From ‘masterpiece’ to national shame: how the British fell in and out of love with Little Britain

Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain
Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain - Stephen Gill

Little Britain director Matt Lipsey remembers the moment that he knew Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s sketch show was catching on. He was on location shooting Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s oddball sitcom Catterick, which also starred Matt Lucas. “We’re out on the street and a white van pulls up,” says Lipsey. “The window rolls down and the bloke leans out and goes, ‘Oi, Lucas! Nice one!’ I didn’t realise how much it was taking off, but I thought, ‘OK, if the white van man likes Little Britain, Matt and David have nailed it.’”

Little Britain’s catchphrases immediately entered the cultural lexicon – Daffyd Thomas claiming, “I’m the only gay in the village”, Emily Howard cooing, “I’m a lady”, and Vicky Pollard protesting, “Yeah but no but”. Britain’s broadsheets and sneeriest critics raved about it (at first, anyway) and its characters became tabloid shorthand for Great British stereotypes. The Sun ran cartoons of Lucas as Pollard, the gobby, rough-as-they-come Bristol teenager. (As a native Bristolian, I can attest that Pollard was embraced as a ubiquitous folk hero. A pub around the corner from where I lived, The Victoria, changed its sign to a portrait of the character.) David Walliams, writing in his autobiography, recalled meeting Robbie Williams at a wedding in Los Angeles after the Little Britain pilot was broadcast. Robbie was already quoting the characters.

Twenty years after the first series aired, Little Britain is often called problematic – a show that critics say “hasn’t aged well”. Crossing the line of taste and sensitivities, it underlines how attitudes about what’s acceptable in comedy have changed. Some sketches have come in for much criticism – particularly those in which Lucas and Walliams wear blackface and yellowface – and excised from iPlayer.

Yet, Little Britain was a cultural phenomenon for a reason. Amid its finely-tuned gibberish and parade of grotesques are recognisable truths – amplified British eccentricities, from either end of the class spectrum. And, between the broadest strokes and best-known catchphrases, Little Britain was – most crucially – very funny.

Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard
Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard - BBC

The series had been several years in the making. Lucas and Walliams would become – for a time – the country’s two biggest comedy stars. Before that, they were frustrated by attempts at getting a BBC show off the ground. Lucas was then best known from his role on the Vic and Bob game show, Shooting Stars, playing scorekeeping man-baby, George Dawes. As a double act, Lucas and Walliams made Mash and Peas – directed by Edgar Wright – for Paramount Comedy, and the popstar spoofing Rock Profile for UK Play. BBC Two’s Sir Bernard’s Stately Homes – a series of 10-minute episodes – was a dud, along with a couple of going-nowhere Radio 4 pilots.

Lucas and Walliams tried to come up with a unifying theme for a new sketch show – not unlike their pals from The League of Gentlemen, whose sketches were all set in the same hellish town of Royston Vasey. Walliams suggested a documentary on modern Britons. As the show’s eventual narrator Tom Baker said in a brilliantly-bonkers introduction: “Have you ever wondered about the people of Britain… What is them? Who do they? And why?”

Though initially rejected by BBC Two, Little Britain became a well-received Radio 4 show, running for two series between 2000 and 2002. A TV pilot aired in February 2003, on the launch night of the Beeb’s brand-new digital channel, BBC Three. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted – and now a controversial figure within the trans debate – helped develop and directed the pilot. Months later, the Evening Standard said – based on the pilot episode alone – that Little Britain was “now generally regarded as one of the best British comedy TV shows of recent years”.

Still, some within the BBC were not convinced. Lucas and Walliams attended a meeting with BBC Two controller Jane Root about getting a full series commissioned. Root was disparaging about their sketches – “The Scottish hotel one is awful!” – and she left the office in a rush, mumbling a sort-of yes. So mumbled, in fact, that Lucas and Walliams didn’t know whether they’d been commissioned or not. They had support, however, from BBC head of comedy, John Plowman, and their producer, Myfanwy Moore (who would lend her name to the series’ barmaid, played by Ruth Jones, in their “only gay in the village” sketches).

Little Britain debuted on BBC Three on February 9, 2003. It was repeated on BBC Two a few months later with reasonable fanfare. The BBC Two debut drew an impressive 3.2 million viewers. The reviews were positive. The Observer called it “a beautifully observed sketch show whose characters perfectly capture the absurdities of suburbia”. The Daily Telegraph hailed it as “the show we’ll all soon be watching”. The Independent correctly predicted that the following morning “playgrounds and pubs up and down the country will be echoing to the sound of catchphrases”. Even Victor Lewis-Smith, who had previously eviscerated the duo’s work, called it “a comic masterpiece that’s innovative, funny, and very, very British”.

David Walliams and Matt Lucas perform in Little Britain's Big Night in aid of Comic Relief, 2006
David Walliams and Matt Lucas perform in Little Britain's Big Night in aid of Comic Relief, 2006 - Dave Hogan

The first series was directed by Steve Bendelack. Matt Lipsey took over for series two, which began on BBC Three from October 2004. Lipsey – who also directed The Armstrong and Miller Show – was hesitant. “Sketch comedy is really hard,” he says. “It’s one of the hardest genres there is.”

The second series was quickly repeated on BBC One. A third series – which went straight to the flagship channel – followed in 2005. By the end of its run, Little Britain had peaked with more than 10 million viewers. A live tour sold out a year in advance and played to almost 800,000 people. It was a hit in Australia and had an American spinoff, Little Britain USA, in 2007. The show also became a major merchandise spinner. The shop where I worked in Bristol was well-stocked with Vicky Pollard dolls. I remember it well – I bought one for my sister.

“If you want my opinion, the show took off because it was a backlash against the first wave of political correctness,” says Lipsey. “Now we have wokeness, which is different but coming from a similar place. Then it was all ‘political correctness gone mad’. And it was going mad. Little Britain stuck two fingers up at it and said, ‘This is b––––––s, we need to be able to laugh at this stuff.’”

Little Britain remains best known for its broadest characters. As well as Vicky, there’s Daffyd Thomas, who bemoans being the only gay in the Welsh village of Llanddewi Brefi – only to be disgusted when he discovers almost everyone else there is also gay, bi, or extremely open-minded (the character was based on a young actor they knew who insisted he was the only gay man in their theatre group – though he wasn’t – and relished being special).

And there’s Marjorie Dawes, the militantly fat-phobic leader of a Fat Fighters group, and Sebastian, a Downing Street aid who’s filthily in love with the Blair-like PM, played by Anthony Head (any resemblance to Peter Mandelson “may or may not have been coincidental”, according to Lucas). Also, Emily Howard the “not very good transvestite” (Tom Baker’s words) who insists “I’m a lady” to anyone who’ll listen – even denying to a doctor that she has testicles.

The Emily character is absolutely absurd – not a gag about transvestism (a term which has fallen out of favour itself) but the notion of a strapping six-footer trying to uphold Victorian standards of what is ladylike. Yet Emily has been criticised as transphobic in more recent years. “I think there are a lot of characters and themes we’d approach differently if we were doing the show now,” wrote Lucas in his autobiography, Little Me, “and I’m sure Emily would be one of them.”

Little Britain has been so often repeated and quoted, it’s easy to forget how sharp some of the ideas are: the hypnotist Kenny Craig who uses his powers for rubbish gains, like beating his mum at Scrabble or selling an incomplete set of Blackadder videos at the car boot sale; difficult customer Mr Mann, whose requests to his local shopkeeper become increasingly, ludicrously specific (“I would like to purchase a record of James Last playing the hits of Nelly Furtado”); and Lou and Andy, the mild-mannered carer and wheelchair-bound lump. Unbeknownst to Lou, Andy is more than able to walk.

The same goes for Lucas’s verbal dexterity as Vicky Pollard – a staggeringly precise scattergun of “I didn’t do nuthin’” excuses in near-impenetrable Bristolian, loaded with obscenities and behind-the-bikeshed scandal.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones, in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, slated the character as a damaging representation – an always-pregnant, thick-headed, benefits-scrounging slapper. But trust me: those of us from working class backgrounds in mid-2000s Bristol were deeply unoffended.

If the first series has flashes of darkness within the ridiculousness – Sir Bernard Chumley locking away his invalid sister so he can scoff her Meals on Wheels, and council estate teenager Jason, who lusts after his mate’s nan ­– from the second series it becomes more grotesque: Lucas in a nude fat-suit as Bubbles, the spa centre fare-dodger; Walliams as posh man-boy, Harvey, who still suckles on his mother’s “bitty”; and enough projectile vomiting to make you feel actually sick.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams as Andy and Lou
Matt Lucas and David Walliams as Andy and Lou - Mike Marsland

Was there a deliberate attempt to make Little Britain bad taste? “One hundred percent,” says Lipsey. “It wasn’t necessarily seen as bad taste. It was seen as pushing the boundaries. They were on a high, basically recognising that audiences were responding. That was a signal to say, ‘How far can we go?’”

Lipsey recalls that with the second series set for BBC One, an entire strand of sketches was dropped. “That was a big step,” he says about BBC One, “but in making that step it was deemed that some of the stuff the boys had been doing had gone too far – for BBC One anyway. That particular strand never saw the light of day. Presumably it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere.” Lipsey explains that it was set in a roadside café, with a mother trying various ways to marry off her daughter. “All I can tell you is her methodology was very base,” Lipsey says, laughing. “Each one ended with squalid events going on in the back of the café.”

Watched now, Lou and Andy stand out as Little Britain’s finest creation. The characters evolved from their take on Lou Reed and Andy Warhol in a Rock Profile skit. In the most famous sketch, Lou takes Andy swimming. While Lou talks to a lifeguard about the kerfuffle of getting him in the pool, Andy races up to the top diving board. For Lipsey, the sketch – directed by his predecessor Steve Bendelack – “set the benchmark”. It presented a challenge. “It was, ‘Can I get close to that?’” says Lipsey. “That challenge was there in my head. I delighted in it.”

In further instalments, Andy clambers up a fireman’s ladder, rides off on a horse, and flips a car over Incredible Hulk-style – all while Lou’s back is turned. It’s really a perfect sketch. “When you know the mechanics, you’re in on it,” says Lipsey. “You know what’s coming – but you don’t know how it’s going to come.”

Twenty years on, Little Britain feels like a simpler approach to comedy. At the time, Walliams commented on how they were reacting against the real-world comedy of The Office and Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. “We really thought, ‘We’ll go the other way. Let’s make it absurd. Let’s evoke the spirit of the Two Ronnies,’” said Walliams. On the surface, nothing – no person, subject, or stereotype – is off the table for ridicule: the ugly, the overweight, the mentally impaired, the gender fluid, the sexually unusual.

But dig beneath the wigs and prosthetics, and it also targets prejudices and conservatism. See the fat-phobic Marjorie Dawes, who bullies her class of dieters; or the church fete jam-taster, who is violently sick at the mention of any minority. Posh-minded classicism is ridiculed – “Posh people are much better and cleverer than common people,” says Tom Baker, “and so they live in nicer houses” – as well as painfully-PC lefties.

“It’s challenging you,” says Lipsey. “Who are we laughing at? I totally get that some people are uncomfortable with it. But with good comedy, some people will be uncomfortable. We have to accept that. And yeah, it’s very problematic, revisiting it through a modern lens. Many kids watching would be offended. I get that. But I’m not going to apologise for it. And I don’t think Matt and David should be.”

David Walliams and Matt Lucas as Mr Mann and Roy
David Walliams and Matt Lucas as Mr Mann and Roy

Certainly, Lucas and Walliams got it wrong with the third series characters Desiree (Walliams in a fat-suit and blackface) and Ting Tong (Lucas playing a Thai bride). At best, it’s staggering post-PC naivety – a couple of white comedians believing they’re so far liberal that they think they can black up without causing offence. The characters are inexcusable.

Critics did turn on Little Britain towards the end, as the series revelled in some lowest common denominator japery. “Is it funny?” asked The Daily Telegraph. “Computer says no.” The Guardian later called it “one of the most sneering, cold-hearted, nasty little shows ever seen on British TV”. The immense popularity undoubtedly soured comedy snobs on Lucas and Walliams, while other, less mainstream comedians have largely escaped a history of wearing blackface unscathed.

Yes, Little Britain could be broad – that’s why it pulled 9.5 million viewers – and its most famous characters were sometimes the least interesting. But it both reflected and spoke to Britain, chiming with the cultural moment in a way that few comedies do.

“If you want to cancel everything in history, we’d be left with very little in our back catalogues,” says Lipsey. “You can’t judge everything by today’s standards. It should never ever work that way. Everything and everyone should potentially be a target for comedy.”