When the first series of Little Britain came out, I was 13. It wasn’t long until the show was popular enough for a top BBC One billing, nationally familiar catchphrases and Comic Relief spin-offs. Yet as British racism comes under the spotlight, Little Britain has been pulled off iPlayer and Netflix this week.
I mainly remember its years on screen as bargain basement background TV, regarded as a little embarrassing and mainstream for regular viewing. For a young teenager, at the height of my sensitivity to cringeworthiness, it was the same category of comedy in my head that led to Tony Blair quoting The Catherine Tate Show and asking: “Am I bovvered?”
Unfunny comedy for lovers of conservative tabloid fodder.
You still knew most of the characters’ names and endlessly recycled punchlines anyway, though, as did the children repeating its sketches in the playground. Its cultural hegemony was such that “computer says no” is still a ubiquitous slogan for frustration with bureaucracy in the UK.
Like the Wild West of socially experimental reality-TV in that era, a lot of sketch comedy had a particular shameless cruelty under the guise of being “edgy”.
As naive and vulnerable people were persuaded to be filmed 24 hours a day for entertainment on Big Brother and copycat concepts, shows like Little Britain relentlessly and lazily punched down at those who couldn’t defend themselves. A man in a wheelchair who spoke funny was a running joke, after all.
No one who usually faced discrimination in day-to-day life was spared having their experiences played for cheap laughs: women, the elderly, people with disabilities, Weight Watchers members, gay people, transvestites, working-class teenage single mums, Asians and, of course, black people.
Bo’ Selecta! created clownish caricatures of black celebrities. Craig David expressed frustration at his depiction at the time, and Trisha Goddard said this week that the show “emboldened a lot of casual racism towards myself and others you parodied with big lips and noses”. In a weepy Instagram video aired in the wave of online support for the Black Lives Matter movement this month following the death of George Floyd, Bo’ Selecta!‘s creator Leigh Francis apologised.
The Catherine Tate Show’s Lauren Cooper character, a confrontational schoolgirl whose catchphrase landed “bovver” in the Oxford English Dictionary, was a “chav” stereotype akin to Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard – but with the biggest laughs reserved for her intellectual aptitude for (wait for it) speaking French and quoting Shakespeare.
Similarly, Sacha Baron Cohen’s white, wannabe black man Ali G gave middle-class viewers a veneer behind which to laugh at working-class black culture, with pseudo-patois catchphrases and a handy phrase to mock the invocation of race: “Is it because I iz black?”
For years, Little Britain allowed viewers to laugh openly at the people already demonised or neglected by society. In 2017, the Little Britain co-star Matt Lucas told the Big Issue he “wouldn’t make that show now”, calling it “cruel” and saying “society has moved on a lot since then”. The following year, his comedy partner David Walliams told the Radio Times that he’d “definitely do it differently because it’s a different time now… There’s all kinds of tolerances that change. People understand people’s predicaments more now.”
But there was discomfort at the time, too.
The comedian Victoria Wood called it “very misogynistic” in 2005, the same year it was accused of “cheap laughs” and becoming “increasingly offensive” in the The Scotsman, and described as “a vehicle for two rich kids to make themselves into multimillionaires by mocking the weakest people in Britain” in the Independent. Both the Royal College of Physicians and Age Concern condemned the sketch of an incontinent elderly woman weeing in a supermarket.
Yet the most striking problem with the programme was the two white men blacking up: a racist act deemed unacceptable from anyone, let alone performers, long before 2003. The Black and White Minstrel Show had left British television screens in 1978, after all.
As the comedian Lenny Henry recounts in a recent BBC podcast, he discovered alternative comedy at a club night back in 1980, watching performers such as Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, which made him realise British comedy existed without blackface or jokes about black people: “I watched that and thought: ‘Oh, you can do jokes that aren’t about what they used to be about.’”
Four decades later, and it is no mystery how such “jokes” survived for so long. Little Britain fuelled the small-mindedness of a viewing public happy to laugh at blackface in the comfort of their living rooms, and oblivious to the statues of slave traders in their town squares outside.