I don’t think I’ll ever forget the horror of Little Britain. Weirdly, I was living abroad for a few years when it broke through on British telly, and I remember speaking to people at home who told me about this “hilarious new series”.
When I finally caught up with it, I was appalled: racist; punching down at the poor, LGBT+ and disabled; perpetuating the horrible slur of “chav”... and really not very clever or funny. Cheap laughs, gleaned from taking the piss out of those who couldn’t answer back. It was the playground bully version of comedy.
Eventually, the show’s producers seemingly caught on that what David Walliams and Matt Lucas were doing... wasn’t OK. The character of Desiree DeVere, for example – for which Walliams donned black makeup and a fat suit – was axed, and in 2020 Little Britain was dropped from streaming services (including BBC iPlayer and Netflix) in the wake of anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd.
Both Walliams and Lucas have since apologised (albeit years later, via identical statements on Twitter) for perpetuating harmful stereotypes in their portrayals of “characters of other races”: unthinkably, one of the characters Lucas played was a “portly Thai bride” called Ting Tong.
Still, much like David Baddiel’s 25 years-too-late apology to footballer Jason Lee (Baddiel did “blackface” for Fantasy Football League to mimic him, coining the term “pineapple head” and as a consequence inadvertently subjecting Lee to years of racist abuse) – it’s no excuse to seek clemency due to the simple passing of time.
It was racist for Walliams to do blackface in 2003, and for Lucas to punch down at the poor with his “yeah but no but” impression of Vicky Pollard. It was offensive then, and it’s offensive now – and while those who extol the virtues of free speech may say there’s nothing wrong with being offensive (and they may have a point) we still don’t have to celebrate those who are.
We don’t have to give them top spots on shows like Britain’s Got Talent; and eye-watering book deals for their (distinctly average) children’s books when there are so many good writers out there who don’t have the backing of celebrity. We don’t have to give them so much space.
That’s why I won’t be mourning the loss of Walliams from our TV screens if he leaves Britain’s Got Talent (his future as a judge is “very much up in the air”, according to an ITV show spokesperson).
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Because much of Walliams’ career has, it appears to me, amounted to the same thing: sitting in judgement of people. I wasn’t surprised to see him go from Little Britain to (little) Britain’s Got Talent: he simply swapped laughing, mocking, judging and looking down on (stereotyped) people, for laughing, mocking, judging and looking down on (real) people. Same thing, different guises.
I wasn’t surprised to hear reports that he made “disrespectful comments” about participants auditioning for the show at the London Palladium in January 2020, or that those comments were derogatory and sexually explicit. I wasn’t surprised that according to a leaked transcript seen by the Guardian, Walliams appeared to refer to an older performer as a “c***” three times when he was out of earshot, following an unsuccessful audition; or that further sexually explicit comments were made after a female contestant had walked off the stage.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that he made “disrespectful comments” in the first place. It seems clear to me that Walliams revealed his mean streak in Little Britain, and he’s been dining out on it ever since.
His star should have dwindled 20 years ago when Little Britain first came out. And in an ideal world, it would never have continued to shine.