'Little Britain' is back for a third series, and the characters are as grotesque as ever

James Rampton asks Matt Lucas and David Walliams if they ever worry about overstepping the mark
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The Independent Online

I happened to be in a school the other day when a poster that was trying to interest pupils in Hamlet caught my eye. It read: "To be or not to be: that is the question. Yeah, but no, but yeah!"

It's official: Little Britain is the hottest comedy in the UK. Not only are the catchphrases of its most famous character, Vicky Pollard, being used to turn school children on to Shakespeare, but the show's creators, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, have been honoured with Madame Tussauds waxwork dummies, cupboards full of awards and a tribute act (Littler Britain). What's more, Little Britain dolls have become the most in-demand gifts in the shops this Christmas.

When you consider, too, that Lucas and Walliams will rake in an estimated £5m each from ticket sales and merchandising on their current national tour, it is easy to see why they are being acclaimed as the shiniest stars at this end of the solar system. And their profile is set to rise further with the launch of their third series on BBC1 tomorrow.

So what's it like for the pair at the centre of all this attention? Over coffee and croissants in the media-luvvie haunt of Soho House - where the new Time Lord, David Tennant, is having breakfast on the next table - the duo explain that the experience has been bizarre enough to feature in a future episode of Doctor Who.

"It's been really weird," whistles Walliams, who is tall and talkative and dressed in a natty blue jacket. It's clear why he was voted one of the year's most eligible party people by Tatler's Little Black Book. "During the second series, something happened and the show wasn't really ours any more. All of a sudden it was owned by the viewers and they wanted to celebrate it. It's like we're in a car and steering it, but the brakes have been cut and we're not in control of it any more."

Walliams, 34, first collaborated with Lucas when they met while studying drama at Bristol University 15 years ago. "The show has taken on its own life," he says. "If you pick up a paper on any day there always seems to be a new story about Little Britain - either that George Clooney is going to be in it, or that there's going to be a Vicky Pollard film." (Both stories are untrue, by the way.)

"There's an absolute feeding frenzy about Little Britain right now," he continues. "I remember the same thing happening to Ali G when the tabloids were using him on the front page to advertise the lottery. Once the papers get hold of a show like that, the next thing you know, Richard Madeley is dressing up as you on Richard and Judy."

Walliams, in particular, has had to get used to appearing in the papers of late. His alleged dalliances with everyone from Abi Titmuss to Patsy Kensit have made him a red-top target. He admits that the first time he saw himself pictured in the popular press, "it was very, very strange, but you soon get used to it".

"The weirdest thing is having your picture taken when you're doing completely normal things," he says. "It makes you very self-conscious. The other day, my car broke down and I had to call the AA. Some hidden cameraman took pictures of the incident, which appeared in the tabloids the next day. When things like that happen, I just feel embarrassed. The AA man does not want to be in the papers.

"I stupidly live in the same area as lots of famous people like Chris Evans, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sadie Frost, so there are always loads of paparazzi hanging out there. But it's exasperating because you don't want everything you do to be news. They snapped me at the cashpoint the other day. I need to get money out, but why is that news? It's just an everyday thing. We don't want people to become bored of us."

Thirty-one-year-old Lucas is dressed unassumingly in jeans and spectacles. He is calmer and more quietly reflective than his flamboyant stage characters would lead you to expect. "Everyone has a limited amount of fame, and things like that spend it," he says. "But in the end, all this doesn't have much impact on the viewers. The attention may not go over our heads, but it certainly goes over everyone else's!"

Lucas clearly manages to keep his head while those all around are losing theirs. "There was a story in the tabloids about me last week that was completely made up, but you can't get het up about it. You just have to be philosophical and accept that it comes with the territory."

The pair have hit the headlines again lately because the latest Little Britain DVD has been given a 15 certificate, - despite the fact that the show is popular with children. A recent survey found that 86,000 four- to nine- year-olds tuned in to the last series. It is not hard to see why these larger-than-life characters chime with more junior viewers. To younger eyes, Little Britain is like a cartoon without animation.

Lucas even reports that the young son of his good friend and fellow comedian Bob Mortimer recently came home with a letter from his headteacher requesting that parents stop their children watching the show. The new series is nevertheless stuffed to the gills with characters whose catchphrases will be no doubt ringing out in playgrounds before the end of the week. Take Dudley (Walliams) and Ting Tong (Lucas). Dudley is a nerdy Middle Englander who buys what he imagines is a drop-dead gorgeous mail-order Thai bride. But he is shocked to discover that Ting Tong, his wife-to-be, in fact looks like a builder in a turquoise minidress.

Others likely to enter the dictionary of catchphrases any day now include Sir Norman Fry (Walliams). He is the MP for Little Fumble, who presides over a picture-perfect nuclear family. And yet for some unknown reason, he keeps being discovered in the most un-parliamentary of positions with total strangers. Fortunately, a photo-call with his loving family standing by him at the garden gate always irons out these little misunderstandings.

Watch out also for Letty (again, played by Walliams), an eccentric woman who adores collecting toy frogs but has a decidedly more vicious reaction whenever she encounters the real thing, and Mrs Emery (Walliams), an adorable old lady who is always keen to stop for a natter in the local supermarket but sadly has no control over the release of fluids from her body.

Finally, look out for Desiree (Walliams). She is the gargantuan ex-Olympic gymnast and new wife of Roman De Vere (Rob Brydon). They are honeymooning at the Hill Grange Health Spa, which also happens to be the permanent residence of Roman's ex, the equally gigantic Bubbles (Lucas). Whenever Desiree and Bubbles meet, the most almighty catfight inevitably ensues and all their clothes inexplicably fall off - much to Roman's delight.

Do Lucas and Walliams ever worry that they might be overstepping the boundary of good taste with their gallery of grotesques? Far from it. "All I'd say is that you should see what we cut!" laughs Lucas, who in down-time between series has also appeared in Casanova, Catterick and Shaun of the Dead.

"We realise that it's a show for a 9pm BBC1 audience. We don't want to overdose on gross-out comedy; if it's merely gross, that stops it being funny. The only thing that people seem to complain about is jokes about religion or cruelty to animals. I remember Hale and Pace got loads of complaints when they did a sketch about putting a cat in the microwave. But our viewers are clever enough to realise that our sketches are not meant to be taken literally. It's not real life. It's comedy."

The pair keep up such a high hit-rate with their characters because they operate a strict policy of quality control. "We're always trying to do better, or else there's no point in doing it," asserts Walliams, who in the early 1990s started out doing Edinburgh Festival shows with Lucas about Sir Bernard Chumley, an unreconstructed old theatrical buffer. "I'd hate to reach the point where I just knocked Little Britain off for the money. That's not a reason to do it. Comedy is weird in that people treasure it; comedy is now the biggest seller in the DVD market - they want to watch it again and again, and they expect high standards." The pair are putting a similar amount of effort into their live show, which is an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza with more cross-dressing than a Lily Savage Lookalike Competition. "It would be simpler and cheaper if we did straight stand-up," Lucas smiles. "The wig bill alone is £75,000!"

Some critics have construed Little Britain as social commentary, but the show's creators have just as swiftly dismissed the notion. They are even reluctant to ascribe significance to their creations - even Vicky Pollard. "She's the one who always gets talked about, and it does feel like we've pinpointed a social type with her," reflects Walliams, who has been developing a parallel film career with forthcoming appearances in Stoned, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and Decameron: Angels and Virgins.

"When you walk down any high street in the country, you'll see a Vicky Pollard. These lippy girls will be standing outside the off-licence, and they're the most terrifying people you'll ever meet. You think, 'If there is ever a time when I'm going to be murdered, it's now!'

"As the character has developed, we've been keen to keep up with everything that's happening, so we throw in references to Asbos and happy slapping, but it never comes out of a desire to make a social comment. Vicky started out as a gag, but she has turned into something else. Now, if the papers are writing a story about teenage pregnancy, they'll illustrate it with a picture of Vicky." Pray the day never comes when Richard Madeley decides to dress up as her.

The new series of 'Little Britain' starts at 9pm on BBC1 tomorrow. 'Little Britain Live' continues to tour nationwide