David Walliams: Bigger than Little Britain

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David Walliams is unstoppable. Along with the partnership of Matt Lucas, the comedy programme Little Britain redefined the sketch show scene in the UK, gaining a clutch of Baftas, and spawning a torrent of criticism and catchphrases in the process. The show sparked the new oxymoronic phenomenon of ‘cult-mainstream comedy’: its off-the-wall humour was broadcast at primetime slots on BBC1, and primary school children to pensioners gleefully soaked up the show’s refrains.

After giving a talk at the Oxford Union and then an obligatory session posing for photos and fulfilling requests to record phone messages for siblings/grandparents/tutors, David Walliams sat down with OxStu to talk to us about being booed off stage, swimming in cold water and his concern over MSG in Chinese takeaways.

David began his career by studying Drama at Bristol University, where he met his best friend and work partner Matt Lucas, and the seeds of a golden comedy duo were sown. However, success in the comedy world was not something that comes about instantly, which David is keen to point out.

‘When me and Matt did our first gig together, four people turned up and we got a phone call just before we started asking if we could start the show a bit later because three people who were going to watch the show wanted to watch the end of EastEnders. So, we started the show and only had seven people in the audience.’ Yet this was clearly no deterrent. David is clear about the fact that hard work and developing a thick skin are two important factors in becoming successful. After the meagre attendance at his first gig with Matt, he points out ‘but then the next time there were more and more people’. This seems to be at the root of David’s advice to aspiring actors and comics:  ‘there is nothing mystical about it other than you have just got to do it. Lots of people say “I’d love to be a comedian” and then you say “Well, do a stand up gig” and they reply “Oh no, I couldn’t do that” and you think, “Well you’ll never be a comedian”. You need to risk yourself.’

The taking of risks is surely something inherent to a show like Little Britain. The comedy revolves around sharp caricatures of British people, from a demonic leader of a local slimming group to a young homosexual man in Wales determined to be ‘the only gay in the village’.  Critics of the programme take offence to portrayal of supposedly taboo subjects in comedy, such as disability and transvestism. How does David react to such criticism over taste and offence?

‘It’s a weird one isn’t it when people say “I was offended”. What does that really mean? I often see that people are offended on other people’s behalf. For instance, we’d get questions like, “How do you respond to disabled peoples’ complaints about Lou and Andy?” Well, we never had any. In fact, when I met people in wheelchairs they all said that that was their favourite character because in some ways they were being represented. I think that the problem is that it’s complicated with comedy because for every comic character, there is an element of criticism because the character has got to be flawed in order to be a funny character. Yet, people assume that you create a character like Daffyd, who is gay, so you are making some critique about gay people. No: you have actually created this one character who is gay and wants to be the only gay in the village, and that is the joke.’

Undeterred by criticism, Little Britain USA exploded on to television screens across America in 2008 and secured the programme’s cult status and popularity. Although plans for a second series were scrapped by HBO, Walliams was grateful for the opportunity, “It has certainly led on to new opportunities in America that have been great, but it didn’t make us stars in America. It didn’t touch, and it didn’t catch the public’s imagination in a way, but it gave us some credibility in the industry” This reaction really summed up Walliam’s gentleman-like character. For someone who has taken the UK comedy scene by storm, he is remarkably serious, friendly and warm. You could almost go so far as to say that he is like a normal person. It could have been his sense of normality or his modesty that led him to raise over £1 million for Sport Relief when he swam the English Channel in 2006. Walliams did not go far as to say that this feat was his greatest achievement but suggested that he was “proud to have swum the Channel”, something which he did in an impressive 10 hours and 34 minutes. However, the comedian’s charitable deeds are not restricted to the water. For Red Nose Day 2011, Walliams took part in an endurance feat which resulted in him anchoring “Comic Relief’s 24 Hour Panel People”. The show was a huge success and contributed to the show raising over £102 million.  Yet, there is little sense that Walliam’s intends to bask in the glory of past achievements; the comedian is aiming to swim the Thames in September 2011 to raise more money for Sports Relief. He talked about these amazing actions in a slightly nonchalant way, as if he was underplaying his charitable deeds. He even offered advice about the best places to train for swimming in the Thames, just in case we wanted to do it too, maybe during the long vac?

Walliams is extremely pleased to be using his fame for charity and for the good of others. Although he jokes that his fame has meant that people sometimes think he has “magical powers”, he enjoys the fact that he has worked to deserve it. Walliams has deliberated on the idea that “there is some weird thing when people put you in some kind of different bracket if you’re well known”, but he isn’t complacent with his fame and his charity work, nor does he let this affect his relationship with the public or his work. If anything, Walliams wants to take on more charity work and get more comedians on television supporting Sport Relief. When Walliams stated Richard Curtis is his idol, and asked what better person could there be than someone who spends most of his time writing scripts for L.A rom-coms and still finds the time to “try and make a difference” in the world, it became clear that there is still a lot more in the pipe line for Walliams. Although he is disappointed that he will never get to play Dr. Who or James Bond, Walliams has achieved a level of fame which he can now use for charity, and in his opinion, that is much better.

David Walliams was speaking at the Oxford Union on Thursday 2nd June.

Photo/david-walliams.co.uk

 

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