Little Britain: The show we’ll all soon be watching, Daily Telegraph, 2003
16th December 2003
The show we’ll all soon be watching
The satirical TV sketch show Little Britain looks set to repeat the extraordinary success of The Office. Its creators, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, explain their offbeat vision to Dominic Cavendish. Published in the Daily Telegraph, 16 Dec 2003
Once in a while, strange things can happen to TV comedy series. If a show is genuinely funny and fortune happens to be smiling, it can suddenly achieve a spectacular lift-off. One week, it’s an object of marginal curiosity or cultish devotion, yet scarcely registers at the level of national consciousness. The next, it’s being quoted and commented upon wherever you turn; without warning, those who aren’t in on the joke are left feeling slightly foolish.
It happened with The Office during the summer of 2001, when, through word-of-mouth and excited media chatter, an unremarkable-sounding fly-on-the-wall sitcom set in Slough swiftly attained the status of essential viewing. Now it looks as though it’s going to happen all over again with Little Britain, a sketch show that transferred a few weeks ago from the digital backwaters of BBC3 to BBC2, where it is currently making an unstoppable bid for mainstream success.
The rapture that has greeted the show’s terrestrial debut promises to catapult its two stars, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, into the big time after an age spent in celebrity limbo.
Already known to millions as madcap drummer George Dawes in the long-running Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer series Shooting Stars, Lucas has been a “face” since the mid-1990s, but enjoyed no major recognition in his own right until now.
Likewise, Walliams, whose credits include parts in the dotcom drama Attachments and the recent Rob Brydon one-off Cruise of the Gods, has only now been able to display the full extent of his comic talents – and was finally rewarded with a Best Newcomer gong at last week’s British Comedy Awards, almost 10 years after the pair first teamed up.
Viewing figures for Little Britain may only be in the region of the promising (3.2 million for the first episode), but, as with The Office, audience numbers tell only half the story. Just as Ricky Gervais’s smarmy creation David Brent has become the exemplar of managerial egotism and incompetence, so the characters dreamt up and inhabited by Lucas, 30, and Walliams, 34, already seem to have a reach way beyond their small-screen confines. A varied bunch, unearthed from all kinds of crevices across the kingdom, from the office of the PM down to the most tattered housing estate, collectively they provide a hideously amusing slice of British life today.
At the forefront of the show’s motley crew stands, or rather slouches, Vicky Pollard, Lucas’s inspired portrait of a sulky teenage girl – not, as in the case of Harry Enfield’s zitty Kevin, monosyllabic and morose, but a nonsensical gabbler. Pouting away in her pink tracksuit, Vicky has run-ins with adult authority that entail flurries of self-justifying, self-contradictory blather (“No, but yeah, but no, right”) and impossible-to-fathom digressions about members of her peer group.
Although none of the other characters has quite the same level of ghastly familiarity, each in his or her own way holds a warped funfair mirror up to distinctly recognisable natures.
Lucas’s funniest characters include Daffyd, an outwardly flamboyant, inwardly repressed homosexual Welshman who insists, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he’s “the only gay in the village”; then there’s stage hypnotist Kenny Craig, who uses his risible techniques to secure petty advantages over people he meets; and Marjorie, the condescending, fattist supervisor of a slimming class.
For his part, Walliams takes on such beautifully observed eccentrics as Emily Howard, a totally unconvincing transvestite; Sebastian, who lusts after his boss, the Prime Minister; and a young pervert who fancies his friend’s grandmother.
All of these roles play expertly to the duo’s strengths. Lucas, openly gay and perpetually babyfaced after losing his hair to childhood alopecia, resembles a pudgy Puck, both cuddly and terrifying. Walliams, tall, handsome, deadpan, straight, exudes the mischief and latent malevolence of a latterday Peter Cook.
Overflowing with camp, catchphrases and cross-dressing – so much so that comedian David Baddiel told the pair they’d created a gay Goodness Gracious Me – Little Britain is not without precedent. In its love of drag and dressing-up, it recalls the grotesque makeovers sported by The League of Gentlemen; in its fondness for repetition, it recalls the treadmill-effect format of The Fast Show. Lucas and Walliams themselves cite a range of older influences: Carry On films, Dick Emery and the Two Ronnies among them.
What’s unique, though, about Little Britain is the scope of its ambition. On one level, as anyone who watches it can see, the idea that the programme provides an accurate state-of-the-nation survey is laughable. In a droll touch, former Doctor Who Tom Baker narrates a between-skits commentary that’s rife with pseudo-statistics and gobbledegook. The cross-section of citizenry is glaringly unrepresentative. And yet the cumulative effect is to capture a sense of the state we’re in. The prevailing tone of triumphalist celebration jars with the “reality” presented: of Britain as a land of environmental, emotional and moral dereliction.
Both Lucas and Walliams are extremely wary about relevance being foisted upon their brainchild. As Lucas explains, the Little Britain concept was a matter of expediency, a means of grouping disparate bits of material for a Radio 4 series that, after much acclaim, was cannibalised for TV. “We wanted to do a sketch show because we’ve always done character comedy. We live in a climate where neither TV or radio would take something with our names in the title – we’re just not big enough.
“Post The League of Gentlemen, too, the expectation is that sketch shows have more of a theme, so we came up with this idea, and we were always clear that we wanted something that served us, rather than the other way round.”
Neither can lay claim to above-average social awareness. Both were raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances, Lucas in Stanmore, Middlesex, Walliams in the Surrey commuter-belt town of Banstead. Lucas went to independent school Haberdashers’ Aske’s, where his contemporaries included Baddiel and Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G). Walliams, who attended Reigate Grammar School, lead a life so sheltered, he reveals, that “I didn’t know poverty existed”.
Both ended up studying drama at Bristol University, though at different times. Their first encounter, in 1990, was at the National Youth Theatre, where they swapped impressions of Frankie Howerd and Jimmy Savile, formed an instant rapport, and vowed, separately at that stage, to become comedians.
Scratch away at any suburban upbringing, however, and you’re sure to find layers of discontent, sources of pain. Walliams admits to a great need to “be naughty and misbehave, to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing, because where I came from, you weren’t allowed to do that”.
Lucas refuses to talk about his family, but says: “I know what it is to have people close to me dying, go to prison, get divorced and have accidents. Life can be quite hard, really.”
His early live work blazed with a demented fury, and audiences would often quake at the Tourette’s outbursts of failed thespian Sir Bernard Chumley, the character with which he first made his name at the Edinburgh Festival. “Losing my hair, things that were happening in the family, confusions about my sexuality, all that spurred me to be extreme,” he says. “Bob Mortimer once said to me: ‘God, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever seen.’ ”
The family-friendly series has little of that confrontational menace, but it doesn’t seem fanciful to suppose that their respective feelings of alienation have been carried over in some form. As Walliams says, “We keep being told we’re dark or odd. We don’t intend to be. We intend to make The Dick Emery Show. I think it’s just come out a bit wrong.”
Striving to be silly, they’ve produced something akin to satire. “I’m not sure we’ve sat down and thought, ‘How can we sum up Britain?’,” says Walliams. “We’ve just tried to be as funny as possible. But, if you put it together, hopefully it’s more than the sum of its parts. It is timely, I suppose, because it shows a little country making more of itself than it is. We’re definitely on the slide, but then I think we’ve been on the slide for a long while.”
They’re already hard at work on a second series, Lucas enthusing about the locations he wants for the new sketches: “I want to go to places that we encounter every day but tend not to see much of on TV, like service stations or ice rinks, or what are those little you know, when you’re driving down an A road, and you can’t cross over, and you’ve got to go over those weird, what are they called, metal bridges, you know.”
For a moment, he sounds just like Vicky Pollard. And you’d better start getting used to that comparison. She, and the rest of her uncouth kind, are here to stay.
‘Little Britain’ is on BBC2 at 10pm on Mon, and at various times on BBC3.