31 Aug 2003: Matt Lucas and David Walliams are inspired by the Two Ronnies. Now their comic sketches on suburban life are moving from radio to TV.
Matt Lucas and David Walliams are going to be the funniest double act on television this autumn. Little Britain, which won considerable critical acclaim during its run on Radio 4, is a beautifully observed sketch show whose characters perfectly capture the absurdities of suburbia. It is as good as the early series of The Fast Show, with a touch of Vic and Bob’s self-conscious surrealism.
Lucas and Walliams were, of course, great on Rock Profile, dressing up as Geri Halliwell, Elton John or George Michael and doing mock interviews with Jamie Theakston. But Little Britain is the programme they always dreamed of making, and it shows: Lucas and Walliams are as perfect together as Vic and Bob, French and Saunders and their original heroes, the Two Ronnies.
Since they met at the National Youth Music Theatre in the early Nineties, Lucas, 30, and Walliams, 34, have worked together while pursuing other projects. Lucas is best known as George Dawes, the overgrown baby drummer on Shooting Stars, and Walliams for his part in the BBC drama series Attachments. Lucas also toured with Blur in 1995 and appeared in their ‘Country House’ video, while Walliams acted alongside Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the TV drama Cruise of the Gods.
Although experienced comedians in their own right – spending years performing stand-up as a duo in Edinburgh – Lucas and Walliams are a little in awe of the comic luminaries with whom they’ve worked. Lucas says he learnt brevity from Vic and Bob, which helped when sharing a screen with eight other people on Shooting Stars: ‘If you get a laugh in 15 seconds, it’s much more likely to make the edit.’
Walliams in turn admires the way Steve Coogan approaches Alan Partridge. ‘He never says, “This is me and this is the character I’m playing.” He doesn’t patronise Partridge, he doesn’t distance himself. He’s not afraid to play a dislikeable character.’ Both talk of Brydon’s brilliance in creating characters with something emotionally at stake.
Despite their shared sense of humour, Walliams and Lucas may seem an odd pair. Sitting side by side in a bar in Camden, north London, they certainly look very different. Walliams, in a tight royal blue T-shirt, blue pinstripe trousers and trendy trainers, is tall, dark, good looking. Lucas, who has been bald since he developed alopecia as a child, wears a baseball cap pulled low over his face, glasses, a big checked shirt and jeans. Walliams sinks back into the sofa, stretches his legs and rests them on a stool; Lucas perches on the edge of the sofa and sips orange juice.
Such a physical contrast, however, makes them a perfect pair for a sketch show. And some of their Little Britain creations are nothing short of comic genius: Lucas as a shoplifting, ponytailed teenage girl in a pink tracksuit speed-talking nonsense to Walliams’s sober judge; Emily Howard, ‘the rubbish transvestite’ (Walliams); Sebastian, who works for and is in love with the Prime Minister (Walliams again); and David, the only gay man in a Welsh mining village (Lucas).
Both shamelessly love to camp it up. ‘We like those big, grotesque characters,’ says Walliams, laughing. ‘So there is lots of dressing-up as ladies. David Baddiel saw the TV pilot of Little Britain , said it was like a gay Goodness Gracious Me and should be marketed as a gay comedy show – which we sort of took as a compliment.’ Lucas, who is gay, nods in agreement.
Transferring Little Britain from the radio to television was a challenge because the scripts might have been strong, but the visuals had to work too. That is why Graham Linehan, the writer and director of Father Ted and Black Books, was keen to direct the television pilot. ‘I heard the radio show and thought it was hilarious. David is one of the funniest people I know and Matt is perfect for a sketch show: because he’s got absolutely no hair on his head whatsoever, you can easily disguise him. His face is a brilliant blank slate for comedy. But I knew they had to be careful not to have the sketches too based on dialogue once they got to TV. I wanted them to think more in terms of visual jokes. You have to completely rethink and rebuild sketches for TV.’
Linehan explains how they pitched the pilot to the BBC. ‘I wasn’t thinking of Little Britain as cult TV – I’d rather it became a popular programme. We said we wanted it to be the Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise. A traditional, old-fashioned sketch show, because there aren’t any of those on TV. It’s nice to have some gay characters, too; it’s a gayer sketch show than most.’
As Linehan had too many other commitments to work on anything other than the pilot, the first series has been directed by Steve Bendelac, the award-winning director of The League Of Gentlemen who brings a cinematic element to the series. ‘He gives it an epic feel,’ says Lucas. ‘As David says, we wanted to do what it says on the tin. And Steve was able to bring a sweeping, grand sense that we really did travel round the country.’
Lucas and Walliams were also influenced by the photographer Martin Parr, whose work looks at the minutiae of society, along with Mike Leigh and the Carry On films. The comedians set out to capture Britain past and present. ‘We liked the fact that Martin Parr’s work was incredibly colourful and that he takes photos of poodles wearing pink bows or a woman’s mouth with heavy red lipstick,’ explains Walliams. ‘We looked at so many things, really. We wanted to create big characters but sustain an element of truth at the same time.’
They were determined to follow their comedy instinct and not be swayed by the phenomenal success of contemporary programmes. ‘We looked at the big hits, like Phoenix Nights and The Office, and realised how many shows there will be in their wake,’ says Walliams. ‘Lots of naturalistic, moody performances which will end up as bad photocopies of the originals. We really thought, “We’ll go the other way. Let’s make it absurd. Let’s evoke the spirit of the Two Ronnies.” We weren’t scared of doing it; we know it’s where our strength lies.’
Lucas smiles. ‘You can’t top Phoenix Nights or The Office, so why try?’
Matt Lucas and David Walliams know the way it goes in comedy; it’s often not until the second series that people go back to the first. They can only hope that the BBC will, indeed, commission a second series. In the meantime, both will continue to work on other projects.
In October, Lucas starts filming Catterick, Vic and Bob’s first sitcom, about a pair of idiotic social club workers. Walliams is writing a sitcom with Rob Brydon called Home, set in an old people’s home. He is excited not only about working with Brydon again, but also at the prospect of luring the likes of Ronnie Corbett, Bob Monkhouse and other characters from the old school of comedians he loves so much.
Although Lucas and Walliams work so well together, it seems the latter is most likely to break away and be successful in his own right. Brydon is almost envious of his talent. ‘We are only in the early stages of Home but we’ve already had sessions improvising these characters and David has had me in hysterics. Usually when I work, I’m not the one who is corpsing. I’m a bit dour in that way. David made me feel so unfunny because he’s so bloody funny. I came back from filming Cruise of the Gods with him saying he’s the funniest man in the world.’
Brydon is a fan of Little Britain, too. ‘There is a delicious quality to it. There’s a hint of something seedy, which I quite like. What they’re doing has a warmth and bizarreness.’ Matt Lucas may be smart enough to say that all comedy is a gamble, but Graham Linehan has the last word: ‘Matt and Dave are too funny to be kept a secret.’
· Little Britain starts on BBC3, 16 September, 9pm