Johann Hari has a go at Little Britain (via del.icio.us/sharpener), and all in all it’s rather confused: is Matt Lucas the gay and fat equivalent of Uncle Tom, or a sneering white middle-class bully who delights in misogyny? Is it their fault for creating these characters, or the public at large for taking them to their hearts? Everybody and nobody is to blame.
I have never really liked Little Britain that much – unlike other catchphrase-oriented sketch comedy like The Fast Show, its menagerie of characters are practically zero-dimensional, while neither Matt Lucas nor David Walliams possess the acting ability nor the wit to make any sketch anything more than hammed-up pedestrian predictability. Virtually every comic element in the series is borrowed from another (vomiting old lady – Mr Creosote from The Meaning of Life; Marjorie Dawes – Pauline from The League of Gentlemen; people in fat suits – Russ Abbot was doing that fifteen years ago, for fuck’s sake). Add that to the simplistic crassness and toilet humour and you end up with something that’s not very funny, the odd surreal sketch from the first series notwithstanding.
Now, not being funny is no crime, but LB is much worse than that. There’s the sheer inevitability of what will you’ll hear from anyone trying to defend the show’s crassness – that it’s postmodern-faux-ironic, knowingly self-aware in its offensiveness, that it’s satiring homophobia/misogyny/racism, and if anyone’s offended by the poor taste, the joke is on them. If you’re thinking of adding a “come on, lighten up, see the funny side” comment along these lines – don’t bother. That kind of excuse has been knocking about for ten years, if not more, to justify any form of culture which is offensive to some particular group, from Marilyn Manson to South Park. Of course, for this argument to work, then the offensiveness has to be nuanced in some way; there has to be some sort of subtext or different level of alternate meaning conveyed. Problem is, Little Britain has none of this, although that doesn’t stop it from trying to hide its true ugly nature.
In fact, it desperately tries to wear its right-on attitude on its sleeve as much as possible, such as the attempt to paint Marjorie Dawes as a bigot, with her thinly-veiled patronising racism aimed at the Asian member of her slimming group. However, the moment Ting Tong, the mail-order Thai bride played by Matt Lucas, appears on the screen, the pretence to sophistication vanishes. Ting Tong is nothing more than the pathetic flogging of another crass racist stereotype – yellow makeup, dodgy buck teeth and an inability to pronounce one’s “r”s and you have a winning formula. It’s interesting to note that while Spike Milligan’s browning-up in Curry and Chips and The Black and White Minstrel Show have now been consigned forever to TV Hell (accompanied by lots of self-congratulatory back-slapping), Little Britain gets away with away with the exact same kind of thing. If you think I’m over-reacting, then consider this – is it any way likely that Matt Lucas would have instead dressed up as a Pakistani, put on a “goodness gracious me” accent, and done a sketch about arranged marriages?
However, I don’t want to go down the line that it’s the viewing public’s fault for willingly taking it. Although it’s interesting to question why, generally, racism against South East or East Asians is less controversial than that against South Asians or blacks, overdwelling on “the mob knows best” reasoning leads to an easy excuse for any kind of behaviour; it’s intellectually lazy and panders to apathy and conformism as the final arbiter of quality or taste, and is just as invalid when someone tries to justify the commissioning of all those awful 1970s sitcoms. Matt Lucas and David Walliams didn’t have to create that character, if they didn’t want to. They clearly did want to, and this makes them as much casual, ignorant racists as the characters they lamely try to send up.