MARK OF QUALITY

Comedian MARK LITTLE talks with James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
As we make our way out of the west London pizzeria where we have been having lunch, the waitress dashes up to Mark Little and tells him she is going to frame the slice of pizza he has left on his plate and put it on her bedside table. Mark Little seems to have that effect on people.

Alex Graham, his executive producer on The Feel Good Factor, Little's "socio-political" show for Channel 4, is well aware of his Australian frontman's appeal. "He's no Pierce Brosnan to look at," Graham says, "but there is something else going on there. He's big and scruffy and rumpled and warm - an enthusiastic bear of a man. A lot of people find that attractive in a world where everything is about slimness and beauty. He is a life force.

"One reason that he is so popular is because he's such an unlikely TV presenter," Graham continues. "People are incredibly suspicious of slick and smooth TV presentation - look at Sky's football or This Morning. There is an appetite out there - which you can also see in Two Fat Ladies - for people who break the rules of slick presentation. There is a sense of authenticity about Mark. When he talks about the fact that he loves barbecues and cricket, you believe him. He looks like a guy who enjoys a couple of cans of Fosters and a 16oz steak. He's a bit of a bloke."

Little's child-like enthusiasm has not always endeared him to authority. Done up in a tatty green sweat-shirt, battered black combat trousers and lime-green trainers, Little is obviously not dressing to impress. Chewing on a slice of pizza, he reveals that "at school, I was quite a larrikin. That might be my pigeon-hole. I'm someone with a healthy disrespect for authority. That's why my humour sits well here. The British can have an unhealthy respect for authority, which they enjoy seeing smashed down.

"It gets me into trouble with the powers that be. I was once at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and on the stage there was a sign saying `submarine corps'. It turned out that a nuclear submarine base in Adelaide was sponsoring the festival. I got so angry that I trashed the sign with a housebrick in the middle of a show. Why was a fringe festival sponsored by a nuclear base? I got into a shitload of trouble, but that's the joy of being an alternative artist."

Little is the first to admit that this sort of attitude has held him back. "It has restricted my career," he concedes. "I often think that I'll never work again. It's difficult to work with principles, but I couldn't face my grandkids if I sold out. There are lots of mainstream game shows that I've turned down. A lot involve ritual humiliation and I don't want to be part of that.

"My politics get in the way all the time," he goes on. "With the recession and the way TV is controlled by accountants, it is very hard to slip in ideas that stretch the boundaries. A lot of ideas I put in are trying to create a style of TV that hasn't been seen before. I'm dying to get my own show and express myself in a way that makes the box come alive, but the people with cheque books don't want to know."

But isn't his brand of politically committed comedy as outdated as students chanting "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out"? "People have been saying that to me since 1980," Little sighs. "Political comedy has always been regarded as anorak. People ask me, `Why do you talk about nuclear disarmament on stage?' Comedians are trapped in that `new rock'n'roll' business and are disappearing up their own arses. I'm still alternative. I'm like a Shakespearean Fool commenting on the state of affairs at court."

Little is aware that all this political passion might sound strange coming from him. "It's very hard to talk about politics when you've been in Neighbours," he laughs. "It has slowed down the process of presenting myself as an alternative artist," he adds grandly.

It was, after all, the popular character from Neighbours who started the fame ball rolling for Little. He still has affection for poor old Joe. "He seemed to present himself not exactly as a working-class hero, but as someone identifiable to all ages and classes," Little reflects. "I can go to Ascot and get the same reaction as I do down the post office. But I can't stand the fact that the people in charge of TV still see me as a Joe Mangel. I've got a lot more to offer than a bloke who can do two episodes about a lost gumboot. What worries me is if Neighbours is still talked about as my only piece of work in 10 years' time."

There seems little chance of that. He has just completed The Feel Good Factor, a C4 vox pop show that presents facts and figures about issues that affect us all - health, education, leisure, crime, transport and the environment. Like The Big Breakfast, it allows Little to play to his strength - interacting with the public - and generally give off more sparks than a fireworks factory.

"The programme is a challenge because it is something that hasn't been done before," Little claims. "My ears always prick up when I hear that. I don't want to be doing the same old thing. Being boring is the biggest crime as an entertainer." He could never be accused of that.

Mark Little's `Psychobubble' is at the Short BAC and Sides Festival, BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) on 30-31 July, then to Edinburgh Festival; `The Feel Good Factor' starts on C4 in August

EYE TEST

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EYE TEST

1960s: Born and brought up the son of the policeman in a small town in remotest Queensland. "It's the Deep North of Australia," Little says, "and when I was growing up it was a fascist state - if three or more people gathered in one spot, it was regarded as a protest. I was living with a policeman in a police state - therein lies my madness."

1970s: Teachers at school played him Monty Python and encouraged him to perform. Little became an alternative theatre performer in Melbourne after training in Sydney

1980s: Little revelled in Australia's new-found punk-comedy aesthetic; he also appeared in such deathless Aussie shows as `Skyways', `The Sullivans' and `The Flying Doctors'.

1988: Little joined `Neighbours' as Joe Mangel. He left the soap in 1991 to make a film, `Green Keeping' in Sydney

1992: Little came to Britain. "Britain is the home of great comedy. I felt it would be fertile ground. It was a dream of mine to come here and be right in the thick of it." He became a successful presenter on The Big Breakfast. "The anarchic style appealed to me," he remembers. "I knew that in every show, there would be two or three bits of sublime alternative TV."

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