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Little Britain Hops the Pond

Little Britain Hops the Pond


Matt Lucas and David Walliams bring their smash U.K. comedy show to the United States, mixing new characters with beloved old favorites. Is America ready for "the only gay in the village"?

"Monty Python's Flying Circus, which is in a way a very avant-garde piece of work, became an American success, and now you've got Spamalot in Vegas," observes British comedian David Walliams. "You can't ever really guess what's going to take off and what isn't."

Walliams has his fingers crossed that Little Britain, the UK sketch-comedy smash created by and starring Walliams and Matt Lucas, can find a similar foothold stateside. After three seasons that topped the ratings in England -- and garnered a cult audience among Yanks who caught the show on DVD or on BBC America -- the show will make it across the Atlantic as Little Britain USA, debuting September 28 on HBO.

Little Britain USA is designed for longtime fans and newcomers alike. "We wanted to design the show so that an American audience who had never seen the show would get it, because we guess that that will be 90% of our viewers," Walliams says.

If you're one of those newcomers, Little Britain features Lucas and Walliams portraying a wide array of characters, like mouthy delinquent Vicky Pollard (Lucas), who tries talking her way out of every situation with a nearly incomprehensible torrent of complaints and schoolyard gossip. Emily Howard (Walliams), is the world's least convincing transvestite, who constantly insists that she's "a lady" who enjoys "lady's things." Daffyd (Lucas), is a chunky, latex-loving poof who insists that he's "the only gay in the village," despite constant evidence to the contrary. Marjorie Dawes (Lucas), poorly moderates weekly "Fat Fighters" diet meetings -- think Weight Watchers gone horribly wrong. Carol (Walliams) is a sneering receptionist who can wave off any request with a deadpan "Computer says no."

Both Walliams and Lucas seem surprised that these rather specifically British characters have been embraced by the show's American fans. "To be honest with you," admits Lucas, "it wasn't actually until we arrived to make the show that we had any sense that we had any audience at all in the States." Walliams adds, "People around the world have responded to [Vicky], but she's meant to be a teenage girl from Bristol, which is a city in the west of England. But comedy may be more universal than we might think."

After abandoning the idea of featuring only American characters for the show, Walliams and Lucas decided to mix old favorites with some new creations. So don't be surprised to see Daffyd thinking he's "the only gay" at his new U.S. university or Marjorie bringing her vitriol to American fat fighters. (One episode features Rosie O'Donnell as the new Fat Fighters celebrity spokesperson, prompting Marjorie to ask, "Are you fat because you're a lesbian, or are you a lesbian because you're fat?")

"If you try to do something thinking, 'This will appeal to British people, this will appeal to American people,' you become stuck," notes Walliams. "But if you just try to follow your instincts and do what's funny, hopefully it'll work."

The process of creating American characters involved having Walliams and Lucas travel around the United States and not just spending time on the coasts.

"[L]ike a lot of Brits, I'd pretty much been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Miami, the usual holiday destinations," Lucas says. "And what HBO were able to do was to take us places we hadn't been to before, like Missouri -- Branson, in particular, which is almost like a Christian Vegas, where Andy Williams has residency... And we went to a sort of theme park without many rides, called Silver Dollar City, and there was a gospel picnic there, it was very different from anything we'd ever experienced. We also went to a kind of county fair in Chicago, and that was really interesting, and probably more provincial than what most British people are expecting. Then we went to the White House as well. And North Carolina was very different -- we were actually staying down by the coast, but it was very sort of, 'Well, we're in the South now, aren't we?'"

"I mean, we are British," notes Walliams. "We can only guess at a lot of these things, but we definitely had ideas along the way. We went to a shooting range and met a sheriff and then wrote a sketch about it. In the series, we've introduced some new American characters, but we've kept a lot of British characters too, because we couldn't take on American culture in the way that we did with Little Britain in England because we just don't know enough about it. It would be dishonest."

Based on the taping I attended, the new characters fit in seamlessly. USA gives us Walliams as Bing Gordon, the eighth man to walk on the moon. Walliams portrays Phyllis, who is unable to resist the evil suggestions of her adorable-seeming King Charles spaniel. Then there's each of them in full-body latex as Mark and Tom, two massively muscled gym rats. About the latter characters, Walliams reveals, "They're two guys who hang out in a gym changing room. You know when you go into a gym, and there's always two guys talking really loudly about all the girls they've banged, that kind of thing? And the've huge muscles but tiny penises, and they're very proud of their man-meat, they think they're extraordinarily well-endowed."

While both actors do a great deal of cross-dressing -- this is British comedy, after all -- it's Lucas who is openly gay while Walliams is straight. Nonetheless, Walliams admits that his well-known adoration of the Pet Shop Boys -- both of the Little Britain stars appeared in the band's "I'm with Stupid" video -- is just the top of "the list of all my gay characteristics. I mean, Matt's the gay one but I've got all sorts of gay tastes, while he likes soccer. And I'm into Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys. I've got extremely good taste, I think."

Lucas, for his part, got attention from the British tabloids when he entered into a civil union with his longtime partner and television producer Kevin McGee, in late 2006 -- and then lots more coverage when the two separated earlier this year. "I suppose it's refreshing that the press are indiscriminate in their coverage of gay and straight celebrities alike," he notes with a tiny drop of sarcasm. "But sure enough, I recently became single and have been snapped -- the last two people I've been snapped with are straight friends of mine, which is kind of bizarre for them, neither of whom is in the public eye and one of whom is married with kids. Fortunately, they both see the funny side."

Lucas and Walliams have brought in some big names to play with them in their new incarnation. In addition to O'Donnell, USA will feature guest appearances by Sting (who gets a snog from Emily Howard) and Robert Vaughn (who will meet Bubbles deVere, a grotesquely and frequently nude socialite played by Lucas). They also had Friends star David Schwimmer behind the camera, directing all the sequences that were performed before a live audience.

Whatever happens with Little Britain USA, it's already gotten a thumbs-up from one skeptic. "I don't feel like we've compromised in any way, and I'm kind of my worst critic," admits Lucas. "I watch the show through the gaps between my fingers. At the same time, I think the show has achieved what we wanted it to achieve, so in that regard, I think Americans will be able to get it."

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