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Two's company

The virtuosic comedy pair behind the zippy sketch show 'Little Britain' say their gallery of characters is ready for an Atlantic crossing.

June 20, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

London — People have been known to giggle when they spot actor-writers Matt Lucas and David Walliams on the streets of London.

"It happened just today," Walliams says a little incredulously as he spreads clotted cream on a raisin scone in the tea room of the Art Deco hotel Claridge's on a gloomy May afternoon. "We were [hailing] a taxi, somebody saw us and just started laughing."

Lucas, seated across from Walliams, adds, "And I shouted out, 'You're easily pleased! You can come back!' "

Even though they're the U.K.'s latest comic heroes, thanks to the smash BBC sketch series they write and star in, "Little Britain," the white hot Londoners say they're always surprised by this reaction. That's because it's hard for anyone who's seen the show to say just what Walliams and Lucas look like.

Instead, the duo have become stars by displaying a bottomless ability to make over their physical selves into dozens of loony recurring characters who have quickly become beloved oddballs, a phenomenon BBC America hopes will happen stateside with the series' first U.S. airing, starting tonight. With the recent crossover success of the documentary-style embarrassment farce "The Office," the channel is banking on the sillier, zippier yet more old-fashioned sketch pleasures of "Little Britain" to have just as much transatlantic appeal.

Lucas thinks the show has a shot at an American following. "It plays into people's view of Britain, which is that eccentricity," he says.

Walliams laughs. "Yeah, they can have all their prejudices confirmed."

If the show is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the spectrum of British citizenry -- with a stentorian narrator (Tom Baker) offering patently untrue but hilarious "facts" about the English -- the sheer volume of Walliams and Lucas' caricature load gives it a virtuosic flair. From now on, comedy troupes with three or more performers may look lazy by comparison.

"By the time you get to the fourth or fifth sketch, you think, 'These guys are incredible, they're carrying the whole thing,' " says David Bernath, BBC America's vice president of programming. "Even 'Saturday Night Live' is an ensemble. The burden doesn't rest on one or two comedians. In this case it does. Their range is astounding."

Walliams, 32, tall and model-handsome in person, easily chucks vanity aside to play garish transvestite Emily who can't fool anyone, bitter ex-children's TV star Des Kaye, or swooning assistant Sebastian, in love with his boss, the prime minister (played by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" vet Anthony Stewart Head because the pair needed a "dishy" PM a la Tony Blair for the gag to work). The 30-year-old Lucas, meanwhile, baby-faced, chubby and hairless from childhood alopecia, is a transformation marvel as speed-sassing teen delinquent Vicky Pollard, vindictive weight-loss motivator Marjorie, or leather-outfitted Daffyd, defiantly convinced against all contrary evidence he's the sole gay man in his Welsh village. "We've never been exponents of cool brand comedy," Walliams says. "No one is going to want to sleep with us after having watched our show!"

Concerns of specificity to British culture naturally exist when a program enters American homes, but characters like Daffyd, Lucas and Walliams believe, can cross the pond successfully because the situation being sent up is universal. "I came out in my late teens," Lucas says, "and no one was bothered. I was like 'How dare no one care!' So I can understand wanting to hold on to what's special. It suddenly made me feel less relevant."

As for the numerous female roles they adopt, the pair joke about the perception -- "Nobody's twisting our arms to get us into dresses," the straight Walliams says in a teasing tone, while Lucas quips, "If you forget the title of the show, call it 'Women and Gays' " -- but try to eschew the crude caricature of drag. Lucas imagines their female characters would be just as believable if played by funny women. Walliams makes the point, "There's a difference between drag and playing a woman, which is what, say, Barry Humphries [as Dame Edna] does."

Lucas and Walliams, both raised in suburban London (Lucas in Stanmore, Walliams in Surrey), became fast friends in 1990 at England's National Youth Theater, sharing a love for Brit comedy stalwarts such as the "The Two Ronnies" and "Frankie Howerd." Lucas was making TV appearances and Walliams was writing for children's television when they began collaborating in 1994, eventually performing their own edgy midnight show at the Edinburgh Festival's fringe offshoot in 1995. Their 50-seat room's only toilet was accessed by crossing the stage. "We would have an endless procession of very drunk people asking us directions to the lavatory in the middle of our routines," Walliams says. "I think that toughened us up."

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