Show People: . . . and a little understanding: 75. Mark Little

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The Independent Culture
MARK LITTLE arrived at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art just as Mel Gibson was leaving. His road to worldwide celebrity was to be built on earthier foundations. As Joe Mangel, Little brought dignity and charm to the role of Neighbours' lovable gardener. 'The point was,' he says, 'to go against the idea that if you play a working-class character he has to be stupid.'

Making Neighbours' dialogue seem to come from the mouth of a real person was not Little's only achievement. Joe Mangel was also a Trojan horse within the fortress of Australian machismo. The neighbourhood rough diamond was burnished by his ultra-progressive second wife, Kerry Bishop, into a jewel of reconstructed manhood. 'He began by expressing the usual unthinking reactions,' Little explains, 'then slowly he got turned around, and hopefully some of the mass audience came with him.'

Joe Mangel, alas, is no more, Mark Little having joined in the weird process of reverse transportation whereby hordes of ex-Neighbours and Home & Away stars have returned to colonise Britain's showbiz community. 'If you go on an imperialist binge, it's bound to come back and haunt you,' he laughs vengefully. He now lives with his wife and two children in the Yorkshire countryside.

A progressive political comedian with 12 years' experience of Australia's pubs and clubs, he sets off round Britain this week with his one-man show Conquistador 94, after a successful week at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Little begins his performance with some 'bad interpretative dance'; taking to the stage in white- face and emerald lipstick, he prances around for a good 10 minutes to the sound of atrocious synthesiser music. He reckons that any Neighbours fan still with him after that is ready to go all the way.

The tensions between finding an appropriate means of theatrical expression and 'not being the type of guy who'd wear green lippy' are exploited throughout the show. Little sees it as 'an attempt to knock down the pretensions of the medium and to create a bit of theatre at the same time'. To jaundiced British ears, the sincerity with which his political and artistic convictions are expressed is shocking. The same integrity which leads Little to regard Alexei Sayle as a comedy traitor for having done TV advertising is apparent in what he says about the show which made his name.

'Neighbours' popularity was based

on the fact that it never tackled moral issues,' Little observes candidly, 'and something as shallow as Neighbours I don't think should. It just doesn't handle it right.' It is a shame there isn't more Neighbours reminiscence in his act. He has plenty to offer apart from Joe, his alter-ego from Erinsborough, but the psychic debris of Ramsey Street is such good material.

Was there ever anything in the script that he refused to do? 'There was one point where Joe was supposed to knock someone down in his van. This was at a time when the scriptwriters - not to slag them off too much - got the idea that Neighbours needed more 'drama'. And they equated drama with death; so if they wanted drama, they killed somebody. People were dropping like flies. I was telling them: 'This is no longer a nice neighbourhood, it's cursed.' Every bugger was dying. I'd already lost two wives, and then they asked me to run somebody over. I said: 'I'm not doing it.' '

How was this impasse resolved? 'Well . . . I was driving along and they found this woman dead in the road, but I got blamed for it by her boyfriend, who turned out to be this suburban guerrilla who started terrorising me.' Sounds like powerful stuff. 'It happens, I'm telling you. It bloody happens.'

In his show, Little refers to the complications caused in his post-Neighbours life by the fact that 'millions of people around the world think the programme is a documentary'. That this should only just be a joke is evidence of the power of television - 'it doesn't educate people to the fact that it is a lie,' he points out, adding that his only real worry about the success of Neighbours and Home & Away is that the morality they project is 20 years out of date.

The same could not be said of Sylvania Waters, the BBC's current 'real-life Australian soap'. The adventures of Noeline and family provide a caustic corrective to the endless self-solving problems of Neighbours and Home & Away, but scepticism is even more appropriate when entertainment presents itself as fact. Little finds it to be 'riveting television, but a bit warped. There is an element of condescension, of playing up to British stereotypes of Australians, in the people they've chosen. First, not many Aussies have that kind of money. Second, the boyfriend, Laurie, for example, is one of the old breed of Australians, and they're sort of on their way out. I hope people aren't going to think we're all like that.'

'Conquistador 94' is at Coventry Arts Centre (0203-524524), Fri; Southsea Kings (0705-828282), Sat; Bournemouth Pavilion (0202-297297), Sun; and on tour all month (information: 071-732 4018).

(Photograph omitted)