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Laughter in the British tradition

'Little Britain' is another smart and silly sketch comedy series from across the sea.

June 18, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Britain! Britain! Britain! Land of technological achievement! We've had running water for over 10 years, an underground tunnel that links us to Peru, and we invented the cat." With these words, spoken by narrator Tom Baker -- possibly the best known of the former Dr. Who's -- begins "Little Britain," the latest U.K. comedy sensation, set to invade our electronic shores this Sunday under the cover of BBC America.

The sketches, which cover the length and breadth of British society -- though with an accent on the low and powerless as opposed to the high and mighty -- are framed in such a way as to suggest a kind of human nature documentary. And it does seem true that as a people the Brits are more than usually fascinated by their own eccentricity and, given the smallness of the island, the range of distinct voices and cultures it contains -- this is what a good, solid, relatively impermeable class system will get you, ladies and gentleman.

"Little Britain" is written and primarily acted by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, ages 30 and 32, respectively, and collaborators for a decade already. Walliams is tall and lean, Lucas round and short (next to Walliams, anyway), and between them they play a great variety of characters into which they disappear almost whole. Their makeup, hair and costume artists have done stellar work, helping to create real individuals within caricatured types. (Lucas, left hairless by a childhood illness, is a veritable blank slate.) As do all British male comedians, they spend a not inconsiderable time in drag.

There are those of us who have a special regard for comedy from across the sea. You may go back as far as wall-eyed Marty Feldman, a featured player on the 1970 "Golddiggers" summer replacement series, or to Monty Python, "The Young Ones," "The League of Gentlemen" (whose director Steve Bendelack also directs here), "Smack the Pony" (the distaff version of all this), "The Fast Show (called "Brilliant!" on BBC America) or the various projects and characters of Steve Coogan, currently poised for something like stateside breakthrough with "Around the World in 80 Days" but long the object of an American cult following.

If any or all of these names cause a faint quickening of your pulse, you will not be disappointed here. Notwithstanding the odd low pun (Kelsey Grammar School, Uncle Albert Hall) -- or including, if you like -- "Little Britain" is smart stuff.

There are three sorts of humor interwoven here. There is Baker's absurd narration: "People in Britain do all manner of things for kicks. Some lick stamps! Others sit on chairs!" There are interstitial spot gags -- a "public toilet" out in the open, a "literal mime" peeling and eating a real banana. And there are the sketches themselves, many of which make use of what will be recurring characters.

These include Vicky Pollard, a clueless schoolgirl whose breathless excuses ("no but yeah but no but yeah but no") keep collapsing into gossip; Emily Howard, an inept transvestite, who insists grandly "I'm a lady" (Walliams is a good enough female impersonator to play a bad female impersonator well); Ray McCooney, the proprietor of Scotland's Ye Olde Hotel ("Have ye ever heard of a thing called ... butterrrrrrr?"); Daffyd, insistent on being the only "gay" in his little Welsh village; friends Lou and Andy, whose relationship is too delicately strange to describe, but suffice it to say that Andy does not need that wheelchair, and Lou doesn't know it; and Sebastian, aide to the prime minister (played by Anthony Stewart Head, late of "Buffy"), on whom he has a nervous crush.

Some of it is cruel ("Until a law is passed to imprison fat people, the gluttons of Britain are free to walk the streets and attend special diet classes like this one") and some of it is creepy -- there's a character in love with his best friend's grandmother ("I bet you're a woman of experience"; "Well, I've lived through two world wars") and a couple who use their seriously ill, unconscious daughter as a shill to meet pop stars. (David Soul! And some guy from the Bay City Rollers.) But so is life, I suppose, and not only in little Britain.


'Little Britain'

Where: BBC America

When: Premieres 9:40 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-14 (may not be suitable for children younger than 14).

Starring: Matt Lucas and David Walliams

Tom Baker...Narrator

Anthony Stewart Head...Prime Minister

Executive producer, Jon Plowman. Director, Steve Bendelack. Writers, Matt Lucas and David Walliams.

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