The past is a foreign country, and rarely more so than in the annals of TV comedy. The Sixties and Seventies yielded Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death Us Do Part, series that invited viewers to laugh along with racist jibes and xenophobic rants. The Benny Hill Show gave audiences misogyny wrapped up in idiotic slapstick. In the Nineties, the cherished US sitcom Friends provided loveable characters, smart wordplay and… Monica in a fat suit.
If comedy seemed to up its game after the millennium with pioneering series such as The Office, Peep Show and Marion & Geoff, it took a step back with Little Britain, which arrived in 2003. Look at it now and it makes for grimly unedifying viewing, with sketches featuring Ting Tong, the mail-order Thai bride and Desiree, an obese black woman, played by David Walliams in blackface. Elsewhere, there was Vicky Pollard, Matt Lucas’s gobby teen mum famed for her “yeah but no but” prattling, and the PVC-swathed Dafydd Thomas, better known as “the only gay in the village”.
While Lucas and Walliams’ idea of light entertainment left a lot to be desired, it is viewers who must shoulder the blame for its success; at its peak, Little Britain was watched by 10 million people. Along with sold-out tours, it did a roaring trade in merchandise – you can still buy Little Britain-themed costumes online, including Vicky Pollard’s cerise tracksuit, complete with bulging belly, and a Desiree costume so disgraceful that just looking at it feels like a hate crime.
Now, news arrives that Little Britain is “definitely” – according to Walliams – returning after 12 years. Its comeback follows a one-off episode on Radio 4 last autumn called Little Brexit (in which the TV version’s more egregious characters were notably absent). In a world of entertainment nostalgia and wall-to-wall reboots, its reappearance was perhaps only a matter of time. Nonetheless, exhuming a show that blithely caricatured gay, Bame, disabled and working-class characters, reducing them to grotesques, would seem hard to justify in 2020.
Little Britain’s defenders would no doubt argue that it was a form of social commentary, fearlessly casting a light on our country’s small-minded Little England mentality – though nowadays it looks a lot like punching down. The social commentary defence was applied to Till Death Us Do Part, though a report commissioned by the BBC at the time revealed that a large proportion of its viewers felt that the central character Alf Garnett’s concerns about immigrants were “quite reasonable”. Audiences like nothing more than comics who reaffirm their views.
Lucas, who is gay himself, has said that Dafydd was meant as a celebration of homosexuality and that he was devastated to see his character become a schoolyard taunt. That seems naive at best. Explanations of Walliams in blackface have been less forthcoming. Still, rather than doubling down on the show’s missteps, Lucas and Walliams at least appear to have engaged in some re-evaluation. Walliams recently told an interviewer: “You’d definitely do it differently [now] because it’s a different time.” In 2017, interviewed by The Big Issue, Lucas said: “I wouldn’t make that show now. It would upset people. We made a more cruel comedy than I’d do now. Society has moved on a lot since then and my own views have evolved.”
Naturally, the prospect of a new Little Britain has set right-wing newspapers aquiver, with The Sun asking, “Will it fall foul of the PC killjoys?” It is the frequent wail of the contrarian columnist that you can’t say anything without the woke police crying foul. A dreary new puritanism has taken over, we are forever told. But anyone who watches new comedy, whether live or on TV, will know this is far from the case. There’s nothing dreary or puritanical about, say, Hannah Gadsby, London Hughes or Sofie Hagen, whose stand-up shows are bold, barbed and, yes, funny too. The difference between them and the comedic blowhards of yore, however, is that their targets are less likely to be the vulnerable or marginalised, but instead those in society who hold sway – namely middle-class white men. (As a side-note, anyone concerned that woke leftists have hijacked comedy might like to observe that Jimmy Carr continues to tour and is never not on TV).
But let’s be clear, no one is cancelling Little Britain – along with the proposed revival, the original three series are all available on Netflix. But perhaps we can be quietly cheered by this rare instance of two successful, established comics observing changing values and showing a willingness to move with the times. Whether their evolved version of Little Britain will be funny is another matter entirely.
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