Monday, 20 November 2006

Little Britain - The Third Series (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 12th September 2006.

Little Britain - The Complete Third SeriesThe third series of Little Britain, the BBC sketch show featuring David Walliams and Matt Lucas, shows all the problems of overly-popular BBC-commissioned comedy shows from the past - the most obvious being that it's been allowed to continue well past the point where it's actually funny.

Where the first two series were original, inventive and funny, to the extent that they contained sketches and catch phrases that were endlessly repeated in school playgrounds and offices up and down the land, the same three or four jokes repeated week-in, week-out are starting to pale after two years, and only an excellent first episode in this third run of six episodes stop this from looking just out-and-out desperate.

A large part of the blame must go to the BBC - it's a pattern we've seen so often in the past from the corporation as the attempt to cash in as quickly as possible takes precedence over any sensible application of budget constraints or quality control. It's a pattern we've seen before with series like The Fast Show and French and Saunders where actual jokes and initial popularity give way to massively increased budgets, increasingly lavish make-up prosthetics, but no real laughs, as the writers just repeat the same joke and 'catch phrase' each week rather than writing anything new.

With The Fast Show that meant having 'sketches' like the one where each week a guy would come out of a shed and say 'This week I shall mainly be...' before adding that week's mundane task as some sort of punch line that I, seeming alone out of millions of viewers, found totally unfunny and an example of the sort of 'writing' anybody could do simply by looking at their activity list over a few hours and adding a new one each week for a 'new' joke.

With French and Saunders the formula involved making more and more lavish reconstruction set pieces of famous films that ended up becoming indistinguishable from the originals, padded out with 'sketches' that involved long unfunny conversations. Someone forgot that the reason those film parodies were so popular in the first shows the comedy duo did is that they weren't just carbon copies - they contained jokes and funny send-ups.

Little Britain looked like it might escape this problem in its second series, by making each week's repetition of a specific joke or catch phrase more outrageous than the last, or cleverly twisting things so that the expected joke had an extra pay-off or a sudden twist. The opening episode of this third series does something similar, but alas by episode 2 we're back to just repeating the weaker implementations of the joke that we've already seen in earlier series. The familiar Lou and Andy sketch, which is essentially a joke about an obnoxious, seemingly disabled character who isn't disabled at all pulling the wool over his carer's eyes, get bigger and better as we see Lou disappear on a trip to the aquarium to almost instantaneously appear swimming with the sharks and dolphins behind his carer while he's distracted, or visiting an air show demo and then parachuting into his empty wheelchair while his carer is distracted. They're funny because although the joke's the same one we've seen countless times before, it's done on a bigger and better scale. But by episode 2 we're soon back to the 'running around in the background' punchline that we've seen so many times before in the last two series, and by the final episode the writers are having to resort to five or six sketches with the same couple that have no punch line at all and simply assume the viewer will instead be happy with a bit of 'soap opera' from their characters.

Lou and Andy aren't the only victims of this formulaic repetition. Series 2 introduced a great new character 'Bubbles' with outrageous, bordering on obscene, 'fat' prosthetics that got bawdier and ruder with each subsequent episode. In Series 3 the character returns but with every taboo already covered what we get this time around is less of the same. The 'new' element this time around involves adding a 'black' version of Bubbles to the sketches, and whilst one can admire the expensive prosthetics, one can't admire the fact that there's no new laughs to be had. The 'I'm a lady' or 'Guy going into a shop and asking for something obscure' sketches weren't that funny the first time around, lacking an obvious punch line or actual joke, but after so many repetitions over the last two series they just become one big yawn. The 'puking church ladies' are more repetition without any kind of advancement, the prime minister and the male secretary who's secretly in love with him is the same and... well so it goes on and on and on.

Ultimately one is forced to ask 'Why not just rewatch the first series if you want to see the same joke over and over?'. Even the 'new' characters introduced for this series - an incontinent woman who pisses gallons every time she's out talking to a friend (effectively just a repeat of the 'puking church lady' sketches that are also featured again this time round), a 'family values' MP appearing before the press with his wife and family trying to justify his clearly salacious activities as innocent misunderstanding, or a 'Thai Bride' sketch that always ends with the Thai lady (or her mother) going down on her knees to plea to be allowed to stay but in such a suggestive manner that the sleazy husband-to-be decides she can stay after all, are a single 'joke' that just gets repeated each and every week.

It's all too obvious that this third series has been rushed out so that Lucas and Williams can capitalise on the seemingly endless tie-in merchandising and instant popularity of their first two series before the bubble bursts. Seemingly though there's more 'squeeze every last penny out of the franchise' to come. Both disks in this set feature adverts for a forthcoming November DVD featuring the same sketches, but this time presented on their live tour. I mean c'mon guys, how much money do you need and how often do you expect us to buy the same thing?

Little Britain - The Complete Third Series screencap

If the sketch show itself is disappointing, the two disk DVD release is not and represents excellent value, especially considering the discounted prices available online. The menu system is original and inventive and choices allow one to watch individual episodes or select all the sketches that feature a single character. Each and every episode features a commentary by Walliams and Lucas that is brutally honest about the writing and filming process, sometimes providing anecdotes that are funnier than the show itself. These commentaries alone would make this a good value DVD, but also included is the excellent South Bank Show 50 minute documentary on the comedy duo, together with an interview from Richard and Judy, a half-hour 'Little Britain Night' set of interviews from BBC Three, David Walliams' appearance on Top Gear and a half-hour comedy quiz radio show Heresy that the two appeared on. More extra's of this sort of calibre please!

We live in a world where repetition and mindless catch phrases are more popular than originality or intelligent humour. With all the blanket coverage Walliams and Lucas are getting from the media ('It's British and therefore must be good') this DVD will undoubtedly sell by the bucket load. School kids across the land will make sure of that, and no doubt will keep chuckling at the repetition in much the same way an infant will keep chuckling every time he hears a fart, no matter how many times he hears it. But for the rest of us this DVD set proves a huge disappointment, given the originality and wit of the first two series. Don't buy it - save yourself money and just watch one of the seemingly endless repeats on BBC Three.

Little Britain - The Complete Third Series screencap

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