TV: ENJOYING A HANDOVER WITH SIR LES

Barry Humphries, a shy, elegantly dressed man sheltering under a wide-brimmed hat, glides into his backstage suite at the London Palladium. He shakes my hand perfunctorily before excusing himself and darting into the adjacent dressing-room. Twenty minutes later, a dishevelled, grey- haired yobbo in a stained light-blue seersucker suit bursts out of the same room yelling "G'day" and emitting more bodily fluids than is strictly healthy for the people he meets. A burning joss-stick cannot mask the stench of a man who is a stranger to personal hygiene. This is Sir Leslie Patterson, Australia's most notorious hooligan.

He is here in his full technicolour glory to talk about BBC2's Les Patterson's Great Chinese Takeaway, the Australian cultural attache's inimitable contribution to the raft of programmes currently floating into Hong Kong harbour. Scratching his behind, he muses: "I have taken it upon myself to act as a, if you will, rectal thermometer in the Oriental orifice of this difficult time."

He is adamant that his programme will offer something different from the others. "The Dimblebys and all that mob will be sounding off ad nauseam - that's a phrase I feel I can use in The Independent - but in a shorter space of time, I cover the lot. The Dimblebys' films will be over-researched. We had no script. We just went right up and started talking to those Filipino maids."

Sir Les reveals that he has an affinity with Hong Kong because "I like to break my journey there when I'm flying to England at the Australian tax-payers' expense to guide the head of state through the minefield of protocol. I advise Paul Keating which hand to hold his knife in and tell him not to ask the Queen how much her clothes cost. In Honkers, there are amenities at my disposal which are most agreeable. There always seems to be a lot of wear and tear on my clothing when I'm there - particularly in the trouser area".

The premise of the show appears to be that Sir Les does his bit for diplomatic relations by insulting as many people on both sides as he can. Musing on the task facing the outgoing Governor Chris Patten, Sir Les reckons: "I knew that as a fellow RC, Chris could handle withdrawal."

Later, travelling by rickshaw, he also sympathises with the plight of the "ordinary folk - long may they be liberated from the oppressive yoke of colonialism". Stepping out of the vehicle, he congratulates its driver: "Well pulled, well pulled. Bit short of change. Invoice the BBC. No worries."

This is typical Les, pricking the balloons of political correctness wherever he goes. He happily pleads guilty to the charge of being non-PC. "I try to transcend petty strictures," he argues. "I have always been accepted as myself. If I tried to change now, I'd lose my credibility. I've always trodden this quicksand of taste and found people appreciate my directness."

Clive Tulloh, the producer/director of the programme, describes Sir Les as "the last wall against PC. He's like the London Barrier. If he can't hold back the waves, he'll go down fighting."

Sir Les did not enjoy the experience of having to hang out with arty film-makers while shooting this documentary. "Although I have represented the arts, I'm not one of their number," he sighs. Still, he would be happy to put his personal feelings to one side and respond to the higher calling of making more films. "I wouldn't mind going with the BBC to other places in transition," he says. "I'd like to go to certain hotspots and do some good. The UN have made overtures. Maybe I should go to Israel. I wouldn't mind chewing the fat with Arafat."

Tulloh confirms that "this programme is just Les dipping his toe in the market. He's the ideal man to put things into context. He'd like to do the millennium, the Commonwealth, and the League of Nations. There's a huge career ahead for Sir Les in documentary-making. Clive James is exceptionally worried and considering retirement."

`Les Patterson's Great Chinese Takeaway' is on tonight at 8.30pm on BBC2

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