Tuesday 22 November 2005
Johann Hari: Why I hate 'Little Britain'
It is disturbing to me that this sadistic, unfunny piece of spite has captured the public imagination
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?
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