David Walliams: Not so little

Walliams, who with Matt Lucas won Best Comedy at the National TV Awards, is probably Britain's highest-profile 'metrosexual' BY CHRIS MAUME
Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Walliams, though, is not gay. Probably. The messages are thoroughly mixed, and he probably rates as the country's highest-profile "metrosexual". Tall, handsome, clever - and camp. He was named as co-respondent in a recent divorce case concerning a woman he had met at a party for the upmarket lingerie shop Agent Provocateur who had omitted to mention her marital status. She recalled steamy sessions with Walliams, the first in a hotel, the second at his Belsize Park flat. The flat, she said, "looked like it belonged to Barbie". "He had a pink sofa, pink coffee table, pink TV stand. It looked like a girl's apartment."

After their first encounter, she went on, Walliams informed her: "You've just had the funniest man in Britain." That may be arguable - his comedy partner Matt Lucas, for one, might have something to say about it, not to mention Ricky Gervais and Peter Kay - but although it was probably tongue in cheek, he's not far off the mark. Certainly, he and Lucas are riding the Little Britain wave with a triumphant flourish. On Tuesday they won Best Comedy at the National Television Awards, sending their mothers to pick up the gongs as they were in Portsmouth kicking off a 100-date tour which is due to last until next May.

The statistics underpinning their rise are impressive. When tour tickets went on sale, nearly 200,000 were sold in a single day. They have already secured a £2m advance for the official tour DVD, and £700,000 for a joint autobiography. This comes after two million copies of the first-series DVD were sold, and 12in talking dolls - depicting Vicky "Yeah-but-no-but" Pollard, Dafydd, the only gay in the village, and the invalid-carer double act Lou and Andy - are out now, selling at £20 each. A book of scripts was last Christmas's best-seller, shifting 130,000 copies, and a second volume is in the shops. Andy and Lou introduced Elton John at the recent Live8 concert in Hyde Park, and American television companies are fighting each other off for the rights.

But more importantly, where does Walliams figure on the "gayometer" beloved of the red tops? Why are we a nation apparently obsessed with his leanings? On the gay side, he claims never to have drunk a pint of beer or supported a football team. (Lucas, on the other hand, is both gay and an Arsenal fan.) When he was doing a photo-shoot with David Bailey, Walliams enquired politely, "Are we doing make-up?" The legendary photographer exploded. "Make-up? Don't be such a queen! Make-up?"

On the straight side, Little Britain's upwards trajectory has happened against a steady stream of roistering stories. An unconfirmed list of Walliams' conquests includes Patsy Kensit, Lisa Snowdon, Abi Titmuss, Aimee Osbourne (the Osbourne who didn't want to be famous), Lisa Moorish, Suranne Jones (formerly of Coronation Street), the presenter Jayne Middlemiss and the former EastEnder and Eliza Dolittle Martine McCutcheon. (He has emphatically denied the last, but not the rest.)

He has described himself as 70 per cent heterosexual, and is apparently unamused by suggestions that his gay quotient may be considerably greater than 30 per cent. Appearing on Jonathan Ross's chat show earlier this year, he signally failed to laugh when the host hinted at speculation that Lucas is not the only gay in the double act.

Still, Anthony Head, who plays the prime minister in Little Britain, was shocked when they shared a screen kiss. "I went in pursing my lips delicately, and his entire mouth fitted over most of my face," Head said. "He took me totally by surprise."

Walliams clearly likes spreading confusion. "If I dress like a woman, I want to look like Bette Davis," he has said. "That's what it's about." David Baddiel told the pair that Little Britain should really be called "Goodness Gayness Me!". In fact, Walliams is not gay, just very, very camp.

Surely the campness isn't a pulling ploy. "He lets you talk, listens avidly and injects gentle humour into the proceedings," one recipient of his affections said. Another young woman, who was out with Walliams and her boyfriend, claimed to have caught him pinching the said boyfriend's bottom, whispering to her, "I can't believe you're with him - he's much more interested in me."

This pick-and-mix approach to modern sexuality was a product of the suburbs, not bohemia. Walliams was born David Williams - he had to change his surname for Equity purposes - in August 1971 in Banstead, Surrey, into comfortable circumstances. His father was a London Transport engineer, his mother a laboratory technician, and he went to the fee-paying Reigate Grammar School. To posh people he is not posh, he has said. "But we went on holiday abroad and had a Vauxhall Cavalier. I didn't realise that people were poor."

Unlike the usual comic template of a miserable childhood kicking against the grown-up world, Walliams was happy. "I wasn't rebellious when I was younger," he has said. "I'd spend Saturday nights with my friend Robin Nashford watching Brideshead Revisited on video."

He first met Lucas at the National Youth Theatre. Lucas was doing impressions of Jimmy Savile, Walliams of Frankie Howerd, and a mutual friend brought them together. Walliams went on to take English, history and business studies at A- level and was accepted on to the prestigious University of Bristol drama course.

Bristol was clearly a hugely formative influence. Unlike the trendier department at Manchester University, which spawned the likes of Steve Coogan, Bristol deals more in the intellectual aspects of drama, rather than training actors per se. "It was all about painting yourself purple or running around naked on stage," remembers one contemporary, the comedian Dominik Diamond - the kinds of activity that are currently serving Walliams well on his nationwide tour.

Another contemporary, the comedy producer Myfanwy Moore, recalls, "We spent a lot of time scrutinising popular culture which gave us all very high standards, particularly with our own work." (Stand-up comedian Marcus Brigstocke and Simon Pegg, director of Shaun of the Dead, were also there at the same time).

Most importantly for Walliams, though, Bristol reacquainted him with Lucas. The pair bonded over a Roy "Chubby" Brown video, then began writing scripts together.

Diamond, who had toured as a stand-up with Frank Skinner before going to Bristol, set up a weekly comedy club called David Icke and the Orphans of Jesus, where Lucas and Walliams' double act received its first airing, and in 1995 they teamed up to take their Sir Bernard Chumley and Friends show to the Edinburgh Festival, returning for the next two years. Among Walliams' roles were Eric Estrada, a porn star from Bristol, and Tony Rogers, a sexist assistant stage manager in brown nylon slacks. The show was singled out by one critic for its "relentless scabrosity", a description which could apply to the vast majority of their work together.

A sell-out UK tour followed, containing early versions of some of the grotesques who would later surface in Little Britain - which, like so many TV comedy hits, began life on Radio 4. When it transferred to BBC3, and later to BBC2 and finally BBC1, it rapidly implanted itself in the national consciousness, and Baftas and Golden Globes followed, and even an Emmy nomination.

Walliams has also cultivated a handy sideline in serious drama. In Coming Soon on Channel 4, a satire on the subsidised theatre and Arts Council administrators, he played a politically correct sleazebag ("If a group of women say they're lesbians, who am I to argue?"). And in the dotcom start-up drama Attachments, he played a brilliant but emotionally constipated techie.

In the forthcoming Stoned, the Brian Jones biopic, he plays the Rolling Stones' accountant, and in Cock and Bull, the adaptation of Tristram Shandy which stars Steve Coogan, Walliams plays the curate who christens the baby Tristram. And although he and Lucas have resisted the idea of allowing Little Britain to be used in adverts, he is an enthusiastic voice-over artist for radio ads. He has also, whisper it, written scripts for Ant and Dec.

Which is some kind of measure of success. Some time in the mid-1990s, Walliams spotted Noel Gallagher getting into a taxi in Camden Town, London. He made a bowing gesture and was rewarded with a royal wave.

Ten years on, and Walliams is the proud owner of Supernova Heights, the St John's Wood house vacated by Gallagher in 1999. And whom did he have to outbid for it? Gallagher himself, who had been attempting to buy it back. The supernova that is Little Britain, meanwhile, is coming soon to a theatre near you.

A Life in Brief

BORN 20 August 1971 in Banstead, Surrey.

EDUCATION Reigate Grammar School, University of Bristol drama department.

CAREER Began performing with Matt Lucas in 1992. Little Britain began on TV in 2003, with a second series a year later. There will be a third series, the pair say, then no more.

HE SAYS "When I'm 70 I'd like to have a sex change and live the last 10 years of my life, hopefully, as a lady."

THEY SAY "You should have seen photos of me and Walliams in Venice. We look like Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton visiting Morocco" - comedian Rob Brydon, after they had filmed the TV comedy drama Cruise of the Gods, set in the Mediterranean.