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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 745 minutes
• Commentary on every episode by Matt Lucas, David Walliams and friends
• Specials “Little Britain Abroad” and “Little Britain Live”
• Deleted scenes with optional commentary
• Making-of documentaries
• Promotional interviews
• Radio sketches
• 2005 Comic Relief appearance
• A bunch more stuff
What if we got two guys to dress up in silly costumes and wigs! That’s never been done on British television before, right?
Matt Lucas, David Walliams
Matt Lucas and David Walliams write and star in Little Britain, a sketch comedy show that aired on various BBC channels from 2003 to 2006. Thanks to its “kooky” cast of characters and their “wacky” catchphrases, the show became a smash hit in the UK and abroad, and while each individual series of the show is already available on DVD, now all twenty episodes have been released together in one convenient package.
What is it about purple pants that makes car-lifting so captivating?
It would be unfair of me to impugn an entire nation on the basis of a single television show, particularly when it’s a nation I’ve never visited. But I have to admit: I’m sorely tempted. After all, Little Britain was a hugely popular and critically acclaimed series in the UK, first as a radio show and then on BBC Television, so it’s clear that in large part, the show is a reflection of British tastes on the whole. If I were to blame all collective Britons for unleashing this magnificent abomination upon the world, I think to a certain degree I’d be justified. Point of fact, I was all set to do just that until something suddenly occurred to me: If this is considered one of the best comedies in recent British television history, one deemed worthy enough to export all over the globe… then what is your crap like? I’m loathe to even contemplate. How in the world can I possibly heap scorn upon you poor English bastards under these circumstances? Here lies your nation’s entire legacy of comedy, your great playwrights from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Tom Stoppard, to all your great television comedies over the years such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and The Office, your country’s reputation for its artful drollery and rapier wit… All tarnished in the blink of an eye by two buffoons in fat suits. England, you have my condolences.
The aforementioned buffoons are Matt Lucas and David Walliams (whose surname is clearly the result of a dyslexic ancestor, though I probably shouldn’t throw stones about peoples’ names), the writers and stars of Little Britain. This is strictly a two-man operation, and since I knew absolutely nothing about the series going in, I found this bit of information somewhat encouraging. Generally I prefer it when a sketch show has as small a writing staff as possible, since it usually lends the comedy an immediacy that you can’t get from a large team of writers. As George Costanza once said, everyone has their own little opinions and everything gets homogenized and you lose the whole edge of it. Next to bland juggernauts like Saturday Night Live, stuff like Chappelle’s Show or Mr. Show with Bob and David feels so much less manufactured by comparison, taking on a more handcrafted, personal feel. Of course the trouble with this slimmed-down, run-and-gun approach to comedy is that if you’re only going to have two writers, they’d better be really fucking funny. If they’re not, the result can be quite grim; a trapeze artist working without a net is only exciting until one of them falls and kills a clown, and Lucas and Walliams certainly kill a lot of clowns here.
There’s something very familiar about A-Ha’s new music video…
To be fair, Matt Lucas and David Walliams are both fine performers, able to wear silly hats and glasses with aplomb. It’s the material that stinks. Recurring sketches take on such wide-ranging and diverse topics as old women who uncontrollably vomit on themselves (and others), to old women who uncontrollably urinate on themselves (and others). Lucas and Walliams manage to create completely unique and original characters such as Marjorie Dawes, the disgustingly fat woman in a weight-loss class, to Bubbles DeVere, the disgustingly fat woman in a weight-loss spa. Then there are the two completely unrelated and oh-so-distinct recurring characters of Andy, the supposedly-physically-handicapped man who gets up and runs around when nobody’s looking, and Anne, the supposedly-mentally-handicapped woman who is able to hold perfectly normal conversations, but only when her doctor is not around. I mean honestly, how is it possible that only two individuals came up with all these amazing and varied sketch ideas all by themselves? How do they do it?
For a half-hour show comprised of a total of only twenty episodes, the repetition in Little Britain is astounding. For instance, not only are characters like Andy and Anne complete carbon copies of one another with their genders and maladies reversed, but each one of them is given a sketch in practically every episode. And in every episode, the sketch is exactly the same: Andy/Anne goes somewhere with his/her caretaker/doctor. The caretaker/doctor looks away for some highly contrived reason. Andy’s/Anne’s handicap disappears. They do something supposedly funny, like climb a tree (Andy) or call their stockbroker (Anne). The doctor/caretaker returns. Their handicap suddenly reappears. The laugh track roars in approval, with a smattering of applause. End of sketch. And if you thought that was hilarious, tune in next week when Andy climbs a fence!
“Now then, class… Who can tell me: What do you get when you guzzle down sweets? Eating as much as an elephant eats?”
Of course, repeating the same jokes ad nauseum might be pardonable if your jokes are real knee-slappers, but in case you couldn’t already tell by the tenor of this review, I hardly found Little Britain‘s sketches to be funny the first time around. Maybe it’s the over-reliance on vulgarity and gross-out gags. Maybe it was the complete lack of creativity in its targets, gleefully skewering such high-minded topics like fat people and halfwits. But then, I don’t have any aversion to gross-out humor, and I am certainly not above laughing at the fat and the stupid. So what exactly is it about Little Britain that I found so blisteringly unfunny? It’s a tough thing to explain, really. Trying to deconstruct why something is or isn’t funny can be a dangerous game, so instead let me quantify things for you: Over three series and twenty episodes, I can count the number of times I laughed on one hand. No, scratch that: one finger. It was during a sketch involving a tour guide who insists on pointing out locations of his own sexual exploits, voluntarily including them among the tour’s points of interest. I laughed once during that sketch. So that’s a single laugh in ten-plus hours of sketch comedy; not a very good ratio to say the least.
Ironically enough, there is a deleted scene from the first series – about a group of cancer research fundraisers who are secretly disappointed when a cure is discovered – that is one of the best comedy sketches I’ve seen in several years. This is borderline brilliant stuff, as we watch a group of selfless philanthropists slowly become disenchanted by the idea of their life’s work abruptly coming to an end (“What about the fun run?” someone asks). The sketch is a little too short to fully realize its own potential, but it’s the only thing on any of these eight discs that takes any sort of risks whatsoever. So naturally, it never aired.
There was an old lady who was swallowed by a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.
Seeing this cancer sketch in the deleted scenes scrapheap, I had to wonder what David Walliams and Matt Lucas might’ve been capable of had they taken the show in a totally different direction. In the commentary tracks, the two of them freely admit that the popularity of a character would determine how often they reappeared: The most popular characters from their radio show were brought over to the television program, the most popular characters from Series 1 were brought over to Series 2, and so on. Meaning that the least popular characters – typically the least obnoxious ones, interestingly enough – were dropped altogether. There’s almost a twisted Darwinism at work here: it’s survival of the broadest. You have to wonder what might’ve been, had Walliams and Lucas created the show they themselves wanted to make, rather than the show they thought the public wanted to see.
So you know what? Maybe this is the fault of the British public after all. Maybe I was being too soft on them earlier. Lucas and Walliams were only giving the people what they wanted after all; they might be the only two credited writers of Little Britain, but it turns out they had the largest, blandest writer’s room of them all: their viewers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are plenty of individual Englishmen out there who have good taste (and if you’re a CHUD reader, that’s certainly a good sign), but as a group you guys really screwed the pooch with this one. Don’t feel too bad, we Americans made Larry the Cable Guy a star, so things could be a lot worse. I suppose no matter where you go in the world, you’ll find huge swaths of the population that have awful, awful taste. There’s something simultaneously comforting and horrifying about that fact. But I guess the lowest common denominator is far more common than I’d ever imagined.
Now comes the part where I suddenly become conflicted, because as much as I hated the show, Little Britain: The Complete Collection is one of the best DVD sets of any television program I’ve ever seen. This thing is just exploding with bonus materials; not since the Freaks and Geeks set have I witnessed this level of special feature saturation. In fact, this set might even have Freaks and Geeks beat, if that’s even possible.
First off are the commentary tracks on all twenty episodes with David Walliams, Matt Lucas, and a rotating cavalcade of directors and producers. Even if you’re a fan of Walliams and Lucas, the two of them aren’t naturally funny guys – they hardly cracked a single joke in any of the commentary tracks I listened to – but they do manage to keep things lively and informative, talking about the inspirations of sketches, their days on the radio, and Little Britain in general. Given the repetitive nature of the show, I don’t know how they can justify a commentary track on every single episode, but of the ones I listened to, I found them to be quite tolerable; interesting even. Granted, I think the reason I found them interesting is precisely because I thought the show was so terrible; like watching a documentary on the Hindenburg disaster, you tune in because you’re curious to get an insight into what went wrong.
“Which one of you two wrote this shit?”
Each series has its own deleted scenes section complete with commentary, and as I’ve already mentioned they’re often better than the actual show. There’s also a making-of documentary for each series, as well as truckloads of interviews and other promotional materials. The bonus features for the third series is particularly self-congratulatory, since by that time the show was such a massive hit that there were entire television specials devoted to the phenomenon of Little Britain, including an hour-long tribute to Little Britain on The South Bank Show that is so complimentary it borders on fellatious.
The last two discs are comprised of Little Britain Abroad and Little Britain Live, respectively. Abroad is an hour-long special of various characters going on various trips to various places* for various reasons, and the ostensible hilarity that ensues. And Little Britain Live, as you might imagine, is a stage performance of the show, filmed at the Blackpool Opera House in 2006 as part of a tour of England. I must admit that I only skimmed both discs; by this point I’d seen these sketches over and over enough times that I hardly needed to seem them performed again in a slightly changed context. Abroad essentially serves as an extra episode to serve as a sendoff – literally, in this case – and as such, the focus is squarely on the recurring characters. There are no extraneous sketches here, no new ideas, no new characters, just long-overdue farewells for characters that, at least for me, had more than worn out their welcome. And Little Britain Live is interesting enough in that the material has had to be reworked for the stage, but it’s still the same material, the same jokes. I can see how it might’ve been fun for a fan of the show to see it in person, but as a filmed stage performance it doesn’t bring much to the table. Both discs have their own making-of documentaries, commentary tracks, and deleted scenes.
On top of all this are various other odds and ends scattered throughout the discs, such as clips from the Little Britain radio show, character profiles, Comic Relief sketches, bizarre BBC ads of a CGI slug reciting lines from the show, charity appearances, random Little-Britain-related sketches from other shows… I could go on and on. Little Britain: The Complete Collection is about as comprehensive a DVD set can be without having a live performance in your living room. The show certainly has its fans, and if you’re one of them, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re thinking of blind-buying this set based on the reputation of the show and the quality of the DVD, I’d think twice.
My sentiments exactly.
4.5 out of 10
* Mostly Florida. Is it my imagination, or do the English have an unhealthy preoccupation with the Sunshine State? It seems like every British television show or movie I see, someone’s talking about taking a trip and/or moving to Florida. Personally it would be near the bottom of my list of places to visit, but whatever.