The ‘chap wrth VlQVl‘a" has some dam funny politics
MARK THOMAS has extended the boundaries of political comedy. Now his show about Kurdistan and the Ilisu Dam is finding a wider audience in uncertain times. Words: Mark Brown
hen Mark Thomas suggests BBC Broadcasting
House in London as a meeting place for our
interview. I can't help but worry. Has Channel 4‘s one-man opposition to the forces of global capitalism packed up his bullshit detector and landed a cushy number with Auntie Beeb‘.’
I'm greatly relieved to find him looking every inch the unreconstructed media warrior we know and love. I‘m more relieved still when he leads me away from the BBC building and into a caff around the corner.
In the two minutes it takes to get to the coffee shop. Thomas has already expressed his disgust at both New Labour‘s policies on asylum seekers and our own. dear Daily Rama's coverage of the murder of the Kurdish refugee Firsat Yildiz Dag. This is the nature of the man. There are. for him. no ‘separate issues‘. Everything is interlinked. and he can show you where they join tip.
The purpose of our meeting. however. is to discuss Dam/msth Tales Of Dissent. his new stage show which centres on the fight against the Ilisu Dam. Thomas is a leading light in the campaign to stop the Turkish Government. and British construction company Balfour Beatty. building the dam which will ﬂood a vast area of Turkish-occupied Kurdistan.
Thanks to the success of the llisu Dam Campaign. many
people in Britain know the basic facts of the case. The point of
the show. he explains. is to put the story in its human context. He recently visited the region where the dam is planned. and the ‘tales of dissent’ of the show‘s title are those of the Kurdish people he met there. ‘lt‘s not just about the events and the issues.’ he says. ‘lt’s also about the people involved. It‘s quite odd telling their stories sometimes. because bits of the show arejust seriously unfunny.‘
As a performer. Thomas has long since moved beyond the confines of stand-up comedy and few in his considerable following would expect this show to be a barrel of laughs.
Nevertheless. he assures us that alongside the horrific stories of
the Turkish state‘s routine use of incarceration. intimidation and worse. there are also some genuinely funny moments.
Not that he feels the need to compete with the current crop of Perrier Award-chasing comedians. In a climate where a weekend peddling standard crowd-pleasing material at London's Comedy Store can make you £1000. he had a simple choice. ‘I could spend the rest of my life shovelling nob gags.‘ he says, ‘or I could do something interesting.~
1. THI LICT 18 Oct—t Nov 2001
‘I could spend the rest of my life shovelling nob gags or I
could do something interesting’
Many people in positions of power must wish that he had decided to go with jokes about the male member. Thomas has become something of a national conscience. not so much a thorn in the flesh as a needle in the eye of the British establishment. Such is the outrage he generates that he found himself being derided by The Sunday Times as ‘a chap with views‘.
The cynics may sneer that he is a mere fringe radical. playing to the usual Channel 4-watching. Circadian-reading suspects. but the Ilisu question is a prime example of how effective his uncompromising style of media campaigning can be. ‘I‘m very proud of the stuff we’ve done on this issue.‘ he says. ‘In a few years we’ve turned it from what was considered a minority story into something quite major. The Government can't sneeze on this issue without the press covering the whole thing.‘
Needless to say. the 11 September attacks in the United States have had an effect on Thomas‘ show. Turkey is a Nato ally of the US and Britain. and their declared ‘war on terrorism‘ may have serious implications for the Kurdish people.
Before the atrocities. Thomas was growing in confidence where the campaign to stop the Ilisu Dam was concerned. Now he fears that the Turkish Government may make backing for the dam project a condition of its practical support for American military action.
Not only that. he says. but the current crisis also raises the question of who are the terrorists? ‘If you have humanitarian values. and you‘re appalled by innocent civilians being killed in such a criminal. brutal manner in America.’ he suggests. ‘surely that extends to not wanting the same thing to happen with the bombing of Afghanistan.‘
The events of September gave him a choice. he explains. between abandoning the show completely and explaining how the issues relate to one another. Consequently. he is touring Britain speaking to packed houses about the Kurds and Ilisu. but also about the reasons for his opposition to a Western military response. And people are listening.
Mark Thomas plays Adam Smith Theatre, Klrkcaldy, Fri 23 Oct; Queens Hall, Edlnburgh. Sat 24 Oct; Tron Theatre. Glasgow. The 6 5 Wed 7 Nov.