Little Britain – Big Fisticuffs!

By KJ Elsdon

2018-06-LittleBritainFunny things, funerals. Obviously, there’s the grief and, occasionally, regret that one feels about the death of the family member or friend in question, but this doesn’t mark the full extent of the awkwardness that can result. This is a hard lesson that comedians Matt Lucas and David Walliams had to learn recently when they encountered each other for the first time in seven years at the funeral of mutual contact, Dale Winton.

The formerly inseparable comedy duo, who had been widely touted as the new Two Ronnies, experienced a catastrophic falling-out in 2011 since when they have not been photographed together. In the end it took the death of Winton, the famously affable and camp-as-Christmas TV presenter, to persuade them to breathe the same air for even a few minutes. The paparazzi were on hand to capture the moment, but what conversation did or didn’t take place between the talented but egotistical pair must remain a mystery.

Having first met in 1990 when they were both members of the National Youth Theatre, Lucas and Walliams quickly found that they shared a sense of humour and a talent for the grotesque, which would serve them well later when portraying Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey (Rock Profile) and creating characters like Vicky Pollard and Emily Howard (Little Britain) and Peter and Judith Surname (Come Fly with Me).

Trying to pin down the factor that had led to their split when they seemed at the height of their popularity and domination of the comedy scene, Walliams stated in a BBC Radio 4 interview to promote his 2012 autobiography, Camp David, “We're very different people and probably want different things and had different working methods.” Perhaps this was an attempt at diplomacy on Walliams’s part, as it was rumoured that at least some of the friction between the pair was due to Walliams being a driven perfectionist who was eager to rehearse each sketch as many times as possible before filming, while Lucas’s approach was rather more improvisational, freeform and relaxed. “Lazy,” as Walliams is rumoured to have described it to friends, adding that Lucas’s preparation for performance tended to revolve around drinking cups of tea and reading magazines and books, forcing the rather more committed Walliams to drag him to the rehearsal room to brush up their parts before the director shouted, “Action!”

Their estrangement saddened their fans, not least because Lucas had been very effusive about Walliams’s powers of encouragement in the early days of their friendship when, he claimed, merely receiving a postcard from his comedy partner had the power to cheer him immensely. Lucas had not had an easy childhood after his father, to whom he was very close, was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. He had lost his hair at the age of six after being hit by a car and blamed the stress triggered by the incident, but further agony was to follow when Lucas Sr. dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 52. Add to that a lifelong propensity to be overweight (he would base his bullying, insensitive Fat Fighters henchwoman Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain partly on his mother and partly on some of the people he encountered at diet groups as a child) and it didn’t take an expert to predict that Lucas would turn out as something of a troubled soul.

Lucas’s two-year ‘marriage’ to equally troubled TV producer Kevin McGee can hardly have helped. Confessing that he felt tremendously guilty about the failure of the relationship at a time when the concept of civil partnership was in its infancy and the pair hoped to be considered poster boys for its potential, things became even more messy when McGee later killed himself in 2009, the year after the couple’s divorce was finalised. Lucas was understandably devastated and disappeared from public view for a while.

Having worked closely with comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, most memorably as the drumming and giant Babygro-clad George Dawes who was tasked with keeping nominal control of the scores on the anti-panel game Shooting Stars, few people knew him as well and Bob Mortimer was once moved to describe him as “the angriest man I have ever met”. Clearly Lucas’s public persona, which consisted mostly of broad smiles, quick wit and bonhomie, disguised a multitude of depths. He was also, compared to Walliams’s high camp persona, an Arsenal-supporting, more obviously blokey character.

By contrast Walliams was the more traditionally handsome in the early days of the partnership, his camp demeanour also masking an inner turmoil, as he spoke of his terror of being alone, a situation to which marriage to a much younger woman, model Lara Stone, did little to assuage, although the five-year relationship did result in the birth of Walliams’s son, Alfred. Like Lucas, Walliams struggled to cope with the death of his father and, at times, seemed slightly lost after the dissolution of his partnership with his Little Britain partner in crime.

Of course, Walliams’s work ethic and drive to succeed meant that he looked for other ways to use his talents and he took on some extraordinary physical challenges, swimming the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar and the length of the Thames. He freely admitted that his somewhat podgy frame militated against true athletic success, but grim determination seemed to take him over the line every time. Mark Morriss of Britpop band The Bluetones was so impressed that he wrote a song, ‘Fade In/Fade Out’ for him, which appeared on their self-titled 2006 album.

That apart, these days David Walliams is probably better known as the author of a number of seemingly Roald Dahl inspired children’s books which, despite – or perhaps because of - having drawn a certain amount of criticism for their concentration on toilet humour and bodily functions, have sold in their hundreds of thousands. Several of the stories have been adapted for TV, including Ratburger, Gangsta Granny, Billionaire Boy, Grandpa’s Great Escape and, possibly the most autobiographical of all, The Boy in the Dress. Walliams’s books have won several prizes, including several voted for by the readers themselves. Walliams must have been prepared for the initial scepticism that greeted his two-book contract with HarperCollins, especially when it was announced that the resultant novels would be illustrated by Quentin Blake, who famously performed the same task for Roald Dahl.

The days of writing comedy sketches with Matt Lucas might be over for now, but Walliams has shown that his love of the grotesque and the shocking is as strong as ever, practising his best camp flirtatious manner on Simon Cowell, after he was invited to be a judge on the popular annual talent contest, Britain’s Got Talent from 2012 to the present. He even went solo for one series of Walliams and Friend in 2015, a sketch show in which he and a celebrity guest starred as an array of characters, none of which would have looked particularly out of place in the environs of either Little Britain or Come Fly with Me.

He also tried his hand at serious acting, critics finding themselves divided over his slightly creepy turn in Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary, after which he went on to play a variety of more appealing roles, including Tommy Beresford in Partners in Crime, BBC1’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s popular ‘Tommy and Tuppence’ novels and the oleaginous yet childlike Mr. Church in the secondary school-based sitcom, Big School which he also created and wrote.

While Matt Lucas decamped to LA, choosing to make select forays back to the UK to pursue projects such as his depiction of the slimy, duplicitous inn-keeper Thénardier in the 25th Anniversary version of the popular musical, Les Miserables, Walliams stayed put in the UK and grafted.

Perhaps it was this difference in attitudes to work and lifestyle that has caused the rift between the former comedy partners to be so lasting. Having enjoyed enormous success with their early projects, there could also be a sense that they had no idea where to take their brand next. It has since been argued that the grotesque humour of Little Britain and some of the more racially insensitive characters from Come Fly with Me (Lucas in full blackface playing the terminally idle and rabidly religious Jamaican coffee kiosk manager Blossom Little, for instance) would probably not be allowed airtime in a country where a growing awareness of giving offence has now reached the level of obsession.   

Although both men knew that there was a decent possibility that they would encounter each other at the funeral of such a close friend as Dale Winton, it still must have caused a few seconds of awkwardness between them.

What will happen next? Will they have exchanged a few words and realised that the years apart following the severing of their professional partnership have taught them to be more tolerant and accepting of each other – or will the encounter have ushered in another period of the great Lucas and Walliams Cold War?

It will certainly be interesting to see where this story leads next.

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