'Little Britain': Watching them, watching me

Boyd Hilton, TV editor of 'Heat', spent a year tracking 'Little Britain' stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams for a new book. On the way he learnt a lot about how celebrity and the media interact
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The Independent Online

nside a trailer van at Alexandra Palace, London. 1 April, 2006. Matt Lucas and David Walliams are filming a pop video with the Pet Shop Boys. I am recording their every word on my iPod, while another writer, Chris Heath, is recording everything on his Dictaphone. Two film crews are filming the scene and two still photographers are taking pictures.

Matt's mother Diana is there to visit her son, and she receives the attentions of these various onlookers, a mini media throng, with an almost blasé jollity. She understands that it's just the way of things around her son these days.

My book, Inside Little Britain, was designed to be an honest and revealing account of a remarkable year in the lives of Lucas and Walliams, intermingled with their memoirs. Hopefully it has turned out something like we all hoped, but what soon became clear as I followed them around was that the book would inevitably turn into an account of the demented nature of fame and the media's obsession with celebrity.

As I was tracking their every step, ITV's The South Bank Show was making a fly-on-the-wall profile of Matt and David (which went out last Christmas), and then another TV crew from the BBC began to make their documentary about David's attempt to swim the Channel for Sport Relief. You can spot me in the background hovering nervously in the latter programme, Little Britain's Big Swim, making sure that my digital recording device is working properly and capturing David's life-changing experience.

At times I felt like one of a group of flies on the crowded wall of Matt and David's life, each of us buzzing around dementedly trying to make sure we all got the best, exclusive, most insightful material. I think I had a slight advantage in the end because I was still there at the end of each day when the TV cameras had long gone, still bothering Matt and David while they tried to relax in their hotel rooms with tea and biscuits after an exhausting day of media intrusion. Oh, and they were performing a tour of 140 live shows during the same period.

Matt and David's relationship with the media became a dominant element of the book. Maybe this was because in my day-job as TV editor of Heat magazine I'm on the outside of the celebrity bubble peering in. Or maybe it was because Matt and David share with me an almost obsessive interest in all aspects of the media world, where no element of a famous person's life seems real or relevant unless it's "covered" by someone, shown on TV or analysed in a newspaper think-piece. I wanted to know how the deluge of media interest in their lives affected their daily routines? Could they ignore it? Could they enjoy it?

It's fair to say that Lucas and Walliams are both keen to keep abreast of reviews, opinion pieces and gossip tidbits written about them. This can lead to such extreme behaviour as flicking through the Daily Star on a regular basis. Now some might regard this kind of activity as self-absorbed and egocentric; I see it as perfectly natural, well-adjusted behaviour for a celebrity in this day and age. If you ever see or hear a famous person say they don't read the papers or look at their reviews then you can take it from me that they're lying. Who wouldn't want to know what's being said about them?

What also became clear as I diligently stalked them - an early draft of the book elicited a response from one bigwig at the publishers that she half expected to read about Matt and David's toilet habits next - is that this interest in media coverage of themselves was really just an element of their over-arching curiosity about what's going on in all aspects of British media and culture.

While David makes sure he has a copy of every major CD and DVD release winging its way to him in brown corrugated cardboard via the internet, and invests in practically every glossy monthly magazine you've ever heard of, Matt is rather more New Media. He has a bewildering array of gadgets, and has one of those cunning devices that enables him to watch episodes of Big Brother and X Factor no matter where he is round the world. I think it's fair to say Matt and David make sure they're aware of every significant pop cultural and media development of the moment.

One of the underlying themes of the book is that all of this is a learning curve for Matt and David. They're coming to terms with all this attention; the madness of it all, the experience of having 10 million people watch your BBC1 sketch show one minute and seeing "Why I Hate Little Britain" plastered all over the front page of this very newspaper the next. Of course they also have a support network of publicists, promoters and agents to help deal with it. I got to observe how those mysterious operators work.

Much of my daily routine when not writing this book is taken up with fielding requests from delusional PRs trying to get their inappropriate stories in Heat; while the rest of the time I try to circumvent the wall of obfuscation erected by other publicists as I try to gain precious access to their suddenly shy A-list talent. So one of the great joys for me of being able to put this book together was being allowed to sit in on meetings between Matt and David and their advisors. Let's just say I now know why their PR Barbara Charone (known as "BC") is a legend in the business. Five seconds in her company and you believe all her clients are geniuses. She is possibly the most infectiously enthusiastic person in the world. No wonder Madonna has retained her services all these years. And this is perhaps why Victoria Newton writes all those nice stories about Madge in The Sun.

Yet even BC and her endlessly charming PR colleague Moira Bellas can't stop journalists from backlashing against the media phenomenon that Little Britain has undoubtedly become. Another intriguing development in the last 12 months has been the sheer viciousness of some of the press invective about Matt and David. In particular, I often ended up in the back of a car taking them from one venue to the next while they flicked through multiple opinion pieces by journalists claiming that Little Britain was now somehow the most invidious and evil television programme of our time. The general tenor of them being: how dare middle-class chaps Lucas and Walliams depict characters whose social background might just be less privileged than theirs?

In the end, Matt and David were both keen to make sure that the book didn't turn into a one-note defensive whine about criticism of their show in the media, but there were times, particularly during the broadcasting of series three of Little Britain last autumn, when the seemingly endless media attacks on the "politics" of the show as a social document became the dominant topic of conversation.

I ended up happily defending Little Britain on the Today programme on Radio 4, in discussion with a suitably bombastic Express columnist. This debate was then picked up by Private Eye, which gleefully pointed out how biased I was because I was good friends with Matt and David and was secretly writing a book with them. In fact I asked the Today researcher if it could be mentioned on air that I was writing this book, hoping for transparency, but Radio 4 didn't want it to feel like a blatant plug. Fair enough. And of course I am biased; I am friends with Matt and David, which is how I ended up writing the book in the first place. But that doesn't stop me from responding to the po-faced and humourless pontificating in the media about the political incorrectness of Little Britain.

As Matt and David frequently point out, all they're trying to do is make people laugh. Hopefully our book will do that too.

'Inside Little Britain' by Matt Lucas, David Walliams and Boyd Hilton, Ebury Press, £18.99

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