MARK Little has to decide on the colour for his pantomime goatee beard when playing the evil Lord Chamberlain in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York.
“It was purple two years ago, green last Christmas, maybe black and white this time,” says the ex-pat Australian actor, comedian, writer, television presenter and 2019 Dancing On Ice contestant, who will be appearing in his 15th panto from tomorrow (December 12) to January 4.
After starting out playing the “silly billy” daft lad, he has since settled into the baddie’s role. “You get to an age in pantomime where you become a bit old for the fool, which needs a lot of energy,” says Mark. “I reached a point where I thought, ‘where do I fit in’? Ah, the baddie.”
Now 60, Snow White will be his eighth panto since switching to the dark side. “My villains tend to be crazed rather than evil. Unhinged. More Maggie on acid, than Boris! Unnerving,” he says.
“I don’t make my baddies creepy. I call the children ‘stinkers’, and the more I insult them, the more angry they get with me, and they know the more they show dissent, the more I react, but they know that good has to triumph over evil, so I love to hear them booing.
“There’s a lot going on right now to make us want to boo, but theatre is a safe environment to do it. That’s one of the reasons theatre is there for, especially panto, to mock things we don’t agree with, celebrate things we love and reflect on where we’re going.
“So I like to ‘place’ my baddie in that present time. Like Trump not being acceptable, and we have a licence to openly mock that.”
After making his name as Joe Mangel in the Australian soap Neighbours from 1988 to 1991, Mark has lived in Britain for 25 years, 20 of them in Brighton before moving to Wood Green, London, to be close to his grandchildren.
He has presented The Big Breakfast, appeared regularly on The Wright Stuff and Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and toured his one-man show Defending The Caveman, playing the Grand Opera House in 2007 and York Theatre Royal in 2010. Pantomime has become a fixture on his calendar in Britain, but back in Australia, it is a different story.
“There’s no such thing. Australia doesn’t have theatre in its DNA. Sport, yes, but culture’s put to one side. It’s all sport. You have to have a number on your back! But here in the UK, Brits are going to the theatre from the age of six and playing football. You do both.
“As I was growing up, all our television came over from Britain. It’s not a mystery that I ended up living here because we were brought up on all that culture.”
Gradually Australia sought its identity through film, whereas “even Neighbours took a while for Australia to connect with,” says Mark. “It wasn’t heralded the same way it was over here. It was ‘the show with the sets that wobbled’. But it was celebrated here.”
Neighbours went from being “the soap that no-one noticed in Australia” to,” whoosh, a show that really took off”. Mark arrived in Britain to perform his own comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe just as the first series began to be aired over here, two years behind Australia.
“I wasn’t ready for what happened next. Joe Mangel took over!” he says. “That’s a phenomenon I’ll never recover from. If the Brits get into something they love, they hold on hard and strong. Joe Mangel will live with me forever.
“I ended up presenting The Big Breakfast, having done that type of TV in Australia on Zoo TV, and they thought I could do the same thing here. My style of comedy is fairly crazy, anarchic, plenty of mayhem. People trusted Joe Mangel, so I was ‘Johnny Foreigner taking the mick and mocking British culture’, which they don’t like usually here, but they’d taken to Joe Mangel, so they loved it.
“My comedy suited that Tiswas style, and it’s the kind of show that TV looks like it’s crying out for now.”
At the time of this interview, Mark was sporting a full beard from a three-week shoot filming the low-budget independent film Passing Through in the South of France. “David Hall, a playwright and theatre director, wrote the part for me,” he says.
“It’s his first feature film, and I play an Australian teacher who’s been in Britain for 25 years and decides to go to the South of France with his new wife, on her new anti-depressants, to try to forge a new life amid the gypsies,” he says.
“But along comes his estranged son to remind him of his old life. All their problems come up and we see if they can be rectified or not.
“It’s not a car-chase film! It’s not chick.lit! It’s a bit old-fashioned in style with an international flavour. It’s taking a cathartic look at a modern relationship, a modern family, in an anti-depressant world, where they’re trying to deal with the past and the present by creating a new future when he has his redundancy money.”
Metaphysical in tone, Passing Through is set at a time “when it’s hard to be happy, and what is happiness anyway?”, says Mark. “It doesn’t come up with schmaltzy answers. My character just thinks we better have some fun making a future.”
By comparison, pantomime is a world of certainty where good will defeat evil, and Mark Little’s grandchildren will enjoy every chance to “boo Pop”.
Mark Little stars in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, from December 12 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york