August 19, 2005
A strange, daffy, two-man British invasion is coming
Is there anything funnier than an Englishman in a dress? Not according to Matt Lucas and David Walliams, the comic masterminds behind the irreverent sketch-comedy series Little Britain.
Decked out as some of England’s strangest denizens—including a foul-mouthed female juvenile delinquent, an unpleasantly plump weight-loss instructor and the world’s worst cross-dresser—the two-man British Invasion is poised to add North America to its growing list of conquests.
“Britain, Britain, Britain,” intones Little Britain’s narrator (Tom Baker, a former Doctor Who), “land of technological achievement. We’ve had running water for over ten years, an underground tunnel that links us to Peru and we invented the cat.”
From inner-city London to the lush valleys of Wales, the show holds a funhouse mirror up to the British Isles and reveals some of the nation’s infamous eccentrics. Like Vicky Pollard, the motor-mouth brat who only stubs out her cigarette long enough to deny responsibility for her latest shenanigans. Or Andy, an able-bodied Midlander who’s convinced his mate Lou he’s a paraplegic. Of course, the less said about Anne, a quite batty patient at the Steven Spielberg Mental Hospital, the better.
Since debuting in 2003, Little Britain has become an international sensation, airing in 40 countries (including BBC America in the U.S.) and winning three BAFTAS, the British equivalent of the Emmys. Walliams credits Little Britain’s success to the English love of the peculiar.
“I think we like things that look at all of the stupid characters in England because we are such an eccentric lot,” he says. “You can’t get on a bus or a train or travel anywhere without meeting someone who’s absolutely out of it.”
You certainly don’t have to look far to find the show’s queer sensibility. One of Little Britain’s most popular characters is Dafydd Thomas, who is in that just-out-of-the-closet phase where everything is gay, gay, gay. He fancies himself “the only gay in the village”--a catchphrase that has swept England by storm. But there is constant evidence to the contrary in his sleepy Welsh town of Llandewi Breffi.
“We used to know a guy who was very proudly bisexual, but didn’t like it if anyone else was,” says Lucas, who is openly gay. “So, it was slightly based on someone we knew, though it was just the kernel of an idea, really.”
Distancing himself from Dafydd’s persona, Lucas says he can still relate to the character’s struggle. “When you’re young and in the closet, you’re used to feeling different. You spend a lot of time on your own and maybe you even mythologize yourself. But then you have to come out in the real world.”
Lucas recalls his own coming out experience to a close friend at school with mixed emotions. “I said, ‘I think I might be gay or bisexual, I’m not sure.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s cool—my girlfriend’s bisexual.’ I was quite annoyed. I thought, ‘That bitch, she did it before me!’ I was furious.”
Lucas readily admits, though, that it was Walliams who first suggested Dafydd. “Because I’m gay, the British press assumed it’s very autobiographical, but I’m very happy to credit David with the very brilliant idea he had.”
Both born in London, Walliams and Lucas met in the early ’90s at the prestigious National Youth Theater.
“We’ve known each other for fifteen years and been writing together for eleven, so we really do know each other very well,” says Lucas. “We have a sort of shorthand—it’s probably impenetrable to onlookers.”
After touring the comedy festival circuit and working on other projects, including the hilarious Behind the Music send-up Rock Profiles, Walliams and Lucas created Little Britain in 2001 for the BBC’s Radio 4.
“The radio show was where we developed the characters, the format, and the comic sensibilities,” says Lucas, “and where we built an audience.”
But it was television that jettisoned the pair to stardom. Currently, Lucas and Walliams are filming the show’s third season and launching a 110-date live tour of the U.K., which already sold out.
On the creative front, the show’s sketches are written collaboratively—allowing Lucas and Walliams to bounce ideas off each other and suggest new characters for upcoming episodes.
“We’ve found that’s the best way to do it,” says Lucas. “Plus, you get some laughs, which is always great.”
Though they portray almost every character on the series, there are the occasional guest stars, including Buffy the Vampire’s Anthony Stewart Head, who plays a fictitious prime minister.
“We both watched Buffy, and when we were casting the Prime Minister role, we always used to say we wanted a ‘Tony Head type,’” says Lucas. “It only occurred to us very late in the casting process to ask Tony himself.”
In the recurring sketch, Walliams plays Sebastian, the minister’s sycophantic aide who harbors a none-too-subtle crush on his superior.
“It’s very unconscious, like a school-boy thing,” says Lucas. “I don’t know if I’d call him gay—it’s really the power he’s attracted to.”
Describing his scenes as Sebastian as among his favorite, Walliams admits they wouldn’t have developed the Prime Minister sketches “if we didn’t think Tony Blair was a bit dishy.”
Walliams is optimistic about the show’s reception in the States. “I’m hoping that the show will do well in America because it’s a kind of satirical look at British eccentricity,” he said. “I think people outside of England often think that we’re a bit mad, and I think that the show confirms it.”
Despite its geographical origins, he sees Little Britain as having a universal appeal. “When we watch Seinfeld, we think, ‘Is Kramer a funny American character or [just] a funny character?’ ” he says. “He’s just a funny character.”
The new two-disc DVD is the perfect introduction for Americans who are new to the show. In addition to all eight episodes of the first series, it features commentary from Lucas and Walliams, as well as producer Myfanwy Moore and director Steve Benedelack. Also included are a behind-the-scenes documentary, deleted scenes, live performances and several sketches from Rock Profiles.
Buzz about Little Britain has already started in earnest. According to U.K. tabloids, Johnny Depp has asked to appear in the show’s next season and Matt Groening wants Lucas and Walliams to write an upcoming episode of The Simpsons. With Bart Simpson on their side, can world domination be far behind?