Little Britain, and casual racism

24 November 2005

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.


19 Responses

I think all the problems with LB come down to the very first thing you mentioned – the trouble it has getting beyond one dimension, at most. There’s no reason why Matt Lucas shouldn’t dress up as a Thai bride, providing there’s actually something funny in the character other than the fact that, hey, it’s Matt Lucas with slitty eyes.

To put it another way, if Ting Tong was actually played by an overweight, buck-toothed Thai actress, would there be anything amusing about those sketches? I doubt it. Whereas Vicky Pollard would still get laughs if she was played by somebody else (which is a good thing for Catherine Tate), because there’s genuinely good lines in those sketches.

The thing that makes LB potentially offensive is exactly the same thing that stops it bringing anywhere near enough funny – far too often, the sketches are a single idea, played out far too long and far too straight, with no other merits. Poor Dafydd’s been stuck in the exact same sketch for three series now, for goodness sake, over and over again like some nightmarish, PVC-clad version of Groundhog Day.

I couldn’t agree more with the points you make in this post. I’ve always had a strange relationship with LB, finding some of the sketches genuinely funny but always put off by the underlying smugness of it – the whole, “Look at us being all risque and taboo!” I always felt a bit suspicious of it, and you’ve hit the nail on the head with what you say about the Ting Tong sketches, which in addition, are just NOT funny anyway. I watched an episode from the new series the only day and barely cracked a smile.

I’ve always thought Little Britain was a load of bigoted crap. I watched about half a programme once to see what all the fuss was about and switched off because I thought it was offensive – and completely unfunny. But sadly, the bloody thing is all over the papers, the playground and so on and it’s unavoidable. Yuck.

amphai khaemkhan

I don’t suppose most people have met a Thai person, let alone a ‘mail order bride’..probably more of those from Russia and The Philippines nowadays. Anyway.
Ting Tong, I agree, is NOT funny by any standards of humour..like most of the show…unless you wish to giggle and smirk at some retro run through the gamut of racial stereotypes to the land before Kenneth Williams. Matt Lucas does NOT dress up as a MO Thai bride, he dresses up as some idiot scriptwriters attempt to raise a laugh out of the concept. Failed!
Anyway I bet most mail order, take-away, cooked to order, or whatever Thai brides are luscious enough to die for!

Mandy

You mean I’m not ‘the only person in the village who thinks Little Britain is at best unfunny and at worst downright offensive’?
Hurray.

James Martin

I?m absolutely astounded by the popularity of Little Britain. I was particularly shocked to see that a Lou and Andy sketch was voted the funniest sketch of all time on channel 4. I agree that it definitely crosses the line where racism and misogyny are concerned but what really gets to me, as a comedy purist, is it?s relation to the vastly superior League of Gentlemen. I was surprised to see that the League?s Mark Gatiss was the script editor for earlier series and that the League?s director Steve Bendelack directed previous series of LB. It doesn?t surprise me that the criticism of the show has only really emerged since Gatiss?s and Bendelack?s departure.

While the content of the show might strike people as risqu?, as a comedic project LB takes very few risks at all. The horrendous canned laughter is the last refuge of a lack of comic talent, long abandoned by genuinely funny and progressive comedies such as The Office, The Simpsons, The League of Gentlemen, Curb Your Enthusiasm?.

With the arrival a third series and a live show to boot it seems that it?s creators aren?t as concerned as with their artistic integrity as they are with making money, which never makes for good comedy. Bearing this in mind, I doubt it will be long before we see Vicky Pollard in a Pepsi commercial or Lou and Andy selling phones for The Link.

It does seem to be genuinely worrying to hear that so many of LB?s catchphrases have caught on in schoolyards and playgrounds. It raises a frightening concern that many of the attitudes towards gender and race have as well.

Anonymous Noel Coward

Did you see that, this week, we found out that Ting Tong is in fact a ladyboy (just like all Thai “women”, eh?). Next week: Ting Tong fires a series of ping-pong balls from her fanny (Continuity? What’s that then?), and much is made of the hilarious rhyming of “Ting Tong” and “ping-pong”. You heard it here first.

You’re absolutely right—I’m just surprised it’s become so popular. Very unfunny show.

Mmm

It’s my birthday today but anyway… back to the discussion.

lucy

I LOVE little britain and i think it is hilarious. Watched every episode and i don’t see why no one likes it. It might be offensive but it is funny and i make sure i am home every thursday night to watch it. Everyone is so serious about it and you should just laugh at it and see the funny side of things!!!!! i hope matt lucas and david walliams make loads more:)

Sarah

I think little britain is mostly funny but it seems to me that some people like certain sketches in little britain cos it’s a chance for them to laugh at racism and feel safe. I mean the old lady vomiting is horrible. What would people of ethnic origin watching this programme think? Would they think the canned laughter ia sign that generally most people think its funny and ok to feel like that? I’m sure that if it was blacks or asians having the same attitude towards whites then we’d be pretty insulted. Maybe I’m being too simplistic but I think THAT is going too far. I mean YUK!

Keith

I have some appreication of the various sophisticated and nuanced arguments against Little Britain, but the more effective point for me is this: it isn’t funny. I’ll concede ground on one point: Vicky Pollard, which is fine as an individual joke but it’s the same damn thing every time.

The rest of it is total trash – it just isn’t funny. There’s no question of ‘taking things too seriously’ – it’s just not funny, pure and simple. To those who think it’s the apogee of modern comedy I urge them to go and watch Peep Show, South Park, The League of Gentleman and the first few seasons of The Simpsons to get a little perspective.

danny

Someone said that it gave an example of the casual racism in britain. But i can also see the opposite in the character. This is a racial character created for a comedy show, where the joke is nothing to do with her race. She could be a russian bride for example, and the joke that she wasn’t what she first appeard as would still be the same.

Setting the character as someone from an ethnic minority could be interpreted as two idea’s

1) poking fun at that ethnic group, despite that the joke could apply to anyone.
2) the comics playing characters from accross the racial spectrum of the real britain.

Comedy in britain is sadly played by mainly white comedians, which reprisents a very small percentage of britain. Maybe matt lucus and david walliams are attempting to portray a wider britain that the britain of the white lower classes.

If you look at it that way, white comedians been able to use racial characters in a non racist way is possibly one of the big walls that need to be broken down in a world where over PC values help fuel the racist problems.

Daedalia

Some people take life far too seriously… If you are offended then you only have yourself to blame as LB like goodness gracious me and Till Death Us Do Part are mereley taking the michael at peoples mis-conceived stereo types and blowing them up to larger than life proportions. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. It makes me laugh when people say they watch programs and don’t enjoy them. Are you stupid? That’s what the buttons on the TV are for. Why spend precious time textually masterbating on how much you hate something as trivial as a TV program, the world is full enough of boring moaners. Hmm, good point. Don’t know how I came to be here but there goes my lunch hour.

Matt

I am a fan of the show and went to see the Live show at the NIA last night. I have to say, I’m a little confused. How many dimensions do you want characters in a sketch to have? How many dimensions did John Cleeses character have in the Parrot Sketch? As I remember he was angry. Dafydd is Gay (which also makes him a minority, but I don’t see anyone complaining about that on this forum).

I think the point is being missed quite wildly by some people, judging by some of the posts above. The show is called Little Britain and it overblows the stereotypes that people have about British people. The humour in the Ting Tong sketches is not gleaned from the derision of the ‘Thai’ bride, rather, it is gleaned from the derision of the stereotypical lecherous, desperate, sex starved British man.

I concede that LB is not going to be to everyones taste, but I don’t like Westlife and I don’t write articles bemoaning their talents. If you don’t like, don’t do it. Just stop wasting your time complaining about it and go and do something you enjoy.

Right, I wasn’t going to reply to responses to this post, but it’s taken a cretinous turn and some of the spurious points made here need a good proverbial kicking…

First off, even though I don’t watch Little Britain (any more) does not mean I should keep my mouth shut. Quite apart from the fact that, as a licence fee payer, then I have some right to ask whether my money is being wisely spent, even if this was on Sky, or a comic strip somewhere, I still have a right to complain. It’s not a mere matter of switching over and find an alternative, like it’s a brand of fucking breakfast cereal or something. If you honestly think that if someone objects to something then they should just find something else to do and ignore it – then what the hell are you doing leaving your comments here? Why don’t you just move on yourself? Feel free to register your disagreement with me here if you like, but don’t profess that I can’t do the same.

Secondly, yes, the sketch does aim to mock a lonely middle-aged lech, but if you think that he is the only target of that sketch, then you really should take another look. Why is there the need for a “Thai Bride” character specifically – why not have him with an inflatable doll, or a sheep? The answer is because Ting Tong is an integral part of the sketch, and is up for ridicule alongside him; except that she is ridiculed mainly for her race – buck-teeth, inability to pronounce English, the ‘hilarious’ fact she’s a ‘ladyboy’. By extension, the sketch is not just a slur on the one character, but on all Thai people – that is, unless you actually believe all Thai women are like that, in which case you are beyond all attempts at reason.

As for the comparisons, although with Till Death Do Us Part Johnny Speight aimed Alf Garnett to be a figure of ridicule, it is worth noting Garnett ended up becoming a hero to many in the show’s audience, who agreed with his racism and misogyny. This was something which Speight himself regretted; however, at least he made a (valiant) attempt to attack and ridicule prejudice, something which the Ting Tong sketch does not. Goodness Gracious Me, being written and performed by an Asian cast, has the privilege of being an insider’s view, and the characters and sketches it produces are both informed and affectionate. Little Britain is neither – it’s just plain ignorant and nasty: a white man yellowing up purely to continually peddle a grossly offensive caricature and mock South East Asian people. If that isn’t racist, then what is?

Dafydd is Gay (which also makes him a minority, but I don’t see anyone complaining about that on this forum).

You might want to read a) the article linked in the first words of this post, and b) the first comment on this post, both of which do exactly that.

Not that it’s particularly relevant. Dafydd is gay. Matt Lucas is gay. They’re the same minority. Matt Lucas has said publically that Dafydd is based on his own experiences growing up. The sketch may be one-dimensional, and desperately tired three series in, but it’s not unsympathetic. Questionable judgement, lazy writing, but not actually bigoted.

Mat Lucas is not, you may have noticed, Thai.

Some bits of Little Britain still make me laugh. Unfortunately, it has sunk into ‘catchphrase city’. Guaranteed every episode will have two Lou & Andy sketches – one in which Andy choses something unsuitable which he hates and one in which he gets out of his wheelchair.

It also suffers from an excess of UNPCness. Don’t like two old ladies throwing up? Don’t like Matt Lucas in a PC suit? You’re just PC.

Pete

If you dont like it – DONT WATCH IT

Simple