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Mark Thomas interview: We need a new national anthem... about being good neighbours

Comedian and activist Mark Thomas is worried that our national anthem is all wrong.

In his new show - 50 Things About Us - he picks through the myths, facts and figures of our national identity to ask us, who do we think we are?

And he reckons that one of the aspects of British culture that most sorely misrepresents the nation is God Save The Queen.

Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas

“Me and my mates wrote a new song because we looked at the national anthem and thought, for a start, its an English anthem not a national anthem and it only came to be used regularly since 1850,” he says.

“Before that we had a different national anthem by Purcell, which is very exciting - a song called Britain Strike Home - and for about 150 years it was our national anthem.

“It was sung in parliament, in chartist demonstrations, there's records of Britain Strike Home on placards at Peterloo before the massacre took place. So, we thought well if it's all in flux and we’re changing the anthem every 150 years why don't we write the new one?”

And apparently God Save the Queen has a few questionable verses, according to Mark. “It’s a royalist anthem,” he says, “ there's a lot of anti Scottish sentiment in the fifth or sixth verse so we decided to write a song that has an aspiration to it that was about being nice. We wanted something where we could go, yeah we want to be like this. I wanted it to be about welcoming people. We haven’t given it a name yet, we just call it national anthem.”

Mark Thomas (23456484)
Mark Thomas (23456484)

When asked if he could sing the first few lines, Mark is happy to oblige with an upbeat tune: “Welcome to Britain,

Wherever you are from,

It’s last orders at the bar,

Can I get you one?”

The longer version explains, he says, that we need to be “good neighbours and good friends. That's really what we need to start doing.”

It’s out of my mouth before I can think about it, but I offer that perhaps we could replace the national anthem with the Neighbours theme tune, which contains similar views.

“No!” he laughs. And then says: “Do you know what? I’m going to put in the show that actually you suggested that on the next major international where England’s playing all the England team should be going, ‘Neighbours - everybody needs good neighbours.’

“It is a very friendly song, and you are right - everybody does need good neighbours.”

Even though his shows are always about serious subjects, it seems mark doesn’t take himself too seriously. He rallies, saying: “Do you remember the Simpsons episode where Homer is a boxer and he walks out into the ing to the tune of Why Can’t We Be Friends?

“You have described something akin to that, which I think I think is beautiful. I love the idea you suggested that. I think it is great.”

Mark Thomas (23456484)
Mark Thomas (23456484)

Mark launched his stand up career in the ‘80s and is famous for his political comedy, which at the start overlapped with his investigative journalism in the long-running Channel 4 series, The Mark Thomas Project. He has described his more recent shows as a mixture of theatre, journalism and a little bit of stand up.

The idea that started him writing this latest show - 50 Things About Us - was the thing that unites us all, watching the news and wondering what on earth happened to Britain.

He says: “I kept finding myself at some point in the day watching the telly or listening to the news and asking myself how the bloody hell did we get here.

“And I don't think that I’m alone in that thought. I think thats the big question people have asked themselves this year is how did we find ourselves in this position.

“What’s happening now in Britain is, I think, about identity. It's about the clash of who we think we are versus the reality of who we think we are and I think that's really interesting because our identity is based on a whole load of stuff that changes all the time.

“And actually some of the premises that we have for our identity are not as true perhaps as we like to think. I'm thinking of our idea that we have ‘the mother of parliaments’ when in fact New Zealand beat us to women's votes.”

Mark Thomas (23456479)
Mark Thomas (23456479)

Although in researching the show he has unearthed some positives too. “We actually had the world’s first economic charter, which was the charter of the forest written shortly after the Magna Carta,” he says.

“It gave people rights for common land - whether they could use the water, the soil, cut the peat or pick the berries. It had to be read out in church, the very place where land owners would assemble in front of the church and the plebs would be at the back and the priest would be reminding everyone what the rights were of the people at the back of the church.

“That right went back to the 1200s. I find that an amazing fact and was only abolished in 1972 by the Tories. So when we look at who we are, that is something we can be quite proud of - pioneering economic rights. The new frontier of human rights are economic rights.

“So that’s one tiny little thing about who we are and actually we can take pride in that rather than just go ‘Two world wars, one World Cup’.”

Other things we should be proud of, according to Mark, include the story of the Skelmanthorpe banner, stitched after the Peterloo massacre, which he learned when he lived there as a student.

“The banner pledges allegiance to the cause of justice and universal suffrage and to be in solidarity with the people of Manchester.,” he says.

“The final panel is the abolitionist symbol of a slave holding his arms up in chains saying, ‘Am I not a man?’.

“This banner had its own wooden case that it was carried in to demonstrations, but the authorities hated it so people took turns hiding the Skelmanthorpe banner. There are stories of people smuggling it to demonstrations hidden in flower carts and how it would be suddenly unfurled and there was a cheer when it would go up because it was about class and about reaching out across the Pennines and universal suffrage and freedom for everybody.

“I love the fact that this hand stitched banner is still in existence. It has been kept. The authorities wanted to burn it and destroy it but we have managed to keep this beautiful thing and it's on display on loan to the People’s Museum in Manchester at the moment.

“Little things like that are just beautiful and they cry out to who we are, but they are hidden and they are not celebrated and they need to be.”

We are a buffoon nation with an overinflated sense of worth and achievement and a deluded vision of ourselves.

He also praises the Newcastle United home crowd who regularly collect donations for the local food bank.

“I think people naturally are like that. I think people naturally care for each other,” he says. “Sometimes we forget the things that hold us and bind us together are really important and are things we should celebrate.”

Hi show will also consider the way people from other countries regard us, and the news is not good.

“They see us very differently from how we see ourselves. Forty three per cent of the British public think the British Empire was a good thing. Now given the fact we have invaded so many countries in the world and generally speaking if you invade somewhere they think less of you than if you don't ,the way that we are seen and the way we see ourselves are two very different things.”

And Brexit has made it much worse, he fears. “I think they see us as a joke, I think they see us as almost as Falstaff - we are a buffoon nation with an overinflated sense of worth and achievement and a deluded vision of ourselves. And we are who is going to end up grubbing around trying to make ends meet.”

His solution is that we should take a long hard look in the mirror: “The very least we can do is engage with the debate about who we are and our history and what our history is other than what we think it is and then at least might begin to have a vision of yourself that's slightly more accurate

A final word? “Vote Labour!”

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