Interview: Mark Thomas

What does Tooting Lido, London's prestigious Royal Opera House and film director Mike Figgis have in common? Mark Thomas' deeply personal new show about fathers, sons and saying goodbye to those you love. WAYNE SAVAGE talks to the acclaimed comedian and activist.

The last time I spoke to Mark he'd just walked the Israeli West Bank wall. New show Bravo Figaro is a lot closer to home, in more ways than one.

Known for exposing torturers, arms dealers, multinational corporation skulduggery and abuses of civil liberties, this is the true story of his father Colin; a self-made, working class man with a passion for opera, his progressive supranuclear palsy and Mark's attempt to put an opera on in his bungalow in Bournemouth.

'It's a very personal show, a very private story in many ways. It's the story of me and my dad, his debilitating illness, how we cope with it and how you say goodbye to someone really,' says the multi-award winner and Guinness World Record holder for political protests.

The decision to share it came after he'd kind of already done it.

A friend was working on a new Fi Glover show for Radio 4. They were launching a new item called Inheritance Tracks, where people talk about the music they inherit from their families and asked if Mark would mind doing one.

'She came round and I talked about how my dad, a working class, Tory voting, self-employed builder left school, no qualifications, gets into opera and used to play Rossini while working on the building site, how I hated it but as he became ill and started to disappear from view I started to cherish those memories of him.'

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Colin discovered his love of opera by chance. Very much a believer in self-education and the idea of working class improvement, he'd buy a weekly series on classic composers.

'You'd get a little booklet and a record and he would just sit down and plough his way through everything from Bach to Wagner. Nothing I was a particular fan of, I hated opera; it represented everything that was vile to me,' remembers Mark.

'I didn't like the music, didn't like the fact my dad insisted on playing it on the scaffold, didn't like the fact if you go and see it it's full of a group of people who frankly look like they've just come out of the Tory party at leisure.

'You listen to the length of the applause, the encores, the ovations at the end of an opera and you think 'ah now I know where the Tory party rehearses clapping for the leader's speech'. For me it represented everything that was awful, [a] very elitist art form.

'Actually it's a very weird thing because it's becoming increasingly popular which is a quite bizarre and rather lovely thing in some ways. Like any other art form, there is good opera and bad opera,' says the convert.

The interview - the first played - was heard by a bloke from the Royal Opera House who goes to Tooting Lido, where Mark's wife also swims. Already on nodding terms, he asked her if Mark liked opera and if he'd be interested in getting involved with a festival at the ROH.

'I was brought along to meet Mike Figgis, who was curating it. He said 'would you be up for doing something' and I said 'yes I would, on condition you lend me opera singers'. I took a soprano, a tenor and a piano player down to my dad's bungalow in Bournemouth and we put on a little concert in the living room for him. I was nervous, it was intense and it was wonderful.'

Returning to the ROH with stories of how it'd gone, Mark played recordings he'd made of his mum and dad talking after the performance during the festival as a one-off. 'It was only [when we were] sat around I thought 'blimey, we should definitely do more of this, we should take this out and rewrite it'. So it kind of happened by accident, by coincidence. The person I need to thank is my mate down in Balham.'

Supranuclear palsy, also the topic of the Julie Walters drama A Short Stay in Switzerland, is not a well-known or researched illness, says Mark.

Often misdiagnosed, sometimes mistaken for MS, what causes it isn't known.

There's a gradual loss of brain cells, slowing movement and reduced control of walking, balance, swallowing, speaking and eye movement with sufferers eventually becoming confined to a wheelchair and needing round-the-clock care. There can also be emotional and personality changes.

'My dad really was... he's still with us but I talk about him in the past tense, this incredible, larger than life character afraid of NO-ONE. He's now a very, very, frail, weak man who's disappeared, his personality has gone. You get occasional glimpses of him. If you talk to anyone whose relatives have had dementia or Alzheimer's you start this weird process of grieving while they're still in the room.'

Colin was diagnosed 10 years ago, remarkable given the average life span after diagnoses is usually around seven.

'I spoke to my mum about this... when he was originally diagnosed he was actually given five years to live. Ten years later... I said this to my mum and she said 'yeah, I've looked after him too well luv',' he laughs.

Described as a show about love, death, fathers and sons and the search for peace in an imperfect world with a few gags thrown in for luck, Mark is excited about performing it for audiences.

'I love the fact this show is a mixture of theatre, stand-up, with possibly a dash of performance art in there as well. Ultimately it's a bloke telling a story. As a performer I've learnt quite a lot; as a human being... those thoughts remain a little bit private at the moment.'

Accompanied only by lighting and sound, it highlights the power of music.

'The amazing thing about opera is you have this art form which is incredibly artificial, yet when you go and see it can evoke such amazing emotions in people. That's quite astounding.

'As an art form, people of my dad's generation were perhaps a little bit more reserved and less likely to open up than other generations. For him, this was his way of connecting with incredibly powerful emotions; that's the wonderful thing about music, not just the fact it does that but the fact the musical memory if you like is far more enduring than other parts of our memory.

'When my dad hears the music his musical memory plugs into something far more instinctive, far more emotional than a logical idea of memory and he's really back with us.'

t Mark Thomas Bravo Figaro, Norwich Playhouse, November 28, 17.50, 01603 598598,