Mark Little is a spin-doctor's nightmare. He refuses to talk in neat, yet ultimately meaningless, pre-packaged soundbites; his philosophy is "shoot from the hip and to hell with the consequences". His publicity advisors might not agree, but I say "full credit to you, cobber". Such candour is rare indeed in these PR-groomed days.

This eagerness to speak his mind may be one reason why the Australian actor-cum-stand-up comedian has not always endeared himself to television commissioning editors. "I don't know what they're doing," he says, making no effort to conceal his exasperation. "I think they're cleaning the toilets rather than commissioning my shows. They pay a lot of lip service to courageous television, but there's a lack of foresight among whoever's in charge. The words `quality' and `something special' are not in their brief. TV executives prefer `predictable' and `derivative'. One gets the impression that there are now more TV presenters than people actually watching TV. It won't be long before we're all watching ourselves presenting.

"It's very hard to put a new idea on paper that people who are not in a literary, creative frame of mind can grapple with," he continues. "Putting `trust me' at the end of the proposal doesn't seem to work."

Instead, executives invite Little to do endless no-brain quiz shows. "All I can do is say no to all the crap that's being offered. I don't want to present mediocre TV. As far as good adult entertainment goes - and I don't mean topless women - we're losing our edge. Britain is famous for inspired, intelligent TV - one of the reasons I came here was the lure of the great television industry. But now quangos and bureaucracy are squeezing the creativity out of the medium. As we get through this morass of the International Decade of the Untalented, I'm hoping that talent will out."

As you may have gathered, Little is one of life's originals. He certainly looks the part. Sitting in a smart west London hotel bar in a loud-ish patterned shirt, grubby brown trousers and sandals with no socks, he is chomping on a cigar. An earring glints from beneath his shaved hair.

Now 38, he has lost none of his youthful passion. On and off stage, he still exhibits a burning sense of political commitment. He dismisses any suggestions that such an attitude is frightfully outmoded in this post-belief era. "If it's passe, then OK, call me passe. Maybe that's why I'm not on telly. One has to be political. Life is political. Thatcherism is still with us. We have a generation of young people who only care about themselves. Stand-up comedy is not alternative anymore; it's a reactionary art form. Political correctness has created a backlash which has brought in nouveau sexism and racism. Everyone says, `Let's keep it like this, I'm making money'.

"If someone is brave enough to talk about the politics of the environment on stage, people say `Oh God, no'. But if we don't do something about it, we're stuffed. Someone has to put up an alternative. We have to breed a new generation that thinks they can do something, or else we might as well drop the bomb now."

On paper, this may all sound a tad naive, but in person, Little can win you over with the sheer force of his conviction. He has a similarly spellbinding effect on audiences. "It's all to do with my philosophy of theatre - that it should speak to people and get across ideas and help foster the revolution and alternative thinking. Where I come from [remotest Queensland], the country dance is a big event, and when the local butcher gets up as the MC everybody takes notice. I've grown up with the idea that entertainment is about people. I'm not capitalist about it - it's about sharing. I like breaking down the fourth wall and performing with people rather than at them."

He demonstrated this natural showmanship as a host of The Big Breakfast a couple of years ago, although his period there was marred by tabloid allegations of a spat with his fellow presenter, Zoe Ball. "That was outrageous - it was so manufactured and spun. There was nothing personal going on at all. Zoe had her life and I had mine. We just came from totally different worlds. Anyway, Zoe gets enough publicity already - she doesn't need my help."

Much to his chagrin, Little is still best known to some for playing Joe Mangel in Neighbours between 1988 and 1991. "It won't be long till Joe has finished on UK Gold, so he can rest in peace. I'm now keen to show people something else. I've done 10 movies and I'd like to do that again." Unlike some former Aussie soap stars, Little is not out for a fast buck. "Some people from Neighbours come over here, do a single, make a packet and then nick off again. I'm here for the long haul."

He feels that he has an affinity with British audiences because "I'm mischievous. I'll say those things no one else will dare say about the elite. British people like that. I've got a healthy disrespect for authority, while they sometimes have an unhealthy respect for authority. For instance, I'm cheering the Millennium Bug. The calamity it could cause makes me laugh. I'd love big business to collapse because of one tiny oversight when they invented the computer."

Despite Little's run-ins with TV, he still has many projects on the go - including his topical newspaper quiz, RTFP, on Radio 4, and his new live show, the aptly named Spontaneous Combustion, at Edinburgh.

One thing he will not be doing, however, is any advertisements. "Call me a dinosaur - a lot of people do - but I don't believe anyone should be on TV selling people crap they don't need. I don't want to be part of that. I couldn't rest easy at night. It would make the last 38 years fraudulent. Then it's `Whoops, where's the Prozac? Here comes the nervous breakdown'.

"I'm getting sick of comedians selling me things. A lot have sold out. That's an Olde Worlde attitude, but I'm not going to sell out. You look at the figures they throw at you and the money is tempting, but it only takes me a couple of seconds to put it out of my mind. I couldn't face me grandkids. They'd say: `You were one of those comedians selling people things they didn't need. You bastard, pop.' I want them to say: `You were having a go. Good on you, pop.'"

`RTFP' is on Friday at 6.30pm on Radio 4; `Spontaneous Combustion' is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh (0131-226 2428), 22-29 Aug

Comments