-By Ken Plume
Every once in awhile, a British program manages to make its way out of the sceptred isle and wind its way to the former colonies, where it is greeted with wonder and amazement and just how fresh and unique it seems compared to the majority of American tele-pap.
One of those recent exports was the sketch show Little Britain, written by and starring the comedy duo David Walliams and Matt Lucas.
Wonderfully surreal and filled with larger-than-life characters (which is also a literal description of Matt Lucas’s immense socialite, Bubbles Devere), Little Britain is like a cross between The Kids in the Hall and Benny Hill.
Both the first and second seasons are currently available on features-laden DVDs, and the third season is currently airing in the US on BBC America.
Quick Stop had the chance to chat with David Walliams and (just a teensy bit to) Matt Lucas…
QUICKSTOP: I guess you’ve had a long day of interviews…
DAVID WALLIAMS: We’ve had a few this afternoon, but it’s been fun and we did some photographs with Martin Parr. Do you know him? He’s a quite famous British photographer. He’s great. So that’s from American GQ so we were quite happy about that. We’ve had a few this afternoon, but it’s been fun and we did some photographs with Martin Parr. Do you know him? He’s a quite famous British photographer. He’s great. So that’s from American so we were quite happy about that.
QUICKSTOP: So the freight train has not slowed down at all…
WALLIAMS: No, it hasn’t. We’ve just come off a tour - we’ve just done a 140 day tour of Britain. We’ve stopped that, but we’ve got loads of things to do. We’re making a Christmas special of Little Britain for the BBC at the moment, so it doesn’t stop for us.
QUICKSTOP: When we last talked, you were in rehearsals for the live show.
WALLIAMS: Yeah, so that must have been October then.
QUICKSTOP: Now that the live show is over, were you surprised by the reaction that it got? Because it was quite popular…
WALLIAMS: Yeah, it was great. And it kind of grew as we went along. We ended up playing, like, arenas for 10 or 12 thousand people. So yeah, it’s been extraordinary.
QUICKSTOP: And that was the first time you had done a major live show like that, right?
WALLIAMS: Yeah. It’s on quite a big scale. It was stunning. It’s kind of weird when you’re in it, you know, for me, because you’re just dealing with each new gig. But the first time we stepped out in front of 12,000 people in Manchester was amazing. An amazing feeling. Our first gig was like four people in an art center in north London, which was about 10 years ago. So it was really only at the curtain call that it really hit me. ‘Cause that’s when suddenly all the lights went on and I could feel the audience, “Oh my god, we have actually come quite a long way and this is pretty amazing.”
QUICKSTOP: Did you envision that it would get this far?
WALLIAMS: No, not for a minute. But then, you don’t… I never really think of it in those terms. I always just think, “Oh it’ll be good to do a funny show and make people laugh” rather than thinking, “I’d like to do a show that will get this amount of viewers or do a tour and play to this amount of people.” I’ve never been too worried by those kind of things. I just liked doing what I thought was funny, and that I was proud of. And beyond that, it’s hard to think in those terms. It’s a mistake thinking in those terms, as well.
QUICKSTOP: When the lights come up and you see the audience and the power that the show has, and the characters have, does that in any way affect you, creatively? When you went back after the success of series one to do series two, did that success ever have a creative influence on you, knowing the popularity?
WALLIAMS: Not really. I mean, only that you know when you put the show in front of a live audience you go, “Oh, this character’s more popular than we thought, and maybe this one isn’t as popular as we thought.” And so it may be, you know, just shock… maybe you think, “Oh, okay, maybe people would want to see more of this or that,” but not really, no. It doesn’t. We can only sort of do what we find funny. Do you know what I mean? You can’t think, “Well, I’ll try and do what people find funny,” ‘cause it doesn’t’ really work that way.
QUICKSTOP: Is there any character that you are surprised didn’t get the reaction that you hoped it would?
WALLIAMS: I think it’s hard to say… and that’s always a negative thing to say, but yeah. Some characters, we thought, “Oh, no, you know, they will go down well,” but some we thought, “Oh, that went down better than expected.”
QUICKSTOP: Were you in any way surprised by the backlash that the third series got?
WALLIAMS: I was disappointed. Now people are looking for problems, you know, but it didn’t affect the show’s popularity. We got nine million viewers on BBC 1, which was kind of unheard of, and played to 800,000 people on our tour, and as far as the reviews, it’s just what kinda happens, really. I think the problem in Britain is that the show that people most hold in esteem is Fawlty Towers. And the problem is that people think it’s amazing because there are only 12 episodes. Now, I just think it’s amazing ‘cause it’s an amazing program. Just brilliantly funny. And I could have watched it for longer, but people kind of think… they’re almost annoyed with you for doing more than 12 episodes. You know, people were coming to us all the time and saying, “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.” People want to see more, but you can almost think you’ve done something wrong - like 12 is this kind of magic number with a comedy show, and if you do any more than that you’re sort of finished.
QUICKSTOP: Do you think what Ricky (Gervais) did with The Office unfortunately reinforced that idea?
WALLIAMS: Yeah, I think so… yeah. I think, again, that he suffered from the same kind of thing, in a way, which was there was so much hype, that you’re almost scared of… you’ve been so lauded, it’s become so popular, that you become a bit scared that it’s gonna turn. But we’ve always just made the show for kind of ourselves and for people who want to watch it. And so that was what was guiding it for me. Not the fear of, “Oh my god, we might get a bad review.” ‘Cause we’ve had bad reviews before. We’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival and had bad reviews. That’s what happens. And by the time the reviews are written the show’s done anyway and it’s out there, and in a way it can’t harm you that much, because they’re not gonna take it off air ‘cause it got a bad review.
QUICKSTOP: At what point do you look at it and go, “Now it’s time to walk away…”? Not from Little Britain per se, but particular characters?
WALLIAMS: When we’re not finding it funny anymore. When we’re kind of thinking, “Well actually, this isn’t kind of getting our creative juices flowing anymore.” That to me would be the time. And then it’s kind of when we’re ready to do that. But I’d hate to think we don’t perform any of these Little Britain characters again.
QUICKSTOP: Certainly in the transition from series one to series two were characters that were left behind…
WALLIAMS: Yeah, characters got left behind from series two to three, and then there were new characters in series three. But I do think there’s a core of about six or eight characters that people really like and really want to see. And they provide a backbone to the series. You do see Marjorie as she’s with her fat fighters group again, but I kind of think, “Well if something different is happening next week, it doesn’t really bother me.” You know what I mean? I kind of think, “Well it’s a good character and I want to see her again.”
QUICKSTOP: What character is most comfortable to you at this point?
WALLIAMS: Most comfortable to play?
QUICKSTOP: To play or write for.
WALLIAMS: I like playing Lou in the Lou and Andy scenes. I feel that I kind of know him quite well now. I enjoyed playing Carol Beer on stage because she doesn’t move. So I can just have a sit down for a couple of minutes, which is nice. They’re all enjoyable. I think in doing this show, the live shows 70 times, is that you find you like different ones on different nights. You particularly feel, “Oh yeah, I was really on it tonight. I really knew what I was doing with this character.” And then the character that doesn’t make a big impact on the TV show, who’s in the first series, called Des Kaye… a sort of failed children’s entertainer. And we do that in the live show. Get people out of the audience. And I love doing that one, even though that’s not one that people even, I don’t think, remember. But because it has a sort of spontaneity to it and it’s always different every night, and ended up normally with someone… one of the audience members with their trousers around their ankles and me on top of them on the floor. Um, it’s always… that’s always a joy to do. For those very reasons.
QUICKSTOP: Is there a character that surprises you the most in performance, in where the character will take you?
WALLIAMS: I suppose that character is a bit surprising because, in a way, it’s grown. I mean, the first night I didn’t take their trousers down. That kind of grew. And that’s become a bit crazier as he’s gone along, really.
QUICKSTOP: Do you think it’s the audience interaction that brings the energy to that?
WALLIAMS: Yeah, the real energy to that – because of that and because you never know what people are gonna say or do. And that really grows. But yeah, some nights you really feel you’re inhabiting it, which is very frightening. But it’s a weird one because even in this live show we’re playing a different character every three or four minutes. So just as you’re kind of getting into it, you’re into another one, you know? It’s not quite like you’re playing King Lear or something. You know what I mean? You really feel, “Tonight I was King Lear.” ‘Cause each night we’re each about a dozen characters each.
QUICKSTOP: When is the show coming to the U.S.?
WALLIAMS: Well, at the moment there aren’t any plans to bring it to the U.S. We’d really like to. We’re doing some touring in Australia next year, which is great, but we would like to do it in America – but we really need an American promoter to sort of fund it, really. So if you know anybody, can you mention it to them? We’ll play anywhere. Australian promoters came and saw the show in England and then said, I really want this show to come to America, but we didn’t have anybody from America come yet. It may still happen.
QUICKSTOP: I’ll make that happen.
WALLIAMS: Thank you very much.
QUICKSTOP: At this point, is there any comedic line that you won’t cross?
WALLIAMS: Well, the line I think… people often say you can’t make jokes about this, that or the other. But I don’t think there are any rules, because I think if it’s fun, it’s kind of okay. And just because it’s humor doesn’t mean you’re necessarily belittling an important subject like that. You can do jokes about the most extreme awful thing, and as long as it’s funny, I think it’s kind of okay. I think people think you’re making light of something when you’re making a joke out of it, but I don’t think you are, really. I think you’re getting to a truth of it with humor. And I don’t see why you could watch a poem about something or make a film about something but you couldn’t do a comedy sketch about it. I don’t see why you should make any distinction. I think we’re quite lucky that we’ve always done the show in front of an audience, the TV show – we record the sketches and then play them into an audience, then we record sketches on the night, which means that the audience will kind of tell us if we’ve gone too far. And if people are just in shock and not laughing, we wouldn’t include it, because we’d just think, “Well what’s the point of that.” We wanted to be explosively funny. But comedy is… you know, you look at something like Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, the man exploding and everyone getting covered in guts and vomit in a restaurant – it’s amazing. It’s disgusting, yeah, but it’s also brilliantly funny, and I kind of think as long as it’s both those… as long as it still is funny there’s no reason not to do it.
QUICKSTOP: Has there ever been anything put on the table in the writing process that you refused to do?
WALLIAMS: Not really, no. Sometimes we think of ideas and go, “Oh no… Actually, it’s funny to have it as an idea, but to actually see it would be a bit kind of horrible.” But no, we have our own sensibilities and then we have those of the audience. But I think it’s a weird one, because people often ask us, you know, “Well, do you think this has gone too far?” But, I mean, there’s a comedian in Britain called Chris Morris, if you’ve heard of him. Made The Day Today. Well, he made an episode of his show Brass Eye…
QUICKSTOP: This was the pedophile episode, right?
WALLIAMS: The pedophile episode. Now, obviously, to some people that was a big media storm around that with some people shocked and horrified that anyone could bring those kind of themes into what was a funny show. Other people applauded the bravery that he was dealing with this subject that was a taboo. I think we all have different kind of levels. We’ve all drawn the line in a different place. It’s quite hard to think where the line is, ‘cause I think it’s different for each person.
QUICKSTOP: Is there anything that you consistently draw the line at?
WALLIAMS: I think we’d find it hard to do something like that about pedophilia, because it really is shocking and… I mean, I applaud his bravery for doing it, but I don’t think we could really think about doing anything on that. But it’s weird, if you dance around the subject – like The League of Gentlemen did, and have a character Herr Lip, who was a kind of pedophile, but because the boys are older it sort of made it sort of not too distasteful. It was still funny. It’s hard. It’s how you do it, really.
QUICKSTOP: You’ve finished 3 series, you’ve done a live tour, you’ve got a Christmas special coming up - are there projects right now outside of Little Britain that are drawing your attention?
WALLIAMS: Well yeah, we were kind of thinking what the next move will be, and it may be in different series for the BBC, or it could be a film or something. We’ve just got to take it where our creativity takes us, really. If we think of a great story for a film, we’ll make a film – you know?
QUICKSTOP: Does that mean we’ll see the return of Mash and Peas?
WALLIAMS: I don’t think we’ll ever do the return of Mash and Peas.
QUICKSTOP: Is there anything you’re pursuing independently?
WALLIAMS: Not really at the moment, because apart from odd bit of acting, there hasn’t really been time because we’ve been touring, and then we’re making a Christmas special over the summer. So there hasn’t really been time to do that, I’m afraid. But I’m sure I will, yeah.
QUICKSTOP: I certainly hope you guys are able to bring the show over to the U.S. …
WALLIAMS: Yeah, we’d love to do the show in America. That would be fantastic. Do you want to have a quick chat to Matt?
QUICKSTOP: I would.
WALLIAMS: I’ll just pass you over.
MATT LUCAS: Hello?
QUICKSTOP: Hello Matt…
LUCAS: You’ve got about one minute, I’m afraid. Anything you need to ask me?
QUICKSTOP: When are you going to finally do that Broadway show?
LUCAS: Oh that would be lovely, but at the moment we’re working together, so I don’t know. I haven’t any new news to tell you, I’m afraid. Gotta run… Bye!
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