Hurrying through the streets to have dinner with Matt Lucas and David Walliams, I pass several overweight men and women, two people in wheelchairs, and any number of juvenile delinquents, some of them girls and at least one with her hair done up in the pineapple style. Would it be stretching credulity to claim that I also spotted, lurking in the shadows, various cross-dressers and other gallant souls?
I mention these figures, these oddballs, these sturdy representatives of the nation's underclass, because they are the very people whose existence Lucas and Walliams have chosen to celebrate in their dazzling comedy sketch show Little Britain, now in the process of moving from cult to mainstream status.
Though a surprising number of people have never heard of this ground-breaking show - Daily Mail humourist Peter McKay looked completely blank when I sang its praises to him last week - it already has a huge following. The Guardian has called Lucas and Walliams "national treasures". GQ has pronounced Little Britain "by far the funniest show of 2004". Alan Bennett loves it. So, apparently, do Prince William and Prince Harry. Arbiter of taste Nicky Haslam has already hailed its young creators "geniuses" and "very trad" and a few weeks ago that wonderful novelist Sybille Bedford, 94 next birthday, told me that my new heroes were on the cover of the Radio Times, both in ball gowns.
Little Britain originated as a noisy, frenetic pilot radio show in January 2000, became a series on Radio 4, transferred to television as a BBC 3 series, got moved to BBC 2, back to BBC 3 and next Friday, starts for all the world to see on BBC 1. During this time, it has lost none of its wild maniacal daring and the programme's catchphrases now reverberate in pubs and playgrounds across the land.
Devotees must forgive me for describing some of the Little Britain characters who have already achieved iconic status. Vicky Pollard, juvenile delinquent with the pink tracksuit and pineapple hairstyle, whose convoluted utterances begin "Yeah but no but...", will soon be nominated by Craig Brown as a people's peer on the Today programme. Marjorie Dawes is a tyrannically patronising managerial type, with lots of what Peter York calls "process", who runs a Fat Fighters club and tells her class that dust is very low in fat. "So you can have as much dust as you like." Spiky and dim-witted Daffyd Jones, the only gay in the village of Llandewi Breffi, screams at the newsagent who thinks the local vicar may have bought his copy of Gay Times, "A gay priest? What planet are you on, woman?"
These three characters, all ultimately loveable, are played by Matt Lucas. David Walliams's equally poignant roles include a young man in love with his friend's grandmother, a prime ministerial aide called Sebastian Love in love with his boss and a "rubbish" transvestite Emily Howard in love with herself.
The two men work gloriously together, not least in the scenes featuring an apparently wheelchair-bound Andy and his tireless helper Lou. In one particularly outstanding sketch from the first series, Lou takes Andy to a swimming pool - the same one in which Vicky Pollard is seen peeing? - and while long-windedly explaining to a lifeguard that his friend is frightened of the water and may need help getting in and out, Andy is seen in the background briskly vacating his wheelchair, climbing to the highest diving board, jumping off, swimming to the steps and returning to his wheelchair un-noticed by his carer. There are many other dysfunctional characters in the programme, drawn from medical institutions, police courts and the autistic spectrum. The new series features a long term resident of a health spa, Bubbles de Vere, who hasn't paid her bill for five months, and an upper class young man being breast-fed by his mother (Geraldine James) while his fiancee and her parents look on open-mouthed.
Some of these sketches may be funnier, more tasteless, more patchy than others but they are all superbly executed and bound together by a sublimely solemn commentary delivered by the Doctor Who actor Tom Baker, referring to imaginary times of the day like "half past disley" and "julia o'clock", imaginary days of the week and towns and villages with names like Trauma and Scoffage. The crowning glory of Little Britain is perhaps its non-plussed prime minister, beautifully played by Anthony Head, and constantly set upon by his lovesick aide.
How accurate or inaccurate is this portrait of Britain? Is it really an Alternative Britain or is it, as I reflected on my way to meet its protagonists for the first time, alarmingly close to the topsy-turvy world we actually live in? And how tasteless is it? How offensive and how brave is BBC1 Controller Lorraine Heggessey in letting it move onto terrestrial at last?
My answer to these last questions is that Little Britain is not only a masterpiece in artistic terms but also does a service to the disabled. I agree with the man in the wheelchair who interrupted a Broadway performance by the equally provocative Barry Humphries with the words "Thank you, Dame Edna, for including us in your show" and with the letter to the London Evening Standard protesting about a "crass and inaccurate" leading article by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto attacking Little Britain under the heading "When Bad Taste is No Joke". If the openly gay Matt Lucas can see the joke of being gay, Ranjit Majumbar of West London argued, can't we too? And he went on to wonder why disabled people should be denied the relief of laughing at themselves. For my money, Little Britain is not remotely patronising but a warm, loving and truthful confection - in addition to being extremely funny. Indeed, it would not be so funny, or perhaps not funny at all, if it wasn't so truthful.
The so-called "sick and twisted" inventors of this Little Britain both started life in leafy London suburbs. Matt Lucas grew up in Middlesex and seems to have had a rather traumatic childhood. He lost his hair at the age of six, a delayed reaction to being knocked down by a car as a toddler, and prefers not to talk about his early years. At 11 he became a day boy at Haberdashers' Aske's, where Alan Whicker and Brian Sewell had been pupils and where his closer contemporaries included Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G, and David Baddiel. David Walliams was meanwhile growing up at Banstead in Surrey, the son of a London Transport engineer, now retired. Walliams was educated at Reigate Grammar School but doesn't mention any of his contemporaries except his friend Robin Dashwood, with whom he went on sorties to London.
Both Little Britain stars studied drama at Bristol University but their paths first crossed at the National Youth Theatre in 1990. "I kept my distance from Dave because I saw him as a bit of a star," Lucas has said of this early encounter, but they met again the following year in a production of The Tempest. They made each other laugh, became friends, went to comedy clubs, sat around dreaming up TV shows but did not work together till 1995. That year they appeared together at the Edinburgh Festival and became "jobbing live comics". Their early double act was "very hostile, fierce and abrasive" but they developed a cult following, even if sometimes, as at the Jacksons Lane Community Centre in Highgate, there were only 10 people in the audience. Would they mind, they were asked on that inauspicious occasion, delaying their act till those present had finished watching EastEnders?
I am only sorry I caught on to this remarkable comedy duo relatively late in the day. I never saw Lucas and Walliams struggling on the comedy circuit. I missed Walliams - changing his name from Williams to avoid an Equity name clash was an early stroke of genius - in the BBC drama series Attachments and in The League of Gentlemen and, while recognising his talents, recoiled from Lucas as the baby in Shooting Stars. I also missed Lucas as the cross-dressing farmer in Sunnyside Farm (1997) and as Therisites in the Oxford Stage Company's Troilus and Cressida - wasn't that the role once played by Ken Dodd? I also missed the TV debut of Lucas's Sir Bernard Chumley, failed actor, luvvie and raconteur, complete with sloppily-perched wig. And I failed to watch Lucas and Walliams's Rock Profiles in which they satirised showbiz interviews. And why did I not go, two years ago, to see Lucas's show-stopping, sulphurous performance as overweight artist Leigh Bowery in the Boy George musical Taboo? Or tune in to early Little Britain on Radio 4 in which so many of their long-standing characters got their first airings?
Anyhow, Lucas and Walliams, aged 30 and 33 respectively, and their inventions are now the talk of the town. And not just London town. Dolled up as Lou and Andy, they have toured the country promoting the book of their first series and attracting - this proves my earlier point - scores of admirers in wheelchairs. Dressed as Marjorie Dawes, Lucas has presented the Daily Telegraph Travel Awards at the Waldorf Hilton and a few weeks ago Walliams popped up as a guest on Late Review talking earnestly about Tom Wolfe's latest novel. Walliams's favourite contemporary novelist, incidentally, is Kazuo Ishiguro. Together, Lucas and Walliams have attended the National Television Awards at the Albert Hall - at an earlier awards ceremony Walliams kissed Jonathan Ross on the mouth - and made "virtuoso" appearances on Richard and Judy's sofa. Pressed by Radio 1's Jo Whiley about their relationship, Walliams replied, "I think there's a great love growing between us. Watch this space." They have also done long press interviews in which they have given away practically nothing.
I am five minutes late for our meeting in a basement restaurant off the Strand and David Walliams is already standing at the bar. Six foot three and wearing a dark blue suit made by Richard James of Savile Row - "They look after me there," he says later - he gives an impression of formidable health and efficiency. His hair, hidden on television under innumerable straggling, floppy or fringed wigs, is enviably well cut. Within moments, his partner in crime has bustled or bundled into the restaurant, his bald head covered with a cap and a student's bag on his shoulder. Matt Lucas is more informally dressed than his tall companion but tells me later he has recently bought two suits from Gieves and Hawkes, a couple of shirts "and a nice tie". A youthful five foot six and a half, Lucas offers a combination of sweetness, politeness and modesty impossible to square with his strident, swashbuckling alter egos like Marjorie Dawes and the Only Gay in the Village. Of the two men, Walliams with his bedroom eyes and sardonic twinkle seems the more mannered or, to use his own word, poncy. Lucas comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful young student, anxious to please or, as he puts it at one point, "not mis-communicate". The closeness and affection between such different-looking people is lovely to behold.
And they have already spent much of the day together, working on their third Little Britain series, laughing a lot and lunching off Marks and Spencer take-aways in David's flat in north-west London. Matt Lucas lives quite close, in a bit of a mess, and made the journey over to his friend's swish, gilt-mirrored abode - "like Liberace's holiday home" says its owner - by C11 bus unrecognised by other passengers. Later this evening they will be interviewed on stage at the National Film Theatre by Graeme Garden of the Goodies.
We are soon at our table and plumping for calamari, sea bass with lentils, grilled chicken with parsnips, new roast potatoes - does it matter who ordered what? - and steamed broccoli, please, thank you. Lucas and Walliams say please and thank you a lot. In loud clear voices. And drink only water. Both appear to be more or less teetotal. Walliams has indeed described them recently as "very clean-living".
We talk briefly about Lord Archer, whom they've never met, and then about interviews, which they always do together. "What I like about being interviewed," says Lucas, "is that we get asked questions we wouldn't usually ask each other." And about stage nerves. "I feel quite nauseous before I do anything in public," says Walliams. "Your mouth will go dry and you want to go to the toilet a lot." "I get very tired before I go on stage," says Lucas. "But I'd rather feel tired than have horrible butterflies in my stomach."
I point out that once they get going both men seem to enjoy flaunting themselves on camera. In several sketches Matt Lucas has taken off his clothes and shown off his roly-poly figure to hilarious effect. "Personally I don't think we're that exhibitionist as people, are we?" Lucas responds. "I am," disagrees Walliams. "I like doing it in character," Lucas explains. "It's very liberating."
And surely for the viewers too? We then talk about the future. This time next year Little Britain will tour the country with a live show incorporating many of their favourite characters - how can I have neglected romantic novelist Dame Sally Markham and her long-suffering typist Miss Grace? - which will come to London in 2006. And about the past. And the figures they admire from way back like Laurel and Hardy and Old Mother Riley and an act called Wilson, Kepple and Betty. And John Cleese's goose-stepping scene from Fawlty Towers, which Walliams describes as "one of the greatest comic moments of all time". And about their contemporary heroes like Ricky Gervais, Peter Kay, Steve Coogan, Jimmy Carr, Caroline Aherne and Johnny Vegas.
And, of course, about Barry Humphries, who happens to have re-opened on Broadway, to rave reviews, as I write these words. When Walliams was still at school he came up to London to see Humphries at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. "It was an absolutely inspirational moment," he says. "I came back to see it twice. I've seen him in the street a few times recently. He's such a dapper man in real life. Those beautifully tailored suits. I'm so in awe of him. I couldn't go up to him and say 'I love what you do.' " Others have spotted a similarity between Humphries' naughty but nice Sir Les Patterson and Matt Lucas's gay old thespian Sir Bernard Chumley, in spite of their different places on the sexual spectrum.
Which brings us finally - is this what Independent on Sunday readers really want? - to the complex core of Little Britain's creativity. Lucas and Walliams take their work extremely seriously. And know that there is a hit and miss element to it. "Performing comedy is quite a tense business," says Lucas. Little Britain, they insist, is not a frivolous programme and they mention Chaplin's The Great Dictator in this context. And though what Lucas calls "a little mini infrastructure" has grown around the series, they also insist that they are artists not businessmen. "I have never read a contract in my life," says David Walliams. "I think it's good not to get too involved in the business side of things."
Yeah, but no, but the driving forces behind the show remain diverse, to put it mildly. Walliams uses the phrase "pure pantomime" quite a lot and refers to his desire to make Little Britain "a big fun comedy show with wigs and costumes" rather on the same lines as The Two Ronnies. Yet at the same time the programme grapples with the most disturbing realities of everyday life - no issue of class, race or gender is left unattended - and quite naturally many of the sketches teeter on the very edge of taste.
And of course the programme is also a vehicle for its inventors' particular talents. Both men are superb actors. "On Shooting Stars, I used to get frustrated because I knew I was capable of so much more," says Matt Lucas, who has spoken about himself both as "a remarkable comic talent" and as "this goon poncing about in a silly wig". And both men also have superb powers of observation. Discussing the Vicky Pollard character, Walliams tells me, "It is all incredibly carefully observed. In terms of the way girls of that age put their eye liner on. And how they put their lip-liner on. We wanted the characters to have an iconic feel to them, to be immediately recognisable in the way they looked."
To describe Little Britain as champions of the dysfunctional may be going a bit too far - isn't going too far what works of art and even newspaper articles are all about? - but it is equally absurd to accuse its inventors of thinking it cool to be cruel. Walliams has expressed an interest in failures, people at their lowest ebb, and Lucas says sharply, "It isn't the comedian's job to be on message."
Quite so, but both men are themselves odd. Lucas has described his colleague as "this strange, brilliant man" but doesn't care to talk his own pain at losing his hair aged six and, God only knows, what other ordeals. Is he still angry about it all? Does anger or shyness lie behind the ferocity of many of his characters? And from where does Walliams's desire to do "mad things on the telly" stem?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know - and this perhaps is the heart of the matter - that above all, Lucas and Walliams want to make each other laugh. "Making each other laugh is what it's all about," says Lucas. They are, it seems, extremely, enviably close. And never so close - or does this lower the tone? - as on the occasion when, working together on stage and in circumstances hard to grasp, Lucas's penis accidentally fell into Walliams's mouth.
Oh dear, oh dear, but are there ever tensions between them? "We have an argument about every six months," says Walliams but refuses to say what the last one was about. "I don't think we should give too much away." Anyway, they always make it up and there is now a strong bond between their two mothers, who often attend recordings together. Yet their lifestyles are, they claim, totally different. Walliams has recently bought artist Sam Taylor-Wood's 1966 Mercedes. Lucas can't drive. Walliams has two dinner jackets - "pure greed" - and likes going out on the town. Matt Lucas is reclusive, happy in front of the telly and says he doesn't go to that many parties. Especially since, a couple of years ago, he settled down with someone. "Well it's a nice thing to do when you're in a relationship," comments Walliams. "Stay in and eat."
David Walliams's life sounds more complex. He claims to be 70-per-cent heterosexual - Matt admits to being the exact opposite - and entirely at ease with his feminine side, especially when it comes to dressing up as a woman. In the tabloids, Walliams has been branded a "randy funnyman" and "unlikely superstud" and been linked with Patsy Kensit and Abi Titmuss. Today he tells me he has often been out with older women and still finds Lauren Bacall incredibly attractive. "I also flirt with Matt's mother quite a lot," he says. "We often talk about what it would be like if I actually started going out with Matt's mum..."
'Little Britain': BBC1, Friday 9.30pm. The 'Little Britain' live tour starts 24 October 2005 (0870 011 2626). 'Little Britain' series one (BBC Worldwide £19.99) is out now on DVDReuse content