The hugely popular sketch show is 15 years old today. Computer says... Happy Birthday!
Remember Little Britain? I do. "Computer says no!" It was very clever. "Yeah but… no but!" The nation's living rooms lit up! "I want that one!" We were all saying it. "Eh, eh, eh!" More. "Oooooh, I love a bit of cake. Oooooh, cake. Oooooh, cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. I'm just one of these people. I come home and I need a piece of cake." Yes. Little Britain first aired on British screens 15 years ago today and, it turns out, it is not very woke.
In the tradition of all Great British sketch-shows, Little Britain – the creation of comedians Matt Lucas and David Walliams (OBE) – started life on the radio. The first series was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2000, eventually transferring to television with the introduction of BBC Three in 2003 (also 15 years ago today). The channel, launched by Johnny Vaughan, promised irreverence and innovation, every episode of Monkey Dust or This is Dom Joly bookended by a choir of singing pink slugs. Little Britain quickly outshone its contemporaries, and its popularity saw repeats of the first series shown on BBC2. By the time the second series had come along the repeats were being sanitised for the kids and shown on BBC1.
The programme itself was a boilerplate sketch show: a routine set of catchphrases placed in minutely varied scenarios, interspersed with the occasional one-off character. Certain fixtures quickly rose to the top. Vicky Pollard, the archetypal "chav", was an early frontrunner, as was the wheelchair bound (but not really, tee hee!) Andy Pipkin and his carer, Lou. There was Emily Howard, who was – let’s not go as far as saying a "trans character" – basically David Walliams in Victorian-era dress pissing in the boys' toilets, and Marjorie Dawes, head of a small weight-watchers group, a self-confessed cake-lover who struggled to understand Indian people when they spoke. It wasn’t all damaging stereotypes. Less totally awful characters included Ray McCooney, the Scottish hotelier; Des Kaye ("wicky woo!"), a failed kids TV presenter working in a hardware store; and Mr Mann, a bloke who wanted to buy a pirate-based memory game.
As the series went on, however, most of the non-recurring/non-jaw-droppingly-offensive characters fell away, as the object of the show was gradually reduced to mercilessly bludgeoning “I’M...A...LA...DY” into the front of its viewers skulls until they collapsed with fatigue. Over time, the use of blackface and racism became more emboldened; the more popular the show became the more it relied on "shock factor". There was a lot of blackface, by the way; an aggressive amount of it. As in this sketch, in which Rob Brydon plays Bubbles’ ex-husband, and David Walliams his new wife.
A sketch which dates all the way back to 2005. In other words: really not that long ago. You probably looked pretty similar in 2005. David Cameron became the leader of the Tories that year. Fox-hunting was banned. Franz Ferdinand won big at the Brits. Not yesterday, sure, but hardly ancient history. Considering where the cultural conversation is today, it’s striking to think that Come Fly With Me – the airport-reality spoof in which Matt Lucas played an overweight Jamaican woman called Precious – was still on television in 2011.
What’s staggering re-watching Little Britain now is that it only punched down. And it punched down relentlessly, over and over again, in much more brutal fashion than the worst of the 1970s' now blacklisted comedies ever did. Sketches swung from mentally-ill patients gifting faeces to children, to old white women projectile-vomiting at the thought of eating food made by foreigners. By the third series, Matt Lucas was playing a Thai bride called Ting Tong. And it worked. Little Britain was popular. At its height, Lucas and Walliams took the show on a sellout UK tour and were invited on stage during Live 8. Comic Relief celebrity specials followed, with appearances from George Michael and Elton John. There was even a video-game, giving players the opportunity to throw a disabled man off a diving board, or roller skate a single-mother through her estate in a bikini.
The defence for Little Britain would probably argue that the show presented a grotesque version of everyone – that it pushed parochial, small-minded British society through a hall of mirrors, that nobody came off well. Which is, sadly, bollocks. Little Britain was not skewering prejudice any more than it was skewering weight-watchers. The writing process for every sketch seems to have been spinning a wheel of misfortune, landing on a vulnerable subject from the most disadvantaged rung of British society and turning them into a cartoon character. It was a point and laugh job, nothing more.
There’s evidence enough of that in the opening to this 2004 interview with Lucas and Walliams in the Telegraph, written by James Delingpole no-less, which captures their artistry deep in flow:
“We’re cruising down Marylebone Road in David Walliams's classic 1960s Mercedes, when the brightest new star in British comedy is distracted by something at the roadside. His lips curl into a smile and he announces, delightedly: 'That is good. That is glorious!'
"Walliams’s comedy partner Matt Lucas and I follow his gaze until we spot a man rummaging in a bottle bank.
"The strangest apparition, he has long, shaggy white hair, a pale blue jacket, a big cigar in his mouth and a shambling air of eccentricity – like a comedy caricature of Jimmy Savile.
“'Did he have his arm in a sling? I think he did. That would make it even better,' says Walliams, happily. 'He’s going in the next series,' agrees Lucas.”
It was, at its heart, ugly playground comedy. Precision engineered for children to squawk at each other in the big, bad playground of the noughties. Fodder for talking greeting cards, Christmas annuals and polyphonic text tones.
Which is fine, because we are enlightened now, right? Retrospectively, we can recognise everything that was wrong with it. Matt Lucas has – sort of – done the same, saying if he had his time again he "wouldn’t play the black characters". Well, yes, that's all well and good, but I’m not totally sure what we gain from the practice of pointing at the past, grimacing and then sealing it off like a hazardous waste facility.
My whole family, everyone at my school, nearly everyone in the country, was bang into Little Britain. Of course you were, for the most part barely anyone stopped to question whether or not it was problematic. I, for one, was too busy hooting "carrot cake, carrot cake, have ye any nuts?" between mouthfuls of chicken kiev and oven chips to consider its presentation of minorities. We’re lying to ourselves if we pretend the popularity of comedy like this belongs to a distant time, a previous generation, an archaic mindset. The British psyche is a knotted, ugly thing – full of prejudice and self-loathing – and the popularity of Little Britain, as recently as it was, is reminder of how much more untangling there is still to go, and how close to the surface those demons are buried.
So today, on its birthday, spare a brief thought for Little Britain, the last gasp of racist, sexist, homophobic variety-entertainment before the gaping chasm of the 20th century closed for good. A truly wild chapter in our televisual history. Wicky Woo. Yeah but, no but. Computer says no. Eh, eh, eh. Three, two, one… you’re back in the room.