Sunday, December 09, 2007
Little Britain: The Complete Series
Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Little Britain is an incredible collection of characters covering all levels of British society from the Prime Minister's office to the small village of Llandewi Breffi. All these characters are created and played by Matt Lucas and David Walliams. The show consists of 20-30 short sketches per 30-minute show featuring recurring characters, most with a collection of catchphrases. The sketches are linked by the inventive narration of Tom Baker (the 4th Doctor from Doctor Who). His narration has little to nothing to do with the scenes and is usually nonsensical statements about Britain - "British justice is the best in the world. Anyone who disagrees is either gay, a woman or a mental." Little Britain falls squarely in the tradition of great sketch shows somewhere just south of Monty Python and right around the level of Kids In The Hall.
Why does this work? The answer is simple: volume, volume, volume. At around a minute per sketch and with over 20 established characters, each with a couple catchphrases, there's almost always going to be something for everyone. There's going to be a character or two that everyone knows in their real life. If you don't like a character or sketch, there's another one coming in one minute. For the characters that you know and love, like Carol Beer the travel agent, you know immediately how the sketch is going to play out, with her saying "Computer says no . . . (cough)" as the customer gets more and more frustrated. The anticipation is itself the pleasure.
The characters are the stars. Once each character's particulars have been established, there's less need for set-up for each joke. This is the brilliance of the recurring character in a sketch show that Saturday Night Live perfected years ago. Once we know the character, like Emily Howard (a rubbish transvestite) ("Well, being a lady, I do ladies' things"), we only have to put her in the scene like at the community pool and we can immediately play out the jokes before they happen. We immediately fast-forward to her having to decide which locker room to change into her bathing suit even before she's standing at the two doors at the end of the sketch.
My favorite characters are Andy and Lou. Lou takes care of his wheelchair-bound friend Andy oblivious to the fact that Andy does not need the wheelchair. The Andy/Lou sketches are built upon two possible combinations. One is Andy picking out something we know he won't like (e.g. a plain cone without any ice cream in it or a pet snake) and Lou asking "Are you sure you want this one?" before giving in. And then Andy saying "Don't like it" once he gets what he picked out. The other joke is Andy getting up out of his wheelchair with Lou isn't looking (e.g. to do toilet or even jump off a diving board) and sitting back down just before Lou catches him. It's a simple set-up but just those two possibilities lend themselves to view anticipation at the start of each sketch and delicious payoff.
In addition to a steady diet of established characters and a humorous narrator, Little Britain builds its universe with recurring locations like the pool, the courtroom, and the Chinese restaurant. Although the different characters don't interact, there's the feeling that they do exist in this world of Little Britain. Ending each episode of Season One with a set of characters (Ian and Ian) making a failed attempt at a Guinness World Record (my favorite being the "Most Beans In A Bathtub") puts a nice consistent bow on each episode.
The DVD release of the Little Britain: The Complete Collection is a comprehensive marker for the careers of Matt Lucas and David Walliams. With the duo working on an American version of the show to air on HBO in 2008, this is the perfect time to see where the journey started, catch our breath, and prepare for the rest of the strange trip that Little Britain provides. The DVD release does not cheat you on extras.
The Complete First Series includes funny commentary on all eight episodes and the pilot episode and four live sketches. The Complete Second Series includes commentary on all six episodes, an LB documentary, and some hilarious sketches from the 2005 Comic Relief with Elton John and George Michael (being asked by Lou to come to Andy's birthday party). The Complete Third Series includes commentary on all six episodes and a South Bank Show Little Britain Special. Also included is Little Britain Abroad which is essentially a Christmas special that takes the characters to other countries (including Marjorie Dawes taking her Fat Fighters to the U.S. and Andy and Lou being trapped on a deserted island). This disc includes commentary and a "Little Britain Down Under" documentary. The last disc is Little Britain Live which is recorded from a Blackpool Opera House performance and still includes Tom Baker narration, although it is prerecorded. The Live disc includes commentary and deleted scenes.
There's so much material to get through here that it can overwhelm the actual brilliance of the show. It's simple. Character, setting, catchphrase, end. The biggest complaint of the recurring Saturday Night Live characters was that a "Wayne’s World" or "Church Lady" sketch could go on too long and just peter out of jokes. That isn't allowed to happen here. Daffyd is going to say "I'm the only gay in the village" and within 30 seconds we're moving on to another character. The characters aren't overexposed. Like Marjorie says, "by eating half the calories, you can have twice as much." Less is more here. I hope the future is bright here in America for this show. If it isn't we'll always have this box set to remind us of the good days.