Ever see names of comics or bands from yesteryear listed and wonder whether they've matured like a fine wine with age, or gone stale like left out bread? I do. The subject intrigues me. The zeitgeist has limited bandwidth to keep us up to date with what's new, what's not so new, and what's old news.
A gargantuan hit in the 90s - a trailblazer who almost single-handedly invented a comedy genre, interlinking political direct action with stand-up comedy with critically acclaimed Channel 4 shows like his Comedy Product, how would Mark Thomas fare decades on? It can go either way. Anyone who had the misfortune of witnessing The Who going through their (bowel) motions at Glastonbury a few years back need no reminder of how painful an experience it can be, witnessing artists they love confirming has-been status. Those paying close attention to music over the years will notice that Pearl Jam, for instance, have released an album most years since they exploded to worldwide fame themselves in the 90s, each under the radar of mass mainstream exposure, each easily financed by - and written for - a significant loyal following, and each more sophisticated, nuanced, and better than the previous. Who would come to mind on seeing an old favourite for the first time in too many years? A paltry Roger Daltry or an ever ready Eddie Vedder?
Thankfully, Mark Thomas is very much more a Pearl Jam gem than a Who's farted?. A comedian, political commentator, satirist, and agitator who has filled provincial theatres on midweek nights for decades. A performer who has developed his craft, his knowledge, and his skill with the audiences that have given him their ear year-on-year, an artist whose voice, logic, wit and graft are as welcome and refreshing today as they were in 1996.
I have long been aware of his regular visits to Oxford's Pegasus Theatre, of which he has been a patron for many years, and I'm annoyed with myself for not getting in on the party before now. I would advise you set up a Google alert to be first in the queue for tickets as soon as they go on sale, because Mark Thomas, although he'd probably hate the term, is something of a national treasure - a national treasure that belongs, perhaps, in the extension to the British Museum that he (along with other pesky monkeys that he's roped into the stunt) have actually started the process of seeing through planning permission to build, having found that you don't need to own a building to apply for planning permission to add to it!
Targeting the BP-sponsored British Museum is somewhat the final focus of the show 50 Things About Us, the conceit of which is an examination of myths, songs and historical facts that inform our understanding of a British identity. The British Museum as it stands, he points out, is merely evidence of crimes of plunder, and only attractive to many foreign tourists, as it's the only way they can experience these relics from their own culture! His proposed 'proper British Museum' would have all the things we associate with being British, and room after room dedicated to Ian Dury - I'd pay to see that!
Forget the 50 things proposed framework - he quickly does! - this is Mark Thomas doing what he does best; disseminating well-researched information and sprinkling wit, well-told anecdotes and solid argument, playing the room like a virtuoso violinist would their own well-fingered fiddle.
The show, he informs the mainly middle-aged audience in the impressive Cornerstone Arts Centre, has been booked in for a West End run next year by which time it will be polished - we can boast about seeing it now whilst it's still shit! Reminiscent of Stewart Lee's 90's Comedian, Mark kicks off with a personal anecdote about illness and having cameras inserted into various orifices - material that serves well for call-backs later and serves well to humanise and soften a man not known for pulling any political punches.
We learn lots from an excellent presenter. Facts such as - there are only 22 countries in the world that Britain has not invaded. We are treated to sections on national anthems - turns out he can sing and has memorised (mostly anyway) Le Marseillaise. We have our old National Anthem remembered to us and are presented with ideas such as adopting Sham 69's Hurry Up Harry to replace God Save the Queen and/or a co-creation between himself and the excellent Jonny and the Baptists. We learn about the Charter of the Forest - one of the closest things to a British Constitution that we've ever had, which enshrined in law the right to food and shelter for all citizens. We learn that this was abolished by the Tories in 1971. We learn that Mark can boast, alongside his expansive knowledge, gag-writing skills and supreme use of language; that he is a master with a microphone who can add atmosphere and drama to his comic anecdotes with drum sounds and trumpet noises that would stand him in good stead as a beat boxer.
What's more impressive is the space he leaves between what is scripted. Going off-piste or interacting with the audience, he succeeds in drawing strong laughs throughout with spontaneous wit.
So get yourself to a Mark Thomas show at the next opportunity. He is somewhat a pioneer, who from an early stage in his career really went for it in an uncompromising fashion, and he is as full of genuine revolutionary zeal today as he was when he started on this path many moons ago.
My favourite mini gag of the night - one which no one else reacted to and thus one which made me feel smugly satisfied: Qui audet adipiscitur - Rodders! He who dares - that's Mark Thomas for you.