Little Britain's in trouble... no buts about it

TO BORROW a catchphrase from Vicky Pollard, it's all a bit "yeah, but no." The latest series of the hit BBC comedy Little Britain may be hauling in record viewing figures, but it has also sparked a previously unthinkable chorus of criticism, with claims that the show has lost its way, trading early ingenuity for swelling amounts of toilet humour in the search for cheap laughs, and becoming increasingly offensive.

A massive 9.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the debut episode of the show's third series, eager to get a first look at a number of much-hyped new characters such as Ting Tong, the Thai mail-order bride.

But have Little Britain and its creators, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, become victims of their own success, playing ever more crudely to the gallery and moving away from the sharper, wittier sketches that made them famous in the first place in an attempt to become more mainstream? Are there now the beginnings of a Little Britain backlash?

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The Royal College of Physicians condemned a sketch in the new show in which a woman is seen urinating in a supermarket. "Urinary incontinence is not a joke for the thousands of mainly older people affected with this embarrassing and life-destroying condition," says Dr Adrian Wagg, chairman of the Continence Working Party.

"Care for older people with continence problems is patchy at best, and many in health care are working hard to encourage those with the problem to seek help. Such a sketch does no-one any favours."

The charity Age Concern, as well as Incontact, an organisation for those with bladder problems, also voiced their concerns at the inappropriateness of the sketch. A spokesman for the BBC stresses that comedy is a "subjective medium" and that "Little Britain characters have been deliberately magnified to cartoonish proportions.

"This particular sketch is exaggerated to such an extreme level it's clear that it has no grounding in reality," he adds.

Fair enough, but the point-and-laugh style of humour, as well as the notion that an old woman wetting herself is, in and of itself, funny, is still a far cry from some of the more sophisticated characters of the first series of the programme, such as the Scottish hotel owner Ray McCooney, or Sandra Lawrence, the pushy stage mother.

Rupert Smith, television writer for the Guardian, says he regarded Matt Lucas and David Walliams as "hugely talented" and thought characters such as Vicky Pollard - introduced in the show by Tom Baker as an "Asbo enthusiast" - would be lasting creations.

Watching the new series Smith says he was taken aback by just how vicious some of it is: "I think what has maybe changed is that they have altered the focus from satirising social trends in the people of their characters - Vicky Pollard obviously represents a certain kind of urban peasantry, Daffyd represents a certain hubris in the gay community and minorities generally - what they have started doing now is laughing at people."

"The one that really irks me is the sketch about the old lady who can't stop peeing. All they're saying there is, 'old women can't control their bladders'.

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"I'm sure that Matt Lucas, who grew up as a fat, bald, gay boy, doubtless had a lot of fingers pointed at him for those things and is sensitive about those issues. I'm sure that he is using laughter to defuse mockery.

"I just think that the children who watch this show might just feel that fat poofs are funny, women who can't stop peeing are funny. It's not busting down prejudice, I think it's probably just reinforcing it."

It is undeniable that the show has become increasingly popular among the under-tens, attracted by the potty humour.

In a recent survey in the Radio Times, it was found that children as young as four tuned in to the last series of Little Britain, with 86,000 children under nine watching each episode. A further 280,000 aged ten to 15 also watch the show, despite its 9pm watershed transmission.

Walliams, interviewed about the research by the Radio Times, suggested there was a long tradition in this country of children being allowed to watch "naughty" comedy when they should be in bed. It remains to be seen whether some parents have continued to take a relaxed view after last Thursday's Little Britain episode depicted Ting Tong being unveiled as a ladyboy and offering oral sex to avoid deportation, while, in a separate sketch, Vicky Pollard started work on a telephone sex line.

As well as the new TV series, there is also a Little Britain live tour. Between now and next May Walliams and Lucas will travel the country performing sketches from the programme in front of live audiences in over 70 shows. Some of the gags, such as the projectile-vomiting woman and the incontinent old woman, rely on the pressing of a button for the joke. Others, such as Emily Howard the rubbish transvestite, and Daffyd, "the only gay in the village", rely on the delivery of a single line.

Opinion is divided as to whether the television show translates well to a live performance, but one would imagine that after doing the same sketches (and ones already seen on television) for months on end, the creators, as well as the audiences, might start to tire of them.

Walliams was criticised by the Bishop of Motherwell, Joe Devine, after the comedian referred to the town as a "shithole" during a live version of Little Britain staged at Glasgow's Clyde Auditorium: "This is an insulting and offensive remark. The quality of Motherwell is about the character and the calibre of people who live there."

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Matt Baylis, television writer for the Daily Express and Star, believes the show wasn't that clever in the first place.

"My argument is it was never that great, it was a bit more of an emperor's new clothes situation in that something new came along. It did have the odd funny sketch in there and everyone raved about it," he says.

"Looking back, I realise there never were more than one or two funny sketches per episode that I actually enjoyed. The more it goes on, the more people are going to realise it was never really that brilliant."

Baylis doesn't believe that the huge ratings figures indicate undying loyalty to a show either: "The fact is people tune in to EastEnders even though they are all unified in their view that it is a load of crap. It's like a football team: people will follow them even if they are doing terribly. So they stick to their viewing habits," he says.

The Express and the Guardian are not alone in their criticism of the new show. The Scotsman's television critic Robert McNeil, after initially welcoming the show's return described watching an entire episode as "unbearably boring", and the Independent's Robert Hanks asked: "Has any comedy been so desperate to offend its audience?" Mick Humes, writing in the Times, said the show was "less cutting-edge comedy than comic conformism" and declared he'd rather be watching a video of Bernard Manning.

Despite the almost unanimous lukewarm reception among TV industry watchers and critics, public relations expert Mark Borkowski believes their collective appetite for forensic criticism may have been whetted by the hype preceding the launch of the latest series.

"The critics are in a sense baited by that," he says, "and they look at the show with a much more critical and sharper eye - it's almost as if they say, 'Ok, if you're so funny, come and make me laugh then."

However, Borkowski believes a backlash will fail to make a dent in the show's popularity. "It is such a brand now. Critics talk to the cognoscenti, they don't talk to the street. I have a nine and a 10-year-old who watch it - obviously I'm careful about what they watch - and they have friends who can recite sketches word-perfect."

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With four episodes of the third series left to go, it is uncertain whether Little Britain will emerge for a fourth trot around the block.

This Christmas, the BBC will be screening a two-part special in which Lucas and Walliams introduce their six favourite episodes from the whole run and discuss the characters closest to their hearts before a studio audience. Shelley thinks a fourth series is unlikely: "I think that will be it. Maybe a Christmas special next year too, and a Vicky Pollard movie". The BBC says the pair's live show schedule means there isn't time to shoot a fourth series next year, although there will be a Christmas special for 2006. As for 2007 and a new series, the corporation says it is "simply too early to say."