Little Britain: comedy from a less uptight age

It’s only been off the air for 15 years, and already it’s ‘problematic’.

Guy Birchall

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Noughties BBC sketch show Little Britain has ended up in a ‘yeah, but no, but…’ situation over its proposed return to our screens.

Its return has been in the offing ever since writers and stars David Walliams and Matt Lucas made Little Brexit, a BBC Radio 4 special, in October. But there are reportedly fears that its characters may not be ‘appropriate’ in 2020.

Friends of Walliams and Lucas have denied previous reports that the show has been canned over concerns it will be too offensive for modern tastes. But the questions of when it will come back and in what form remain unanswered. And for their part, Walliams and Lucas have said that many of their characters belong to a more risqué era.

The characters were indeed out there – by today’s standards, at least. There was Daffyd ‘the only gay in the village’ Thomas, a flamboyantly camp Welsh homosexual; Emily ‘I’m a lady’ Howard, an unconvincing transvestite who dressed in Edwardian clothing; Vicky ‘yeah, but no, but…’ Pollard, a tracksuited teen from Bristol; and a host of other characters with their own catchphrases.

Now, Little Britain was not particularly witty or subtle. It was never Monty Python’s Flying Circus or A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Nor did it pretend to be. It was lewd, crude, rude and, in the case of the vomiting racist granny, disgusting. But that was the point. The characters were caricatures, exaggerations and stereotypes.

Regardless, it proved wildly popular. Admittedly, this was in the days before Netflix, Prime Video et al. But it still raked in viewing figures (9.5million in its final series in 2005) that Auntie could only dream of these days.

Walliams and Lucas have both said that they would like to bring back the show, but that it would have to be done differently. ‘You’d definitely do it differently’, Walliams told the Radio Times recently, ‘because it’s a different time. There’s all kinds of tolerances that change.’ Similarly, Lucas told the Big Issue in 2017 that Little Britain was ‘a more cruel comedy than I’d do now’.

While Little Britain seems set to return to our screens, then, what it actually ends up looking like could tell us a lot about how our culture and cultural institutions have changed in recent years. Has our offence-taking era made it impossible for something like Little Britain to make a proper return, as crass and offensive as it was 15 years ago?

Of course, Little Britain was considered un-PC even when it was first aired in 2003. But it was still hugely popular and the BBC seemed to trust audiences to deal with the offensive humour. The difference today is that the BBC is often more concerned with whether its comedy shows toe the PC line, than with whether they are funny and enjoyed by viewers.

A more legitimate reason to nix the return of Little Britain would be to try something new for a change instead. So much of cultural output these days seems to be endless reboots and spin-offs of old shows – updated, tweaked and bastardised to make them more ‘modern’. The BBC has done this with a number of its flagship shows, perhaps most notably with Doctor Who, which regenerated its titular character into a woman for the first time in its 67-year history back in 2018. Following this progressive move, the Time Lord’s ratings have fallen off a cliff. Maybe the BBC should consider commissioning new programmes rather than rehashing old concepts.

Comedy in particular seems to be at a crossroads. In the US, comedians such as Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Joe Rogan are seeing their popularity soar with Netflix specials and podcasts, which are frequently roasted by critics but praised to the rafters by the general public. And Ricky Gervais’ final outing as host of the Golden Globes, during which he called out Hollywood hypocrisy and identity politics, was also lauded by us proles but panned by the likes of Vox and the Guardian.

Over the past 10 years, the BBC has too often catered to a tiny but shrill minority, rather than providing programmes people actually want to watch. It ousted the Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson et al, only to see them build a wildly successful show on Amazon. And it turned Doctor Who from Saturday night escapism into a weekly lecture on social justice.

And what have we had in return? The Mash Report. Ha bloody ha! Whatever happens with Little Britain, we need the likes of the BBC to take a few more risks, and trust us to take a joke.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in London.

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Comments

Tony TonyToe

10th February 2020 at 7:43 am

Also fact check, Clarkson’s Amazon show has not been wildly successful. It was wildly EXPENSIVE, hence the headlines it generated – but its audiences have dwindled, which is why it is being wound down and reduced to a coupe of specials a year.

Tony TonyToe

10th February 2020 at 7:40 am

What a strange article. What about Mrs Brown’s Boys? A show which derided by critics for being crude and un-PC, but beloved by its vast audience – and which continues to get made and given a premium prime time slot by the BBC.

Dominic Straiton

6th February 2020 at 6:42 pm

Comedy should always punch down.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

6th February 2020 at 9:36 pm

We’re only allowed to make fun of short people?

Linda D.Johnson Linda D.Johnson

6th February 2020 at 5:17 pm

nice

ronan martin

6th February 2020 at 3:06 pm

Little Britain was hilarious at the time but even I ,as someone who hates wokeness, find it cringey and awkward to watch now. The show always punches down, and makes crass steretypes lacking in wit.

It really is ‘of its time’ which isnt a bad thing, as that in that era it was hilarious to be extremely offensive, now, for better or worse, extreme offensive just makes most people feel awkward.

A good comeback would maybe a self-depricating mockumentary type show of the characters trying to make their way in the modern world of politically correct culture. The only gay in the village trying to cope with the fact that he is now derided as a cis-man and is ostracized by his extremely woke/trans/non-binary fellow villagers.

Alas, I think perhaps its time to move on. Besides, I’ve found David Walliams extremely annoying in everything hes done on tv since.

Gerard Barry

6th February 2020 at 2:54 pm

Walliams and Lucas should try to show some courage on this one and stand up to the PC bullies.

Neil John

6th February 2020 at 1:54 pm

It was crap before, now it’ll be worse, if the few snatches of BBC3’s “alleged” comedy are anything to go by.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

6th February 2020 at 11:52 am

It’s problematic because it’s not funny and relies on lazy stereotyping.

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 12:16 pm

That’s only your opinion.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

6th February 2020 at 9:37 pm

That’s only your opinion.

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 11:37 am

I think it should return with a news sketch about a brave patriotic who is regarded by all decent true British people as a working class hero, who goes around trying to expose various horrors but every time a little soy boy snowflake lefty gets in his way telling him to “shut up for the sake of diversity”.

jessica christon

6th February 2020 at 11:37 am

Little Britain was really funny, but if they bring it back woke I won’t be watching!

Andrew Moodie

6th February 2020 at 10:23 am

In 2018, Doctor Who was 55 years old, not 67.

Ven Oods

6th February 2020 at 8:25 am

Luckily, even in today’s ready-to-be-offended world, being liked by us proles is still more profitable than pleasing the critics in Vox and the Grauniad.

Linda Payne

6th February 2020 at 8:07 am

My favourite clip in little Britain is where the ‘disabled’ man leaps on a horse and gallops off. It would probably fall foul of the BBC thought police now; comedy on TV is dire, Joe Lycett (‘what would be the problem if Birmingham WAS 100% muslim?)is the worse stand up in history

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 11:38 am

Why can’t we have some comedians on the BBC who will tell us Britain will won day become a Caliphate? PC gone amd.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

6th February 2020 at 11:53 am

You bleat on about the Islamicisation of this country but do nothing to stop it.

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 12:16 pm

ZENOBIA PALMYRA.

That’s because one cannot stop something that isn’t happening.

Gerard Barry

6th February 2020 at 3:42 pm

The demographics trends say otherwise: ever more Muslims and, perhaps more worryingly, ever fewer Christians.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

6th February 2020 at 4:57 pm

Look what’s happening in France, Danny. Don’t close your eyes now. Where France goes, England follows. We were Christian from at least the 6th century. It is unlikely that western culture and freedoms can survive the loss of our Judeo-Christian foundation. The increasing levels of anti-Semitism and Islamoterrorism we are experiencing are directly attributable to the rejection of Christianity in the UK.

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 7:07 pm

You lot are barmy.

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Philip Humphrey

6th February 2020 at 7:54 am

Another good reason for scrapping the licence fee, and privatising the BBC as an optional subscription service. In that world, unfunny “woke” comedy, “woke” lecturing in drama and biased selective news won’t cut it. Go woke, go broke.

Stephen J

6th February 2020 at 7:53 am

Funnily enough, since the introduction of the female Dr. Who, I have been watching the show for the first time since Rose left in a blaze of glory.

… and the reason is that I have heard just how insipid and hectoring it is… It should almost be done under the trades description act, it is a party political broadcast on behalf of the remain wing of extinction rebellion.

I like to know where I have been going wrong at all times.

Danny Rees

6th February 2020 at 12:18 pm

Greta will be in Doctor Who soon mark my words.

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