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British comedy duo has the world in stitches
‘Little Britain’ creators discuss their campy hit

by Dan Avery

David Walliams (left) and Matt Lucas: ‘You can’t travel anywhere in England without meeting someone who’s absolutely out of it.’

David Walliams as unconvincing crossdresser Emily Howard.

Daffyd Thomas (Matt Lucas) is 'the only gay in the village' — and he likes it that way.

 

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 Vicky Pollard, a foul-mouthed, female juvenile delinquent, Marjorie Dawes, an unpleasantly plump weight-loss instructor and Emily Howard, the world’s worst crossdresser — the two-man British Invasion is poised to add North America to its growing list of conquests.

“Britain, Britain, Britain, land of technological achievement,” intones “Little Britain” narrator Tom Baker, a former “Doctor Who.” “We’ve had running water for over 10 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 Dame Sally, the posh bon bon-scarfing romance novelist who will go to any length to complete her books, even transcribing radio and TV broadcasts to fill space. Or Andy, an able-bodied Midlander who’s convinced his pal Lou that he’s a paraplegic. And, of course, there’s Anne, a quite batty patient at the Steven Spielberg Mental Hospital. The less said about her the better.

Since debuting in 2003, “Little Britain” has won three BAFTAS (the British equivalent of the Emmys) and become an international sensation — airing in 40 countries including the U.S. (The series’ first season is available here on DVD and BBC America has recently begun airing season two.)

Walliams credits the show’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 its most popular characters is Daffyd Thomas, a “committed homosexualist” who, despite constant evidence to the contrary, fancies himself “the only gay in the village” (a catchphrase that has taken England by storm) of the sleepy Welsh town 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 Daffyd’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 Daffyd. “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 were both in a production of ‘The Tempest,’” Lucas recalls wryly. “I was stuck behind the scenes and David was either Trinculo or Stefano,” the play’s drunken comic foils.

Though their dramatic debut was less than memorable, the two shared an offbeat sense of humor and comedic style — and an abiding love of Laurel and Hardy. A friendship was born that blossomed into a professional partnership.

“We’ve known each other for 15 years and been writing together for 11, 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. “Little Britain” debuted on cable station BBC3 in 2003 before moving to BBC1, England’s most popular TV station. Currently, Lucas and Walliams are filming the show’s third season and preparing to launch a 110-date live tour of the U.K., which is already completely 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 Anthony Stewart Head, of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame, 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’s just a funny character.”

Walliams feels the same way about Vicky Pollard. “I’m hoping people can watch [her] and go, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a girl who hangs out at the 7-11 and is just like that, but she happens to speak different.’”

For Americans who are new to the show, the “Little Britain” two-disc DVD is the perfect introduction. In addition to all eight episodes of the first season, the set features commentary from Lucas and Walliams, 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.”

Recording the commentaries was an unnerving experience for the dynamic duo. “Neither David nor I are the sort to watch our own show over and over,” says Lucas. “I think your instinct is to look away, but I guess it’s easier to watch myself on screen when I’m covered in make-up and costumes.”

U.S. buzz about “Little Britain” has already started in earnest. “I’m the only gay in this village!” T-shirts have been cropping up in stylish gayborhoods around the nation and rumors abound about an American version of the series. (“It would have to be done right,” insists Lucas.)

Celebrities are getting into the act as well. According to U.K. tabloids, Johnny Depp wants to appear on “Little Britain” and — in what may be the show’s crowning achievement — Matt Groening wants Lucas and Walliams to write an episode of “The Simpsons.” With Bart Simpson on their side, can world domination be far behind?

info:
‘Little Britain’ airs on BBC America each Wednesday at 9 p.m. with replays throughout the week. Check www.bbcamerica.com for showtimes.


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