Comedy: Sand in the underpants of power

A remarkable show which combines activism, journalism and good gags

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I had always imagined that Mark Thomas's shows would have the inbuilt flaw of preaching to the choir. As he tours around the country, however, he seems to be finding a new audience. "I thought he was going to do stand-up comedy," said a bemused young man in front of me, at a show in the Home Counties. "I suppose," said his friend thoughtfully, "it all depends on what you find funny."

Thomas is very funny much of the time, but this has become almost incidental. Even Thomas himself does not know whether he is an activist, an investigative journalist, a comic or an underground informer. But the label doesn't matter - the performer who started out as sand in the underpants of those who thought themselves beyond the law has become a serious force in unmasking corruption on an international scale.

In this show he turns his attention to the arms trade, "the only industry that exists with the specific aim of taking human life". Britain is second only to the US in international exports, but Thomas reserves special ferocity for those who insouciantly flout the present legislation or exploit its loopholes. Gathering around himself a spy network of insiders, "men in black" who tip him off every time a significant breach of the law occurs, Thomas has successfully exposed a number of international companies operating from within the UK. This can place him in a difficult position in relation to his activist friends and fan base: shopping an Israeli company to HM Customs for advertising banned torture equipment at the London arms trade fair, he is told that his name is now on a database of informants. Flush with success (the company is evicted), he reports his triumph to one of his oldest anarchist comrades. "You fucking grass," is the response.

Thomas has the air of your eager mate in the pub who can't wait to tell you about this wicked thing that happened to him and his mates last weekend. Part of his appeal is that he is always Tiggerishly enthusiastic, even when he is being deadly serious. He tends to step quietly to one side of his own anecdotes, pleased to give all the credit and some of the best lines to his friends.

It's the impersonations of the people who cross his path that keep the show lively and make sure the laughs per minute don't drop too far - an achievement for a two-hour show largely concerned with the small print of legislation. And he has some great lines; one politician is "one of those modern Tories who is just a moisturiser away from a monocle and shotgun".

The coup de théâtre is an extraordinary piece of undercover reportage in which Thomas alleges that a company owned by the Hinduja Group is selling trucks - of a type similar to the ones used by the Janjaweed - to the Sudanese government.

Though the report was originally conducted under the aegis of Newsnight, legal threats from the Hindujas persuaded the BBC to pull it two hours before broadcast. Thomas goes on to regret the decision of this magazine not to publish his detailed account of the affair after m'learned friends advised that the potential costs could be ruinous. The story was eventually submitted as a report to a government select committee, which is immune from libel litigation. Though the Sudan deal collapsed, even now Thomas has had to self-publish the report - his publishers refused to include it in his book because the transcripts of the secret interviews are the property of the BBC. Photocopied pamphlets are handed out at the end of the show, as if in a totalitarian regime.

But there are some jolly pranks recounted, too, most involving Thomas's ever more ingenious fun at the expense of the "Brian Haw law", which demands that anyone holding a demonstration in the environs of Parliament Square must apply for a licence. "You want to demonstrate in defence of surrealism?" says the beleaguered Scottish policeman in charge of processing these applications. "I didnae know it was in danger." It's not, as long as it has Mark Thomas on its side.

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This article first appeared in the 16 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The war on youth