viewers, the guerrilla comic pulling stunts to make political points. ‘Department Of Trade And Industry Export Credits Guarantee Department? You’ve been Punk’d...’

But when it comes to the arms trade, his approach is considerably more mature. Although he uses his background to set up front companies to snare dealers operating beyond the law, this time he does it more or less by the book. He successfully applies for permission to cover a London weapons fair for research; he calls the authorities to report breaches of the law; he gives evidence to a Commons select committee. Thomas is now plays by the rules – at least sometimes – and getting concrete results where his TV stunts would only irritate.

This maturity extends to people he would once have vilified. He finds some sympathy for the police, for the posh-boy ex-Army minder accompanying him around the defence fair, even for an arms dealer – and, even more inconceivably for such a dyed-in-the-wool leftie – a Tory MP. In doing so, he depicts them human, rather than two-dimensional monsters.

It’s playing to his forte: as a storyteller of wit and complexity. He may be flirting with a hideous industry of death and torture, but he treats it so casually as not to come over too preachy. Instead, he paints the trade not as sinister – though the undercurrent is always there – but as truly bizarre. It’s a world where arms dealers are tempted with sweeties, scantily clad girls flaunt machine guns, and where inflatable tanks and squeezy toy hand grenades are all part of the business.

Some of Thomas’s tales take a lot of explaining, and a bit of soapboxing while we’re at it, and it’s here where the laughs dry up. But it’s testament to his talents as a performer that the audience remain enraptured, even during the more torturous set-ups.

The most convoluted of these involves the Hinduja Brothers, of Millennium Dome infamy, and a deal to export trucks to Sudan for use by the brutal militia. To be honest, if not exactly ethical, it’s harder to get as excited by a convoluted illegal export of lorries as it is cluster bombs, landmines or electo-shock batons, and it’s here some momentum ebbs from the show. But you can understand how Thomas, whose report on the topic for Newsnight was spiked amid an avalanche of legal threats, wants to get his story told.

Yet we all listen, and will him to succeed – even though a good proportion of the audience don’t look like the type you’d normally associate with political activism. He might be preaching to the sympathetic, but not to the converted.

What’s more, he convinces that, with time and effort, ordinary people can make a difference to laws, and bring those who flaunt them to account. As such, he’s the ideal eloquent, well-informed spokesman for campaigners who tend to be portrayed as naïve, ineffectual crusties.

Comedian? Activist? Investigative journalist? All three. But above all, Thomas is an inspiration.

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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