Little at Large

JAMES JOYCE and Brendan Behan put Bewley's café in Dublin's Grafton Street on the tourist trail. But it is unlikely that the bustling tea rooms have ever before played host to two men who turn as many heads as Little Britain's Matt Lucas and David Walliams.

We are seated downstairs, against a dark panelled wall at the back of the caf, when an apologetic woman approaches to compliment the pair on their storming live show at the city's Point Theatre the night before - gig No143 of a nine-month tour, which reaches Scotland next month.

Soon, others work up the courage to come over to us, until it looks as if all 6,000 fans who were at the sell-out gig are about to pay homage. With good grace, Britain's best-known comic duo smile for the camera-phones and sign autographs. If you thought the Little Britain phenomenon was past its peak, everyone around us begs to differ.

"We've achieved more than we ever dreamed of," begins Walliams, at 35 the eldest by three years and generally the more talkative of the two. "And what you don't realise, because you've got your back to them, is that four or five people have also surreptitiously taken photos of us. You have to get used to it."

Lucas sounds even more understanding, launching into an anecdote about his own hero-worship of Derek Jacobi. "I crossed the road once when I saw him, because one of the reasons I became a performer was seeing him on stage in 1989. I went over and said what a fan I was, then he recognised me and was nice, but he was nice anyway. I know you shouldn't bother people but I thought, 'No f*** it, I f***ing love Derek Jacobi.'"

But the pair are not just putting up with their fans; they're positively thriving on the attention. They could, after all, have arranged to meet me in a private room in their nearby hotel. They're thriving professionally, too. After conquering television (with three award-winning BBC series) and stage (box-office records for their tour), they are preparing to break into the charts with a single that stands a more than reasonable chance of being this year's Christmas No1.

"Neil Tennant has remixed Daffyd's closing song from the show," explains the baseball-capped Lucas, between sips of orange juice, the one who puts on the PVC hotpants to play the only gay in the village. Walliams, looking as dashing as ever in a tailored jacket and crisp shirt, stops eating his granola to show me a text from the Pet Shop Boy saying how pleased he is with the track.

Despite predictions of a backlash, everything Lucas and Walliams touch still turns to gold. Walliams is even being talked about for BBC Sports Personality of the Year after one of the 50 fastest-ever swims of the English Channel. But they are no strangers to the darker side of life that informs the bleaker side of their comic vision.

In their authorised autobiography, Inside Little Britain (published recently by Ebury), they touch on the subject of mental health. Both have been in therapy at different times in their adult lives. According to the book, Walliams had a spell in a psychiatric hospital owing to depression, just as his career was taking off, in 2003.

The subject is sensitive. I'd heard that Walliams had been in The Priory, but he refuses to confirm this. In fact, no sooner is it broached than Lucas protectively interrupts: "I don't think you should pursue that."

Walliams wants to explain himself. "I think I've said all I want to say on that subject. Of course there is more to it, but there has to be my personal life. There have got to be some things that remain private, and things like that affect other people. Ninety-nine per cent of people in there have got serious problems, yet [The Priory] is written about as if it is some kind of holiday home."

It is difficult to see what drove him to seek psychiatric help. Elsewhere in the book he recalls a boyhood Sea Scouts trip to a Dutch nudist camp which, retrospectively, was odd. There was an episode there when a man stroked his naked leg under a table, but Walliams is adamant that there was no lasting trauma. And, apart from this incident, he seems to have had a contented middle-class upbringing in Surrey, where his father was a transport engineer.

Lucas is more candid about his spell in therapy in the late 1990s, maybe because it has had more concrete closure. "Therapy was totally positive. At that time I was dealing with lots of things, but for an hour a week I'd go and talk to someone. The conversations I had weren't completely different from those I might have with a close friend - what machines to use at the gym, how you meet people, life skills I felt I'd missed out on - but it helped me to see someone who didn't have an agenda. I wouldn't hesitate to go back if I felt I needed it."

Lucas's problems probably started when he lost his hair, aged six, growing up in suburban north London. He thinks it might have been caused by a delayed reaction to being hit by a car, although as an adult he discovered that his late father, John, went bald at 14 and wore a wig.

"I was always marked out a bit as a child. I could never slip under the radar. Whatever I did, I got noticed. Then going on Shooting Stars [as scorekeeper George Dawes, the bouncing baby in a pink romper suit], I made a reasonable amount of money, but I still had to get the bus and people would come up to me in the street and go: 'Whatever happened to you?'

"I was thinking, 'Is it all going to be over?' and 'I've peaked at 22'. I was trying to deal with that, plus weight issues, sexuality, and then my father died. The transition was getting into a long-term relationship. I felt the need for therapy slip away. I'd met my soulmate."

Lucas plans to cement his relationship with Kevin McGee, 29, in a civil partnership. They met in 2002 London. McGee is variously credited as a TV producer and writer, but even Lucas is a little vague about what he does. What's clear is that they are very close. "We are not doing it for tax reasons; we love each other," says Lucas.

They have exchanged rings but haven't named a date or a location. "I think they are having it in a Happy Eater," smirks Walliams, who has a close platonic friendship with Denise Van Outen and has joked about marrying her if they both end up on the shelf.

It would be quicker to list the women that he has not been romantically linked with than the ones he has. High-profile names include Patsy Kensit, Caroline Aherne, and Abi Titmuss. Martine McCutcheon is another name but he says he's never even met her.

His closest bond, however, is probably with Lucas.

When Matt goes off to the lavatory, the first thing David does is lean across the table and whisper conspiratorially, "Right, let's talk about Matt." Sadly for me, he is joking. The duo first met 16 years ago at the National Youth Theatre, and have worked together for more than a decade. They've never seriously fallen out and don't look about to, either. Despite contrasts in everything from physical shape to lifestyle - Matt loves football, David hates it - they are absolutely on the same wavelength.

But how much longer can they mine the Little Britain seam? Both have other projects on the go. Walliams is working on a documentary about James Bond; Lucas plays Mr Toad in a BBC adaptation of Wind in the Willows with Bob Hoskins. Next year they're touring Little Britain in Australia, and they have just finished filming a two-part Christmas special, Little Britain Abroad, in which the characters get to travel further afield.

"We've tinkered with the format," Lucas says. "It's still sketches, but some narratives go over both shows, and there are lots of guests - Peter Kay, Dawn French, Steve Coogan. You couldn't have people more different than Ronnie Corbett and Julia Davis from Nighty Night."

Lou and Andy get stranded on a desert island; Daffyd becomes the only gay on Mykonos; there's a Texan version of fat-fighter Marjorie Dawes called Blanche Chuckatruck; and Vicki Pollard ends up in a Thai jail. "Her mother Shelley turns up, played by Dawn French, to try to get her out of trouble," reveals Walliams. "She is one of the most natural, brilliantly funny people. She's also one of the sexiest women I've ever met, and she knows it!"

But, Lucas acknowledges, they are ready to move on: "Maybe the next step is a sitcom or a film." BBC1 certainly has big ideas for them. Controller Peter Fincham has suggested a Saturday-night Two Ronnies-style slot, which still amazes Walliams. "The weird thing is, did we become mainstream or did the mainstream come to us? Alternatively, we might decide to go back to BBC2, as Ricky Gervais did with Extras."

Mention of Gervais prompts the question of comedy rivalries. Gervais has criticised shows that cash in on merchandising and his new series of Extras makes an explicit attack on catchphrase comedy.

Walliams dismisses the jibes. "You've got to take it in fun. In fact, I'd love to be in Extras. It's a brilliant show." Lucas adds that even the great light entertainers of the past weren't averse to having a dig at each other. "One of my favourite jokes ever was Morecambe and Wise being interviewed and asked what would they be if they weren't comedians. Eric says, 'Mike and Bernie Winters.'"

In their marathon tour, which began last October, Lucas and Walliams have constantly changed the show to keep things fresh, as much for themselves as for the audience, they say. Not that the thousands of Little Britain fans have bought their tickets to be surprised. They will turn up in Edinburgh or wherever they can just to see Lucas and Walliams do what they do best, make them laugh. There's life in Little Britain yet.

• Little Britain Live in Scotland: 14 & 15 November, Edinburgh Playhouse; 16-18 November, Aberdeen Exhibition Centre.

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