Johann Hari: Why I hate 'Little Britain'

It is disturbing to me that this sadistic, unfunny piece of spite has captured the public imagination

Share

Let me tell you a hilarious joke. The other day, I saw an incontinent old woman in a supermarket, and she pissed herself. OK, here's another. I saw a man get up out of his wheelchair, and he was so mentally disabled he just walked into a wall. Wait, I know this might kill you but there's one more. I saw a teenage single mum who was wearing a shell-suit and she was so thick she barely knew her own name. And she had three children. Did I mention she was thick? And fat? And spotty? Did I say she lived on benefits?

Welcome to the spleen-rupturing hilarity of Little Britain. This is a golden age of British TV comedy - The Thick of It, Chris Morris, Nighty Night, Ricky Gervais, Peep Show, Peter Kay, John Sullivan, David Renwick, Coronation Street - so it is disturbing to me that this sadistic, unfunny piece of spite has captured the public imagination. 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. (No wonder Littlebrain describes the show as "brilliant" and uses Vicky as a shorthand to abuse all single mums everywhere).

A few years ago, the bilious 1990s backlash against single parents living on crumbling estates - like my sister - was slowly receding. Then Vicky was born. Matt Lucas and David Walliams used the clothes worn by poor people (Kappa, Burberry) and even the names they give their children (Destiny, Shannon, Bethany) as cheap punchlines. They unwittingly incited their armies of child fans to hunt down the Vickys in their playground.

Imagine a comedy where a British Asian wearing a sari, or naming their child Apu or Karim or Gita, was the joke and the punchline. It's (rightly) unthinkable. But abusing the white working class is rewarded with viewing figures topping 10 million. We look back on Jim Davidson blacking up as a head-scratching, imbecile black man with horror. But why is a public schoolboy dressing up as a head-scratching, imbecile single mother any better?

Walliams has tried to defend himself by saying: "These characters are fun. You want to spend time with them. You don't despise them. You're laughing with them, not at them."

Has he ever logged on to one of his own fan-sites? Listen to one typical message: "Down here in Bristol, we have an area called Southmead [one of the most deprived parts of Britain], which is absolutely packed with Vickys wearing their fluorescent track-suits. I was coming home on the bus today and, as always, there were millions sat at the back all holding their babies that they had when they were 12 and every other word was f**k this and f**k that and that's just the babies! They all have council flats and not a GCSE to their name. Do the Vickys out there not watch television, because if they do surely they would have seen Vicky on TV and thought, that's me! Do they not realise we are taking the piss out of them?"

This is one of the more publishable comments. The people who supposedly like Vicky and want to spend time with her are mysteriously silent, drowned out with people recounting how they hate the "slags" and "whores" and "idiots" who resemble her. A typical recurring theme on the Little Britain discussion boards is the hilarity of poor people wearing fake designer clothes. Here's a side-splitting thought I'd like to offer: they wear fake designer clothes because they can't afford to nip into House of Fraser to buy the real ones. They're too poor. Oh, my aching sides.

True, there were some posh characters who were also ridiculed in the first series - but they have slowly died away as Lucas and Walliams give us, the British public, what we want: an excuse to mock the vulnerable.

The surviving characters are barely any better. There's Daffyd, "the only gay in the village", who is based on one endlessly repeated comic premise: there is no prejudice against gay people in Britain any more, but shrieking gay misery-queens like Daffyd are so obsessed with being victims they obsessively see prejudice where there is none. Sweet old ladies point him towards the Local Fisting Club while he insists he is surrounded by homophobes.

The figure of Daffyd is now routinely used by anti-gay right-wingers - step forward again, Littlejohn - to ridicule people like Peter Tatchell. Why are you talking about the victims of homophobia when this is already a pro-gay paradise? What are you, the only gay in the village? I know Matt Lucas is gay (although he is still so conflicted about his sexuality he almost never discusses it publicly). And I know he is not responsible for how idiots might twist his jokes for their own agenda -- but the problem is, they didn't have to do much twisting. The show is cluttered with ugly prejudices, and they are not ancillary to the jokes: they are the joke.

Victoria Wood (a genuinely great comedian) was right to recently dub Little Britain "very misogynistic". Dozens of sketches hinge upon the ugliness of female flesh, and barely a woman is shown without the actors playing her being padded into monstrous fat-suits. It's hard to escape the conclusion this is a gay man's woman-hatred with a laughter track, a sketch-long recoil from breasts and vaginas.

Perhaps a tiny sliver of this would be forgivable if the show was actually funny, but it is as entertaining as a burning orphanage. Little Britain represents the return of catchphrase comedy, which actually trumps sarcasm as the lowest form of wit. Catchphrases are humour for people without a sense of humour: you can watch a sketch waiting for the dull, repeated phrase - "yeahbutnobutyeah", "I don't want it" - and feel like you've Got It and you are In On the Joke without any mental dexterity or understanding. (That's why it is so popular with children). The shining light of Noughties comedy is as sophisticated as the British policeman from 'Allo 'Allo, guaranteed a laugh for bleating "Good moaning".

But the blame for Little Britain lies out here in Big Britain. When the show first started, it was not the bile-fest it is today. There was a gentler, absurdist edge to the first series, but it soon became clear that the viewers preferred a comedy of jeering and sneering. The jokes curdled and became poisonous - and Walliams and Lucas were simply responding to market forces. So what does it say about us that we are a nation that pines for gags about stupid, poor people and old women pissing themselves in public?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...