Meet the comedian delivering a serious diagnosis of the state of the NHS
29th March 2019
On March 29 the activist comedian and writer Mark Thomas performs his latest offering Check Up: Our NHS at 70 at Trinity Theatre. Eileen Leahy spoke to the political satirist about why the NHS forms the basis of his new show
Some comedians make a living out of self-deprecating stand up routines while others go down the more surreal comedy highway but it’s fair to say that Mark Thomas is somewhat different to anyone else you’ll find on the circuit.
He may be a veteran of the scene, having been around for over three decades, but unlike those who just turn up and tell jokes, Mark Thomas’s material has always been a mix of comedy spiked through with honest reportage and political discourse. His last tour, Showtime From the Frontline, for example saw him appearing alongside two Palestinian comics, re-enacting their time setting up a comedy club in Jenin. While for 2013’s 100 Acts of Minor Dissent Mark gave himself one year to commit just that - and if he failed he pledged to donate £1,000 to UKIP as his forfeit.
Needless to say Mark’s latest show Check Up: Our NHS at 70 is certainly just as politically engaging and multi-faceted. The premise behind it however is fairly simple: the NHS celebrated its 70th birthday at the same time Mark turned 54 years old and at that time the average life expectancy was deemed to be 84. This got Mark thinking; when he turns 84 the NHS will be 100 years old so what will they both look like by then?
In order to answer this question Mark decided to undertake a month’s residency with Imperial College Healthcare, a West London NHS Trust, where he was granted access all areas to everyone - from patients to leading consultants - in order to diagnose the current state affairs at the NHS.
“I always say what I do is not stand up,” he tells me. “It’s my stuff. I go off, have an adventure and then tell the story. So, there’s theatre, journalism, performance and a bit of stand up. What I love is being able to learn how to tell stories to others.”
Mark says essentially Check Up’s story centres around the month he spent in four different hospitals where he shadowed and interviewed a cross section of people.
“I can only describe the experience as gobsmacking and a really intense journey. One minute you’re talking to a 35-year-old overweight guy about to have gastric surgery, then the next minute you’re in your scrubs about to watch someone going under the knife and the surgeons are arguing about the music they want to play during the operation!”
During that month Mark says that he saw ‘all aspects’ of the NHS but how did he manage to gain such privileged access? “Well I’ve done this for 33 years, and I guess people trust me. But if you’re a politician – beware! Also, the show is directed by Nick Kent, the former director of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London who was also responsible for The Colour of Justice which is about the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. So people know and trust Nick and know that he and I will reflect accurately what’s happening.
“He’s exceptionally meticulous and asked me at the beginning ‘when do I get a script?’ I laughed and said ‘Never’! He’s definitely the ying to my yang. I said to him once ‘we need to contact the Chief Medical Officer’ and my idea of doing this was to hang around waiting for them – possibly disguised as a plant pot – but Nick said, ‘no, we’ll write a letter first’. We do argue and shout but we also laugh a lot too.”
Unlike other comedians who like to enhance their material somewhat, Mark insists that what he recounts on stage during Check Up is totally authentic. “If you start rewriting what happened you do an incredible disservice to those you have talked to.”
Check Up is a mixture of revelations of what Mark saw and heard during his time with the Imperial Group as well as his trademark political commentary. One of the show’s key topics he says is that of health inequality: “Professor Michael Marmot is a global leading epidemiologist and his report on health inequalities shows that the poorer you are the more likely you are to die younger and suffer ill health for longer. Factors such as housing, literacy, jobs - or the lack of all these - contribute to your health. I mean his stuff is shocking. In every single one of these areas, local government has a significant role to play in working with the NHS to improve health.
“Every day I spent over that month was shocking or enlightening in equal measure. And unless you sort out all aspects of the NHS you’ll always have ill health walking through your door.”
Mark adds that when people come to see Check Up, which is on this Friday at Trinity, he wants them to feel ‘shocked and awe in equal measure’.
“The NHS for me is socialism in action; you give to those who need it the most from each, according to their means. It’s the institution all of us will need at some point in our life. But what we have to realise as a public is that unless we fight for the NHS we’ll lose it.”
But politics aside, what were the most memorable and empathetic moments for Mark during his month long residency with the NHS? “For me the thing that I loved was the dementia nurses. I was blown away by how emotional the care is. It was just tiny things like one lady who used to say ‘I can’t have my dinner without a glass of red wine’. Now obviously you can’t go round giving out Beaujolais to patients but what they nurses did - out of their own money - was they bought non-alchoholic wine and served it up to her. It’s going that extra mile and creating a better quality of care.”
As we wrap up our conversation I ask Mark, who has performed at Trinity Theatre on a number of occasions, what he likes about the venue: “There’s lots to like about it but given that I come from a whole family of preachers - my sister’s a vicar – performing at this old church does actually feel like coming home to family.”
Mark Thomas performs Check Up: The NHS at 70 at Trinity Theatre on March 29 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £17 from trinitytheatre.net