Mark Thomas’ dad was a difficult man. A ‘grumpy bastard’ is actually how the press release for his new show puts it.
‘Seriously, if that’s all I’ve called him he’s really lucky,’ laughs the comic, activist, writer and reporter, ‘I call him much worse in the show.’
Bravo Figaro! is the very personal story of his dad’s degenerative illness, his relationship with this ‘grumpy bastard’ and how he put on an opera for him at his bungalow in Bournemouth with the help of the Royal Opera House.
‘The show looks at what a contradictory character he was but also at the fact that we can live with contradictory emotions about people that we love with an ease which I think is rather lovely.’
Mark’s dad, Colin, certainly brought out contradictory emotions in his family. A working-class Tory, self-employed builder and former lay preacher, Colin discovered a passion for opera as an adult and used to blast his Rossini and Verdi records out both in the family home in Clapham and across the building sites and rooftops of south London on his cassette player, and would sing along, loudly and dreadfully.
Ten years ago, at the age of 62, he was diagnosed with incurable progressive supranuclear palsy. He’s lost control of his muscles so he can’t walk or swallow, is nearly blind, can barely talk, and has diabetes, dementia and gout.
‘He got into opera through his love of education and self-improvement,’ explains Mark, who now lives a few streets away from where he grew up with Colin, his mum Margaret and his siblings Matthew, Elizabeth and Ruth.
‘He was forever buying us things that were educational, and he had this weekly subscription to Famous Classical Composers. You used to get a magazine and a record, you started at Bach and went all the way through to Wagner.
‘My dad was a proper fighter. This teacher used to live opposite us and she came to a gig recently and said “I remember dragging a bloke in off the street that your dad was trying to punch, and your dad was shouting through the letterbox at him!”
‘He was a larger-than-life character who had to be the centre of attention. He was a patriarch and a deeply religious man but he was also absolutely filthy – I’ve yet to meet anyone who could swear like him.
‘He was very conservative but over the years our family changed him – having children who had thoughts of their own sort of ground him down so he’s actually ended up being alright. You can proclaim what the world should be like all you like, but your children will always grow up to be their own people.’
Colin’s conservative views were the butt of many of Mark’s early stand-up routines.
“He was always my touchstone for illiberals,” Mark says. ‘I used to say that my dad’s vision of mixed marriage was a man and a woman.
‘I hated opera when I was a teenager but when he became ill I started to listen to it because I was trying to make a connection with him,’ says Mark, which is where the idea of staging an opera for him came from.
Mark’s friend and neighbour was devising a programme for Radio 4 called Inheritance Tracks, where celebrities talked about the music they’d inherited from their family. Mark was on the first show and talked about his dad’s opera. A man from the Royal Opera House heard it and asked if Mark would be interested in doing something for a festival of opera they were planning.
‘I said “I want to take your opera singers and put on a concert for my dad in his bungalow”’, Mark laughs, ‘and we did it. It was remarkable – he came back to us, he came back to life. Just for a few moments again he was sparky, he was talking, he was coherent. It was great, a real joy.’
The concert was recorded and put into a stage show, along with stand-up and clips of Mark talking to his dad, that Mark performed first at the Royal Opera House, then on a hugely successful run at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and he is now touring the UK with it, finishing at artsdepot this month.
Sadly, Colin is unable to leave his bungalow and so will never see the show. ‘I’m dead proud of this show, it’s a really good one,’ Mark says. ‘It’s the first show I’ve done with a lighting director and a sound designer and all of that and, do you know what, I’ve loved it.’
This article first appeared in the Hendon & Finchley Times.
Image by internets_dairy (Flickr: Mark Thomas) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons