Little Britain

Thursday, November 17, 2005 by

You always become the thing you hate. We’ve all had this conversation at some point: You’re talking about a famous band, and some tiresome individual hogs the discussion by insisting that, “They were much better before they became mainstream”. It’s a guaranteed conversation killer, as it inevitably leads to a lecture about obscure tracks or demos that nobody has ever heard of. It’s a nightmare when you have to listen to it, and I always resolved that I’d never let it happen to me. But it has.

I first saw Lucas and Walliams late one night on the Paramount Comedy Channel. They were appearing on Paramount Presents under the moniker “Mash and Peas”. I recognised Danny Mash as being Matt Lucas from Shooting Stars, but Gareth Peas was a new face to me. Their sections involved a series of fantastic spoofs of late night ITV shows, like Littlejohn, Gaz Top Non Stop, and Bushell on the Box. Other episodes included nightmarish Americanised versions of familiar UK shows, and Walliams’ spectacular performance in a spoof of the pre-downfall Michael Barrymore. This sketch alone was enough to convince me that he was the finest comic talent I’d seen in years.

My love of Lucas and Walliams (or more precisely, of David Walliams) continued with Sir Bernard’s Stately Homes, in which Lucas’ Sir Bernard Chumley attempted to host a series of historical documentaries despite being far more interested in a competition that offered a year’s supply of free crisps. Next came Rock Profile, which had the odd duff episode, but generally worked well, particularly the episodes that allowed Walliams free reign to steal the show. I still smile at the moment when Lucas’ George Michael is talking solemnly about his solo work, only for Walliams to burst onto the set as an over-enthusiastic Andrew Ridgeley, who can’t accept that Wham ever split up.

Little Britain didn’t really work on radio for me. Without the sight of Walliams either staring blankly into space, or flailing his limbs through the air, much of the comedy was lost. Nevertheless, the prospect of a TV version was something to relish. Indeed, the pilot episode, shown in the early days of BBC3, suggested there was a lot of potential for the show to turn into something quite extraordinary. What I did not expect, however, was for it to become anywhere near as popular as it eventually did.

Now, Little Britain has become a lumbering behemoth. There would have been a national outcry if the first episode of series three had been without the likes of Daffyd, Vicky Pollard or Lou and Andy, despite the fact these one-joke characters have clearly run out of steam. How many times can Andy get out of his wheelchair and run around behind Lou’s back before people start to tire? Or to put it another way, how many times can Lucas and Walliams retell the same gag and get away with it? Dare I be the first to suggest that Little Britain could do with resting these characters for a while? Dare I even suggest that Tom Baker’s narration has gone from a masterpiece of comic subtlety to a garishly unfunny mess?

Watching this first episode of series three was a strangely joyless experience. All the ingredients were there, but without any hint of subtlety. The attempt to develop another one-joke character, Bubbles De Vere, was dismal, with a sense of severe desperation as she began to pronounce words phonetically (the “i” in marriage, for example). The “computer says no” sketches have been transferred from a bank to a travel agent, but made no tangible difference to the skit.

Even my favourite characters, Sebastian and Anthony Head’s Prime Minister, had lost any sense of subtlety. The sight of Head having to bend over in a studded leather thong perfectly symbolised where Little Britain is headed. Sebastian used to be a tragic figure, full of unrequited love for his boss. Now he has become an unlikeable, manipulative monster. Where can the character go from here?

Things weren’t all bad, however. Anne’s impersonation of Celine Dion on Stars in their Eyes was superb, especially given that sketch retained its predecessors’ sense of there being a definite limit to how long the character can stay sane. This was more the Walliams I remembered from all those years ago, playing it totally straight up to a point, and then going instantly to the opposite extreme.

The new characters were a mixed bag. A stuffy looking politician giving convoluted excuses for his scandalous behaviour has been done countless times before, but Walliams’ straight faced delivery made the sketch shine. Mrs Emery, Walliams’ highly incontinent pensioner, was funny, but seems likely to join the long list of Little Britain characters whose one joke will be milked beyond exhaustion, so to speak. Dudley and Ting Tong, the lonely single man and his mail order Thai bride, shows little cause for optimism, given that Lucas lacks Walliams’ ability to successfully carry off such over-the-top characters.

When Little Britain began, the most obvious way to describe it was as a “cartoon” version of The League of Gentlemen. The difference between the two, however, is that the League seized the opportunity to let the concept develop. By series three, the sketch format of old had evolved into a more story-led structure and the characters were interacting with each other. They were willing to risk alienating their existing fans by presenting familiar characters in entirely new contexts. Lucas and Walliams, by contrast, seem content to sit in a comfort zone, churning out near-identical jokes over and over and over again. Whereas the League’s characters became deeper and more complex over time, Little Britain turned into The Fast Show. Characters would come on, do the same old routine, say their catchphrases and go.

On the plus side, it looks like the duo were being truthful when they said the new series relies less on shock value to win a reaction, with no sign of the dismal “bitty” sketches, nor of some of the less iconic characters who have run their course, like Kenny Craig or Dennis Waterman. It would be nice to see some of the series one creations brought back (particularly the former Olympian Denver Mills, who had real potential to become a great three-dimensional character). Walliams has always been perfectly capable of turning on the magic when you least expect it, so Little Britain will always be worth watching in the hope he’ll shine again. After all, I still maintain that an on-form David Walliams is one of the most spectacular comic sights you’ll ever see, and most episodes of the programme offer at least one chance to see how great he is when let off the leash.

Alas, I have become that pub bore. While everyone else is roaring with laughter every time someone says, “Yeah but no, but yeah”, I’ll be the one staring into my packet of crisps and mumbling an impression of Sir Bernard Chumley. Oh what the hell, just for the dozen or so people who saw it: “Ooh, I do love crisps, you know!” You just try and tell me that wouldn’t make a great catchphrase.


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