Little Britain: The biggest British live comedy show of all time (£25m and counting)

Their year-long nationwide tour is ending with a six-week finale in London. Anthony Barnes watches David Walliams and Matt Lucas, and marvels

A bearded man dressed in a purple gown cheers wildly and mouths catchphrases. In front of 2,000 people, an overweight woman happily volunteers for humiliation, stepping up on stage to be informed she weighs 48 stone and "stinks".

Welcome to Little Britain Live, now at the Apollo, Hammersmith in west London, and officially confirmed as the longest-running UK comedy tour ever staged, playing to more than a million people in theatres and arenas and generating upwards of £25m.

Along with its TV series, a planned US series and spin-offs such as character dolls and Top Trumps games, this carnival of comedy has turned its stars, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, into very wealthy men. And, based as it is on gross humour and graphic sex references, transvestites and fetish costumes, it is one of the most unlikely cultural phenomena of recent years.

Since it began life as a Radio 4 show only five years ago, it has transferred to BBC3, BBC2 and finally BBC1 where, in the space of three series, it has ballooned into one of the corporation's biggest audience bankers.

In the summer, the duo signed a £6m deal to tie themselves to the BBC for a further three years, with plans to adapt the series for the US through the HBO network, home to The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under.

"We've achieved more than we ever dreamed of," David Walliams said last week. "The weird thing is, did we become mainstream or did the mainstream come to us?"

On Friday night the pair were playing to yet another sell-out house, from pre-teen to pensioner, as they will for the duration of the six-week run at the Apollo.

The two slip in and out of the script at will, sharing their thoughts. During one sketch, distracted by a shout from the audience, Walliams starts gabbling about his stage partner's real-life homosexuality. "I can be quite open about it, unlike some," Lucas counters with a smile.

"How does everyone know but me? How do you all know?" wonders Walliams, referring to speculation that he swings both ways. The Sun newspaper even runs a regular "Gay-o-meter", monitoring whether he is in the pink or the blue (he insists he is strictly heterosexual, and he has been linked with Abi Titmuss and Patsy Kensit).

Later, as Walliams plays his caricature of a tiny Dennis Waterman, he sighs an existential aside to the audience: "It's never really been explained why I'm small - or why I speak in this voice. If you step outside it for a moment you think, what are we doing with our lives?"

A rhetorical question: the pair's careers could not be doing any better. The show has received rave reviews around the country, although the critics were slightly cooler as the highly polished version arrived in London last week.

Pete Clark of the Evening Standard was perhaps the least charitable: "Perhaps, when they have finished counting the cash from this wildly successful tour, Walliams and Lucas might care to consider making some comedy that comes spontaneously." Dominic Maxwell of The Times was less acerbic: "It's a shame some of the skits are so frugal with the surprises. We're resigned to the TV show being the same each week. Here, though, such resolute 'giving the people what they want' feels hollow eventually, as if they didn't trust us to want more than Little Britain, the brand."

But the audience cares little. The shows get standing ovations, the arrival of every catchphrase garners a round of applause.

After the show at the Apollo, a scrum four-deep seethes around the merchandise stand where T-shirts with slogans such as "Want that one" and "Computer says no" cost £20; a "No but yeah but" beanie hat sets punters back £10 and an enamel Daffyd ("the only gay in the village") keyring is a fiver.

By the end of this tour in December, Walliams and Lucas will have sold out over 200 live shows. When the tickets went on sale last year they shifted more than 200,000 in a single day.

Each of the three series has topped the DVD sales charts, the first selling more than 1.8m to become the biggest selling release of a TV series. Still to come there is a Little Britain interactive DVD quiz and in a month the DVD of the live show will be released.

There is also the global audience. Last week, Little Britain began broadcasting in Japan, to cap its sales in 26 other countries, not to mention its broadcast on BBC Prime which is seen in 100 nations.

So what does this all say about the audiences who gobble up the duo's every utterance? Cultural commentator Peter York thinks Little Britain offers something for everyone: "It works for different people in different ways. They've got an incredibly wide cultural range - they've obviously read and taken in all sorts of high and low culture. There are jokes in there for laddish lads, and for gay people and for people who think they're terribly clever and above it all.

"Plus they have a thousand catchphrases. Tom Baker's voiceover makes it respectable and stable, like a national treasure. It's a terribly clever mix.

"It's the gay show for straight boys. It's chock-full of gay everything, but the people who like it are straight beer-and-curry boys. They do politically incorrect jokes in a politically correct way. If you didn't know that they were nice and 50 per cent gay themselves you'd think it was heavy going - you'd think that characters like Andy and Pete and Vicky Pollard were making fun of the underclass."

Alan Yentob, the BBC's creative director, said: "Does anyone realise how difficult it is to write a genuinely funny sketch show with a host of memorable characters and a plethora of unforgettable catchphrases? Well, Matt Lucas and David Walliams have done it."

Melvyn Bragg simply compares the duo to the creators of the Goon Show: "They are hitting new heights of comedy."

Walliams and Lucas have been friends for 16 years, meeting at the National Youth Theatre in their teens, but it was Lucas, the younger of the pair, who established a public profile first. He was already a name on the stand-up circuit as Sir Bernard Chumley when he landed a long-running stint as George Dawes, the drumming scorekeeper, on Reeves and Mortimer's Shooting Stars series.

Together they began to make waves on TV with their cult Rock Profile series, initially on the digital UK Play channel and later on BBC2, in which the pair would do spoof interviews as well known chart stars such as Bono, Sir Elton John and Liam Gallagher.

Now the pair's fame is approaching that of the people they once mocked. When David Walliams swam the English Channel during the summer for Sport Relief, he became a national hero, not least for his astonishing speed, making one of the fastest crossings ever. The feat was all the more remarkable because he fitted his training regime into his punishing work schedule.

Lucas finds the pair's current success difficult to comprehend. "You can't really digest it until it's all over," he said. "It will come to an end, like everything does, and then I'll look back. If I take it all in now I'll just get stage fright."

So will this national treasure status fade as quickly as it came? Computer says no.

THE VERDICTS

'Brilliant,' says Janet Street-Porter

At the opening night of their highly successful run in London last week, the culmination of their national tour which has lasted the best part of a year, David Walliams and Matt Lucas started to experience the Little Britain backlash.

First they got a thoroughly snotty review in the Evening Standard, and then their celebrity audience didn't laugh much, preferring to look cool and knowing.

It's a shame, because the show is brilliant, and exactly the same event that has had packed out theatres rocking with laughter all around the country.

When I saw Little Britain Live in Oxford back at the start of the summer, the audiences ranged from small children to pensioners - and they were screaming with delight.

Some trendy Londoners are too worried about being photographed and being fashionable to enjoy themselves.

What the critics say...

The process of ironing out creases before coming into town has risked making the show simply a well-oiled machine and squeaky clean merchandising opportunity.

Dominic Cavendish 'The Daily Telegraph'

The super-savvy staging that makes this show so consumable can also make it bland. It's never less than amusing, sometimes it's hilarious. But, on second viewing, Little Britain Live is tight, bright but frustratingly light entertainment.

Dominic Maxwell 'The Times'

With Walliams and Lucas it seems to be a case of, when in doubt, slip on a lady's outfit or make with the extreme mincing. Which is a shame, because there were moments when these two fine performers appeared to realise the restrictions of their mirth-inducing straitjackets and unbuckle them for a moment.

Pete Clark 'Evening Standard'

LITTLE BRITAIN MERCHANDISE

£4.99 TOP TRUMPS

Released: November 2005

From: Winning Moves

Cards include Weight, Warts, Smelliness and Beauty.

£24.99 SPECIAL EDITION DVD

'Little Britain Live': includes replica tour programme

Released: 13 November 2006

Price: £24.99

From: 2 Entertain video

£19.99 INTERACTIVE DVD GAME

Released: 6 Nov 2006

From: Granada

Games include The Vicky Pollard No But Yeah Game.

£16.99 THE COMPLETE SCRIPTS

Released: 16 Oct 2006

From: HarperCollins Entertainment

All the scripts for the third series.

£21.99 LIVE DVD

Released: 13 Nov 2006

From: 2 Entertain Video

Footage from the tour.

£18.99 INSIDE LITTLE BRITAIN BOOK

Released: 4 Sept

From: Ebury Press

A year in the lives of Matt Lucas and David Walliams.

£7.99 LITTLE BRITAIN CALENDAR

Released: 1 Sep 2006

Price: £7.99

From: Danilo

The wisdom of Vicky Pollard.

£12.99 SOUND MUG

Released: October 2005

From: Character Gifts

Have a cup of tea along with all the catchphrases.

£14.99 TALKING DOLLS

Released: 21 Oct 2005

From: Character Options.

Talking dolls with all the catchphrases.

TOTAL £143.91

The amount you'll have to fork out if you decide to collect the whole lot

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