Not So Little Britain

9.4.2008

By Aaron Hicklin

Little Britain is the funniest TV show in the world. It's sort of a fake documentary about life in England. It is narrated in stupid little sentences. It stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams. Lucas used to play a giant baby on a fake game show. He is gay. Many people think Walliams is also gay. He isn't. But he did once swim the English Channel. Lucas plays Daffyd, the Only Gay in the Village; nymphomaniac socialite Bubbles Devere; and Vicky Pollard. Mr. Giles from Buffy was in it too. Walliams plays mostly gay or in drag. Did we already mention they are the funniest men in the world? Now they've shot a six-part version of their show for HBO. And have added American characters. These pictures were taken at Zuma Beach in Malibu. People kept coming up to them and asking who they were. A cop on a motorcycle came up and said, "Are they comedians? I'm the funniest man on this beach." Why the car? he asked. We said because they've come to invade America.

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Matt Lucas and David Walliams made a sketch show and called it Little Britain. They invented a bunch of characters and gave them funny voices and silly outfits and -- most important -- a truckload of catchphrases that quickly entered the national idiom. Among their masterstrokes was to hire as narrator Tom Baker, whose native fame rested on his seven-year stint in the 1970s as Doctor Who, which in Britain is akin to getting beatified by the pope. Instead of battling aliens, viewers got to hear the Doctor's stentorian voice booming over the opening credits: 'Britain. Britain. Britain. Population 1 millions. Number of towns 11. Average height 30. Shoe size. But just who are Britain? Over the next twenteen weeks, we aim to find out -- by following the lives of ordinary British folk. What do they? Who is them? And why?'

Little Britain was inane and addictive. And very, very timely. Those 'ordinary British folk,' it turned out, had a direct line into the British psyche. The show was an instant and massive hit, the kind of must-see TV that people would talk about around the water coolers, if they had water coolers over there. Instead, they stood around the kettle and hurled catchphrases at each other. Several of the characters, in particular Vicky Pollard (a slovenly, antisocial pregnant teen played by Matt Lucas), were elevated into proxies for 'British life today,' a synonym in the press for all that was wrong with the country, for a national culture of teenage shiftlessness. Her stuttering catchphrase -- 'Yeah, but no, but yeah but' -- was ranked number 5 in a 2005 poll of the greatest comedy catchphrases of all time, a few places behind Homer Simpson's 'D'oh!' Taking first place was another Little Britain creation, Daffyd, the self-styled 'only gay in the village,' a militant homosexual convinced he is a persecuted minority of one in his Welsh mining village of Llandewi Breffi despite all evidence to the contrary (in Llandewi Breffi even kindly church ministers and sweet old shop ladies talk about cock sucking and rimming as if they were chatting about the weather).

Americans who have missed the phenomenon of Little Britain will be able to catch up when Lucas and Walliams follow the pilgrim fathers of comedy -- Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, Tracey Ullman, Sacha Baron Cohen -- and decamp to America, kicking and dragging their characters with them. In their new HBO series, Little Britain USA, Vicky Pollard resurfaces in a Utah camp for bratty delinquents after trying to burn down Disneyland; Daffyd has enrolled at an American university, where he's the 'only gay on campus'; and Marjorie Dawes, the rude, racist, and thoroughly delightful manager of a weight loss center called FatFighters, interrogates Rosie O'Donnell on whether she's fat because she's a lesbian -- or a lesbian because she's fat.

Not all the characters will be back; a wise decision, perhaps, since the show teeters on the edge of offense even in the United Kingdom, where comedy is traditionally less accommodating to political correctness. An overweight mail-order bride from Thailand named Ting Tong Macadangdang, and a senior citizen, Mrs. Emery, forever chatting away in the supermarket while a stream of urine pools and puddles at her feet, have been accused of peddling insensitive stereotypes. And it's a fair bet that Walliams will not be doing blackface for this series, as he once did for a sketch in which he played a rival to Lucas's obese socialite Bubbles Devere.

'People do say, 'Are you wary that it's too extreme for America?' ' Walliams acknowledges. 'But in America you can watch reruns of The Wonder Years and then turn over and watch South Park, and they're probably on at the same time of day. One of the great things about TV here is that there's something for everyone.' Although he realizes they're playing by different rules here, he hopes the audience will be sophisticated enough to understand that comedy is real life exaggerated. 'It's done with a sense of fun, and because it's so over-the-top I hope people will appreciate that we're celebrating difference rather than critiquing it. All of [our characters] have their failings because they're comic creations, but you're meant to like them. It's done with warmth.'

Tags: Television
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