There were many awkward moments during last Sunday's BBC Sports Personality of the Year show at the NEC in Birmingham, but the pick of them came when the comedian and Little Britain star David Walliams was honoured for swimming the English Channel in aid of charity. When presenter Gary Lineker asked Walliams what he was thinking about during his 10 hours, 34 minutes at sea, Walliams said, "You!" Uncertain laughter filled the auditorium; the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show doesn't really do homo-eroticism. Lineker's co-presenter Sue Barker didn't even recognise it as homo-eroticism, bless her, guilelessly wondering what there was about Lineker to think about for all that time.
Events then took an even stranger turn with the entrance of Walliams' comedy partner Matt Lucas, a very short, very round, very bald man in a burgundy velvet jacket. He continued the camp routine and, although it may have been a trick of the light, I could have sworn I saw a look of bewilderment cross the face of Sir Henry Cooper. "'Ere, ain't this supposed to be about sport?" was practically written on his craggy features.
Walliams, in fact, is the allegedly heterosexual member of the double act. Lucas is openly gay, although it wasn't always so according to Boy George, who wrote the stage musical Taboo, about the New Romantic movement of the 1980s, in which Lucas starred as the flamboyant artist Leigh Bowery. "He wouldn't talk about his sexuality, although he's now made the queerest show in Britain," George later told the Radio Times. "I found him prissy, a niggly diva."
Lucas this very weekend is entering a civil partnership with his partner, a television producer called Kevin McGee. It seems fair to assume that if any observant members of his Jewish family disapprove of tomorrow's ceremony, it is less because Lucas is "marrying" another gay man than because McGee is Catholic. Lucas conceived one of his most popular characters, Little Britain's Daffyd, "the only gay in the village", following his own experience of agonising about his sexuality, then coming out and finding that, even though his mother Diana hadn't suspected (despite the fact that as a teenager he spent a lot of time in his bedroom listening to the album of 42nd Street), nobody was much bothered by it.
As a member of so many minorities that he is practically a walking Venn diagram, Lucas has been criticised for the vehemently politically incorrect content of Little Britain. Coincidentally, it is the same criticism as that directed at Sacha Baron Cohen for his hysterically anti-Semitic character Borat, and even more coincidentally Lucas and Cohen are fellow alumni of Haberdashers' Aske's school in Elstree; they have known one another since childhood. "My memories of Sacha mostly involve him breakdancing on the lino in our kitchen when he was friendly with my brother Howard," Lucas has recalled.
Explaining Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen deploys the same argument as that once used by Johnny Speight to explain Alf Garnett, that by making his bigot ridiculous he is ridiculing bigotry. The upper-middle-class woman in Little Britain who vomits at the very thought of black or Asian children is perhaps an example of the same phenomenon; one certainly has to hope so.
But it's harder to mount the same defence of the sketches featuring the wildly incontinent old biddy who loses control of her bladder in supermarkets, and as for Desiree, the overweight, sauna-mad, Afro-Caribbean woman played by Walliams, he and Lucas were asked by the journalist Mark Lawson on Radio 4's Front Row whether even in the name of comedy it is acceptable, in the 21st century, for white men to black up. Lucas politely insisted that it was, because that's the conceit of the show: they play all the characters.
Which might be fair enough if the results were universally acclaimed as hilarious, but Little Britain's second series was widely considered to have been a series too far, and its third received the following broadside in this newspaper from my colleague Johann Hari. "Little Britain has been a vehicle for two rich kids to make themselves into multimillionaires by mocking the weakest people in Britain. Their targets are almost invariably the easiest, cheapest groups to mock: the disabled, poor, elderly, gay or fat. In one fell swoop, they have demolished protections against mocking the weak that took decades to build up. Look at Vicky Pollard, the thieving, scrounging single mum who swaps her baby for a Westlife CD. She is a walking, smoking Richard Littlejohn column, a compendium of every prejudice ever spewed towards single parents."
Hari has already made his mind up, but over the next fortnight the rest of us will get a chance to decide whether Little Britain still has comedy legs or not; BBC suits have given it not one but two Christmas specials, to be transmitted on Christmas Day and 30 December. They are both due to go out well after the watershed, not that such sensitive scheduling has ever prevented children from watching it. The last series was seen by 280,000 children between 10 and 15, and 86,000 viewers aged between four and nine, so it was hardly a surprise that primary school playgrounds across the country have resounded ever since to children saying "yeah but no but" and accusing each other of being "the only gay in the village". Like Harry Enfield before him, and Dick Emery before him, Lucas has contributed, for better or worse, to a nation's repertoire of catchphrases.
However, even those parents who consider him a malign influence should not keep their little darlings from watching him at all over the Christmas holidays. Lucas also pops up on BBC1 on New Year's Day as Mr Toad (the only toad in the village?) in a new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. And he has reportedly been signed up to play Friar Tuck in the next series of Robin Hood. Nobody can accuse him of not spreading his wings, nor of failing to make the most of his distinctive looks.
He was born on 5 March 1974, and was diagnosed with alopecia at the age of six, shortly after he was hit by a car. The shock of the accident made him lose his hair, and although it briefly grew back, it fell out again soon afterwards. "That was the only trick God played on me," he has recalled. "To give me back my hair and then take it away for good." He then had to suffer the indignity of wearing an NHS wig meant for a woman, but tired of having it knocked off his head in the playground, so dispensed with it altogether and submitted to the inevitable taunts.
To compound the damage to his self-esteem, when he was 13, and fat, his mother Diana started taking him to WeightWatchers. Yet worse was to come. When Lucas was 14, his father John, who ran a chauffeuring business, was jailed for four years for fraud. By the time John Lucas came out of prison the marriage was over, and his younger son had thrown himself into comedy - as a means of escape, one hardly needs to be a psychoanalyst to conclude.
When he was 10 he'd had a small part as a milkman in a show put on by his synagogue youth group, and got a laugh simply by walking on stage. It was the decisive moment that so many professional funny men can identify from their childhoods, but Lucas also had talent. He joined both the National Youth Music Theatre and the National Youth Theatre, where he met Walliams. In due course, they both went on to study drama at Bristol University.
Around the time that his father was coming out of prison, Lucas ventured on to the stand-up comedy circuit, playing ageing character actor Sir Bernard Chumley, who later resurfaced in Little Britain. In 1992, Bob Mortimer saw him as Chumley, his big break, for he then wound up as the giant drumming baby George Dawes, who kept score on Vic Reeves and Mortimer's quiz show Shooting Stars. Lucas duly became a cult figure. But it was in partnership with Walliams that his career really flourished. With Jamie Theakston they recorded an acclaimed series of spoof interviews for BBC2 called Rock Profiles, and made two series of Little Britain for Radio 4. In 2003 it transferred to BBC3, then to BBC1 and in due course to a theatre probably near you. The nationwide, 140-date live tour of Little Britain was, almost inevitably, a smash success.
Lucas, pace Johann Hari and indeed Boy George, has been described by Janet Street-Porter, also in this newspaper, as "the greatest living Englishman". That is probably stretching it a bit, but he certainly seems to be popular with most of his peers, despite the lingering resentment at the bad luck he had in his early life. (Bob Mortimer once described him as "the angriest man I have ever met".) He likes to affect a kind of mock-arrogance - for example on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, when he interrupted Kirsty Young's introduction of him as a comedy performer by saying "legend, comedy legend" - but there is little evidence, beyond Boy George's catty but memorable description of him as a prissy, niggly diva, that he believes his own publicity.
On which subject, a solicitors' letter yesterday did the rounds of most national newspapers, including this one. It said "On Sunday 17 December our clients Matt Lucas and Kevin McGee will enter into a civil partnership in a ceremony in London and celebrate the partnership at a party afterwards." Matt and Kevin would pose for photographs outside each venue, the letter went on. However, they did not wish any unauthorised records of events to be made. Guests had been asked not to bring any cameras or video equipment and the couple would take steps to prevent the use of any unauthorised record made, photographic, audio or written, "by injunction if necessary".
As for the authorised records of tomorrow's events, they are expected to reveal that guests have been asked to turn up as their favourite pantomime characters. If Lucas's relatives are fretting that their boy is marrying a Catholic, or McGee's that their boy is marrying a Jew, it seems likely that there will be plenty to distract them.
A Life in Brief
BORN Stanmore, Middlesex, 5 March 1974
EDUCATION Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School; Bristol University.
Launched on the stand-up comedy circuit in London in 1992. Spotted on stage by Bob Mortimer and began his TV association with Reeves and Mortimer in 1994. Came to prominence as George Dawes, a giant baby who kept the score in the quiz show Shooting Stars. Collaboration with David Walliams began with the 1999 UK Play series Rock Profiles. Lucas and Walliams recorded their first of two series of Little Britain for BBC Radio 4 in 2001; transferred to BBC3 in 2003. In 2002, Lucas played Leigh Bowery in Boy George's musical Taboo on the London stage, and in 2005, he took his first role in a TV drama, the BBC's Casanova.
"I know what it's like to have people close to me die, go to prison, get divorced and have accidents. Life can be quite hard."
"(Little Britain) is dreary derivative rubbish and its attitude to women is repulsive."
Caitlin Moran, writer