Hold onto your hats. The UK is about to be thrown into a retro-stupor of 'mullets', 'eskies', 'snags', 'chooks', 'utes' and singing mechanics. Yep, 'Neighbours', that Cinémavérité style (ok reality TV to you) documentary of life in the Australian suburbs is about to celebrate 30 years of existence.
So prepare yourselves for a dose of unprecedented late 80's/90's retro nostalgia as we look back on a TV show that would prove to be so much more than a TV show. 'Neighbours': 'The social phenomenon.
From 1988, for many Brits, 'Neighbours' an average Aussie soap fast became a daily televisual happy pill: a utopia of backyards and barbeques, swimming pools and eternal sunshine. A time when back doors were left unlocked and cancers could be cured in a couple of episodes and favourite characters could shape shift and transmogrify, like Dr. Who, from one year to another. An overdose of quaint, parochial attitudes that would provide true 'water cooler viewing' for 20 million Brits a day, before the expression 'water cooler viewing' was ever coined.
It was however, with complete ignorance of this British fetishisation, that I was to stumble into 'Neighbours Land' as a struggling actor and avant-garde performance artist. As a performer, my background could not have been more different from daytime soapland. I was (and still am) a left-wing stand up comic, and throughout the 80s I'd carved out a name for myself and fans, with a career performing in what was the new and experimental world of political stand up comedy. However, due to the implosion of the Australian film industry in the mid eighties, my strong union ties and the overtly political nature of my solo theatre I found myself black balled and black listed from many work opportunities. This put me in a difficult position - so when asked, I found myself forced to consider the offer of playing a character called Joe Mangel in the Channel Ten soapie 'Neighbours'.
It was 1988. I was working once a week on my cult comedy experience 'Thonk' at the Prince Patrick Hotel in Collingwood and I was also working weekends on a very low budget independent film 'Nirvana Street Murder'. I had two kids. I needed paying work. So I took the 'Neighbours' job. It was to last three months and I was to be working with the legendary Vivean Gray (Mrs. Mangel), I was to play her estranged son Joe Mangel. (Yes, I agree, one of the great names of Australian literature). I committed myself to the task. And I made the idea more palatable by deciding that I would treat it as a pop art experiment, after all, no one was watching. Little did I know that I would be dabbling with similar themes as Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I was about to create a pop monster. The wild man, Joe Mangel.
I put my agitprop comedy theatre and my cinematic art ambitions aside, swallowed my pride and threw myself into the absurd world of Soap Opera. The work was relentless and demanding, a grinding sausage factory of five day a week TV. The story lines were ridiculous but the cast and crew were hard working and fun.I had some leeway with the script, and so I decided to make 'Joe' a repository for an Australian language that Oz culture was in danger of losing. At one point I was asked to tone down my Oz language because of the 'new audience' that had appeared on the BBC. I fought this, arguing that the Brits will have to get used to thongs, chooks, utes and galah's. Neighbours has, as it turned out helped shape the lexicon of modern Britain. No worries there.
My three month contract was extended, and then extended again - eventually this little side project had turned into a three year stint and I absolutely was ready to leave. I was keen to resume my performance art and take my Australian Dada Decontructivist Comedy Theatre to the world...well Edinburgh Fringe at least.
Anne Haddy, the matriarch of 'Neighbours' at the time, (Helen Daniels) had said to me that 'one is remembered in a soap usually for as long as one is in it'. Three years on the show, so three years after it of being remembered as Joe I thought! I can cope with that. Alas, dear Anne was wrong. Rest her soul.
As 'Neighbours' celebrates 30 years 'ON' TV, I celebrate 24 years 'OFF"'Neighbours' and Joe Mangel is slowly releasing his grip on me, but crikey, he did stick like shit to corduroy. Acting work dried up and my comedy work, so different from how people were used toseeing me suffered. Bugger. And that took a long time to overcome. That's not to say it's been an entirely rough ride, eventually my persistence paid off though. Producers began to see me as an actor again, (not a gardener!) and I'm proud to say the theatre world is aware that my unique style of 'comedy' is here to stay.(Not to blow my own trumpet but the Laurence Olivier Award I got in 2000 really helped there!)
So, as the tsunami of 'Neighbours' nostalgia begins to wash over us in the next couple of weeks (watch out, it's coming - 18th March and its pearl anniversary will be upon us) remember; I was only joking at the start of this blog, Neighbours is not a documentary. Joe Mangel was my creation and he rather ungallantly went about stealing my identity in a bizarre case of metaphysical identity theft. The whole thing was an accident. The accidental fame of an Anarchist! I appreciate your love for my monster, but as sad as it may seem, the 90s is so last century...no time to wallow...work to do...new fun to be had. I am Mark Little.
#SECRETMEETINGS, Mark's latest comedy show is at The Museum of Comedy every Thursday until March 26th.