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Mark Thomas interview

9 October 12 words: James Walker
We spoke to Mark Thomas about his new show, Bravo Figaro

Mark Thomas in Bravo FigaroWhat is Bravo Figaro?
It’s a funny old show, I really like it. Usually I go off, have adventures and then come back and tell people the stories. This show is as much as about me discovering things as they are about telling other people stuff. This one is very personal. It’s about my dad and I.

Tell us about your father?
He was a right wing working class self-employed builder who discovered a love of opera. I hated it when I was younger (laughs). I absolutely hated it because he would belt it out on rooftops as he worked. But he developed a degenerative illness called progressive supranuclear palsy, which is a neurological disorder and is incurable. As we started to lose him, as his personality started to fade from view, I found myself instinctively listening to opera to try and reach out to him. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden lent me a couple of opera singers and I ended up putting an opera on in my dad’s front living room.

What was his reaction? 
It was remarkable. He was really with us again. We stacked all the chairs at one end of the living room and the singers came on through the sliding doors of the kitchen, making their entrances (laughs). It was a hugely remarkable day, really lovely.

How do you feel about opera now?
I think it’s created a qualified love of opera. When I first started to go and see it I was so desperate to reach out and try and connect with my dad that I just wanted to like it regardless of what it was. As time has gone on I’ve worked out that there’s stuff that I like and stuff that I don’t like and stuff that’s good and stuff that’s bad. Wagner leaves me somewhat cold, erm, Mozart I really enjoy although sometimes someone needs to give him a clip around the ear and say don’t be so sentimental. Puccini I really like. 

What operas would you recommend?
I love John Adams. I really love Nixon in China. I’ve started to find out about people like Martinů, a Czech composer. I went to see the dress run of Julietta at the English National Opera. It’s a really, fantastic surrealist opera. There’s lots of small scale stuff as well. I love OperaUpClose and the stuff they’re doing. When I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe I saw The Francis Bacon Opera which was based on the interview done by Melvyn Bragg in which Francis Bacon gets Bragg pissed. To base an opera on that is brilliant, r. Real fun, and I also saw Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions. I can still sing you the Aria because it was that good.

Does opera have a wider appeal now?
I was in a chip shop in north London the other day whistling the Magic Flute. The guy who runs the chip shop was sitting down having his tea and this voice goes, ‘Oy, is that Mozart?’ And he says ‘that’s the Aria, the bird catcher (laughs) that’s the first opera I ever saw. Enjoy your fish ‘n’ chips, mate.’ I like the fact that an art form that’s meant to be elitist, that’s supposed to be culturally the preserve of the rich, actually, occasionally, has its bastions stormed and we reclaim bits of it.

Where did your father’s love of opera come from?
Partly through church music because he was very churchy; a man of many contradictions. But also because he believed in education. It came very much from this working class notion of improvement, that your children should have it better than you had. He used to buy this series called The Great Composers which was a week by week study of their music and it came with a programme at the front of it which explained the work and the context. It also had a 10” record at the back. It grew from there. He thought he’d try and learn about classical music and ended up learning about opera.

So this was a journey of self-discovery…
He left school with no formal qualifications. None. For him, this was very much about a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. It was really important, this idea that he had found this for himself and had claimed it for himself. It was about cultural ownership. If he went to an opera he would tell you if it was a good one or a bad one. He had quite a good eye for it. He loved big tunes with lots of emotion in it.

You’re generally associated with winding-up authority or inspiring people yet this project is very personal…
It is very personal but it’s also very political as it’s about a working class man with no education discovering an art form. So it can’t be anything but political. I did my first ever political performance as a student as Wakefield’s Working Mens’ Club, the red shed, which is still going. It’s a remarkable place with a library. Not huge, but it’s very much in the ethos of the club that everyone needs knowledge and to challenge themselves. I think self-improvement harks back to things like that.

There’s more access to information now than at any other time in history so theoretically, a greater opportunity for self-improvement...
Politically I think we’re about to enter one of the biggest shit-storms ever. And I only hope that people are invigorated enough to resist it. We’ve got 80% of the cuts yet to kick in. We’re borrowing more money than before, tax yield is down, the disparity between rich and poor is widening, unemployment is going up; this is the poor paying for the errors of the rich. I think it is almost inevitable that you will see people take far more radical approaches and actions. And good. We need to be radical because we’re in a crisis. We need to argue for a proper Keynesian solution which is based around fair tax and maintaining a proper level of public service and investment and creating an economy which is not dependent upon the banking sector.

60% of employment in this country comes from small businesses. Which is brilliant because it means the solution is not the big companies. It’s us. We need to be arguing for proper banks that are broken down and not investment banks. Really break them down and nationalise them.

I noticed that you retweeted J K Rowling’s statement about the importance of paying fair tax.
I think it’s absolutely important. I earn enough fortunately to pay 40% tax. I don’t dodge it. I don’t have a company set up in my name abroad. I pay my full whack and I’m really proud to. I’m paying for the health service and that’s what I want. Rich people who don’t pay their tax shouldn’t be eligible to breathe because we have clean air acts in this country thanks to systems supported by the tax payer. If you dodge tax you are helping erode things. By not paying tax you’ve removed yourself from society and effectively said I’m better than other people.  Going private is distinctly unBritish because it means you jump the queue and if there’s one thing that defines us it’s our ability to queue.

You described your father as a Methodist Thatcherite. How does he deal with your very different interpretations of the world?
I think for ages he was very worried that I didn’t have a proper job and then he kind of changed his views to 'I might not like what he does but he does it very well'. And then he changed it again when I did some writing for Dave Allen.

How on earth does your mum deal with you two in the house…
My mum, she’s a feisty strong woman. She trained as a nurse in Glasgow before abortion was illegal and is militantly pro-choice. My dad was a builder and she kept the business going, making sure stuff arrived and all that kind of thing. She’s an amazing woman.

People in Nottingham speak very highly of you, particularly from the Sumac Centre as you went on the protests against Heckler & Koch in 2009.
Yeah that was really important because Nottingham had had a reputation of having high gun crime and you can’t have that and an arms maker on your doorstep without making connections. That’s very kind of them.

You’ve wound up a lot of people in your time, people I imagine who are desperate to prove you are a fake or disingenuous. What would you say to anyone who accused you of exploiting a very personal story for personal gain?
I wouldn’t really bother replying to be honest with you. What I do and what I create is entirely my business and once you start going what you can and can’t talk about or should or shouldn’t talk about you’ve lost it. This is what I do for a living. I’m a creative artist. I go off and do stuff and have adventures. I don’t think anyone could ever accuse me of taking one, the normal route and two, the easy route.

If people say you shouldn’t talk about intimate moments and personal things, that’s just nuts.  All of us, every single writer, performer, artist, whatever, is affected by their family and their personal circumstances and it reflects within their work in some shape or form. It seems to me that the great moments, the moments that help define us and our identity, things that change us throughout the course of our lives, these things are as much to do with my relationship with my dad as they are to do with my son. Identity is a fluid thing that changes all the time, as is our relationships with our family. How we find a bit of peace with family and with the world are crucial moments that we need to share to understand who we are.

Mark Thomas will perform Bravo Figaro at the Nottingham Playhouse on Monday 15 October 2012.

Mark Thomas's website



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