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Kings of Comedy
The Unauthorized Biography of Matt Lucas and David Walliams
By Neil Simpson
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2007 Neil Simpson
All rights reserved.
The curtain was due to rise in less than an hour and the ticket touts were getting frantic. People were crowding around them, all prepared to pay up to five times the £25 face value of any tickets they had on offer. But almost all the touts were empty handed. No one who had a ticket was selling, and tempers were getting strained.
'Tickets? Come on – anybody got any tickets?'
The touts did one more sweep of the crowd outside Portsmouth's 2,200-seater Guildhall Theatre. Surely someone, somewhere, was prepared to take the cash and give the show a miss? It didn't seem as if they were. For this was 25 October 2005, the first night of the first ever Little Britain live tour. And the show was already a theatrical phenomenon.
The original 100-date nationwide tour had been announced more than six months earlier and 150,000 tickets had been sold within the first six hours of release. The final batch of 50,000 tickets had been snapped up by the end of that first day and within a month dozens of extra dates had been added. When these sold out and the London dates were announced for the autumn of 2006, the phones rang off the hook as the central box office once more struggled to meet demand.
In Portsmouth, everyone knew that the opening night wasn't just the hottest ticket in town – it was the hottest ticket in the country. Television crews were filming the crowds, and critics from every national newspaper had headed down from London to report on the action. The sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable. And inside the theatre the show's stars were feeling the heat.
'Are we ready for this?' Matt and David were sitting in make-up as the audience began to take its seats. And if they had poked their heads round from behind the fire curtain they might well have felt as though they were looking in a mirror. There were several bulky men badly dressed as women, some with parasols and lace gloves. Other younger men had squeezed into tight red PVC suits. Then there were the middle-aged women dressed in teenage-style shell suits with scrunched-up hair and plenty of eye make-up. As the pictures in the next day's newspapers would attest, fans of Little Britain would go to amazing lengths to look like their favourite comedy characters – characters who had become national institutions and extraordinary cash generators in less than five short years.
For Matt and David, the whole experience still seemed unbelievable – in many ways it was as surreal as many of their most extraordinary sketches. This was to be the first time they had done a regular stage act together in nearly eight years. And the contrasts between that previous occasion and this one could hardly be greater. Back then they had been at the very bottom of the comedy pile, performing as the fictional thespian and raconteur Sir Bernard Chumley and his deeply disturbing sidekick Anthony Rogers (their unspoken joke had been 'Anthony rogers who?').
That act had endured the indignities of the very latest and least attractive slots at the Edinburgh Festival. Afterwards, they had slogged it out on the fractured comedy circuit in London, where audiences could be brutal and indifferent in equal measure. On one occasion, when the duo were supposedly headlining in a north London community centre that could seat 150 people, the theatre manager had asked the single-figure audience if they minded delaying the show's start by half an hour. 'A few more people might turn up when EastEnders finishes,' he had said hopefully. The audience was happy to go back to the bar and wait, but the theatre manager turned out to be wrong. No one else did turn up and when the show finally began there were almost as many people off stage as on.
Portsmouth in 2005 was an entirely different world. Director Jeremy Sams, set designer Andrew Howe-Davies and stage manager Gareth Weeks led a near 50-strong team and had spent some £2 million putting together a massive high-tech show with two hours' worth of computer-generated backdrops and settings, prerecorded voice-overs and music. And the show was to begin with a big set-piece scene that the stars could only have dreamed about a decade earlier. Matt and David had decided to open the show with a Lou and Andy sketch – and, as the lights went down, David's Lou was due to walk around the audience searching for his supposedly wheelchair-bound charge Andy. As the search went on, Matt, as Andy, was to fly across the stage on an invisible high wire before landing in his wheelchair. It was a complicated, expensive sketch that would drive the audience wild night after night. But in the early evening of 25 October in Portsmouth, no one yet knew that it would work. Despite all the rehearsals, no one was quite sure if they could pull it off. So everyone was nervous.
Before heading into the spotlights, Matt and David felt the familiar strains and symptoms that had dogged them ever since their first stand-up performances some 13 years earlier. Matt says he always feels a sense of immense tiredness immediately before the start of a show. David's stage fright comes through in a feeling of near overwhelming nausea – though both say the demons are banished as soon as they feel the stage lights on their faces. And, fortunately, that was exactly what was going to happen when the curtain finally rose on the 2005 tour.
'You could tell that they were both nervous that first moment when they both got on stage together at the start of that first sketch and gave each other a quick smile that wasn't in the act,' says Little Britain super-fan Martin Davies, who was sitting in the seventh row and had been bombarding the BBC's website for more than a year demanding a live show. 'But the reaction from the audience made it obvious that they were going to be OK and from then on I think they were able to enjoy themselves almost as much as I was.'
And Martin wasn't alone. One early problem the producers and director soon discovered they would have to tweak for future shows was allowing long enough breaks and pauses for laughter and applause – in rehearsals, the team had underestimated just how funny they were all going to be.
In many ways, everyone had been right to be cautious. It was true that in the autumn of 2005 Little Britain was a television and cultural phenomenon. It had won awards in the UK and around the world and was being shown everywhere from Israel to Russia. It was credited with single-handedly saving the BBC's troubled digital station BBC3. It accounted for a huge chunk of the profits of the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Its catchphrases were heard in school playgrounds, offices, factories and even nursing homes. Even its scripts had become hardback best-sellers and it had won comedy awards around the globe.
But though the show and its two stars had already made the transition from stand-up to radio and on to television, the entertainment industry is littered with examples of small-screen shows that failed the final hurdle of going live. In recent years, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson had created a stage hit with Bottom, but many other transfers had ended up falling flat.
'There is a huge difference between making a television show, and focusing everything on cameras and close-ups, and commanding a stage in a huge auditorium, where the audience at the back can be more than 200 yards away from you,' says director Ken Patterson. 'It is a different mindset, it requires a different performance and in many ways it needs entirely new material. People don't pay big money just to see a copy of something they can watch at home. Expectations are high in live theatre and if it doesn't work out from the very start you'll know about it and you can find it hard to recover.'
As if to prove this point, the critics were not universal in their praise for the opening show in Portsmouth. Yes, they found plenty to rave about, and so there were plenty of wildly enthusiastic quotes to put on the advertisements for the following year's London tour. 'There wasn't a dry seat in the house – fans were wetting themselves with laughter,' was the boys' favourite line from the opening night review in the Sun, for example.
But elsewhere a few things seemed to rankle. Dominic Maxwell in The Times wrote that Matt clearly thrived on having a live audience to bounce off when he played Marjorie Dawes, the infamously cruel leader of the Fat Fighters group. But when the ad-libs were forgotten, Dominic said the basic sketch needed more work. 'Lucas comes true on his promise to an overweight female volunteer that: "It will be the most humiliating experience of your life," without adding enough wit to make it entirely forgivable,' he concluded.
Criticism for excessive cruelty and for shooting at easy targets has long since dogged the Little Britain comedians. It is criticism they have always managed to deflect in the past, and they would be forced to do so again before this tour ended. But at the end of that first night in Portsmouth they were simply interested in out-and-out celebration. They wanted to focus on the positives – and it turned out that there were plenty to choose from.
Top of the list was their ability to cope when things went wrong – as is always likely to happen in the early days of a live tour. It was only then, when the pressure was on, that the pair found the lessons they had learned in a decade's worth of low-budget stand-up shows still held true. Matt was able to heckle and ad-lib for as long as it took for a microphone to be fixed or for part of a set to be moved. David could make the audience roar with just a sideways glance while the technicians rushed to get the sound system ready for the next scene. It wasn't always a seamless performance in Portsmouth – as it wouldn't be over the next 100-plus dates. But everyone seemed to like it all the more when the performers were forced to think on their feet and provide something extra. 'We loved it because we were returning to what we used to do,' says David when asked about that first night. 'It can be terrifying, but we're never happier than when we're in front of a live audience.'
The show itself had also surpassed their expectations. Matt and David both knew that they were treading a fine line with the content. Audiences would obviously want to see their favourite characters and scenes. But as Patterson had said, they also needed to feel they were getting something other than just a re-run of the latest DVD. So alongside some classic Daffyd, Emily Howard and Vicky Pollard moments they had decided to revive some of the older characters who hadn't been seen on screen for more than a year. The former kids' TV presenter Des Kaye was top of that list, as the men felt his desperation to get back into the public eye would work well in front of a live audience. Hypnotist Kenny Craig was up for a recall for the same reasons.
Other well-established characters were spiced up for the tour – with Matt baring all in his fat suit as Bubbles de Vere and David bringing the house down by doing the same, minus the fat suit, as Sebastian Love. The projectile-vomiting machine (full of a secret mix of porridge and lemonade) was in heavy use in the Maggie and Judy scenes, which drew almost as many laughs, even though everyone knew exactly what was going to happen from the moment Middle England's finest ambled on to the stage.
When writing the show's scripts, Matt and David had been particularly excited by the fact that, with a ticket-buying adult audience, they could push the boundaries of good taste and political correctness even further than they had been able to do on mainstream television. They also wanted the chance to road-test some new characters in advance of the third small-screen series, which was due to begin just after the tour.
The most popular of these turned out to be Mr Dudley, the sad, scruffy man with his £80 mail-order Thai bride Ting Tong Mackadandan. Matt and David had got the initial idea for 'Ting Tong from Ping Pong' after watching a Louis Theroux documentary about middle-aged western men who travelled to Thailand in search of young, docile wives. 'What if one day one of those men gets a shock?' they asked themselves in David's flash new north London kitchen, where they put together most of their scripts. 'What if one of the brides isn't quite as docile as she appears?' Both men knew immediately that this was a good starting point for a new character and set of sketches. But would this be visual enough for television and the stage show? They knew that they needed more depth to make it work – which was when they decided that their middle-aged husband would order his bride sight unseen over the internet. And that she would look very different in real life to the description on her web page.
'We thought this was the perfect slow-burn sketch,' says David. 'Audiences would get the visual side first, with Ting Tong a lot fatter and older than he had expected. And then we could bring her behaviour into the frame as well, having her flex her muscles gradually and end up taking over her husband's life.'
Having had these early ideas the pair set down to work out an entire back history for the new characters. Even if it is never needed in a sketch, they want their characters' full backgrounds written down to use as reference points for the future. Dates and places of birth, family members, education, friends and experiences to date – it all goes on file so they really know the people they are playing. 'You need a beginning, a middle and an end to a character as well as a sketch,' says David. 'Just copying from life never really works in these kind of shows because you need to define the characters really strongly.'
With that done, the final step, of course, is then to decide who will play the characters in question. The pair say they rarely start out with any fixed casting in mind: 'Sometimes we do both end up wanting to play a certain role,' admits David, though practicalities often dictate that one of them is ultimately more appropriate for the part than the other. Matt's baby face was always going to be best for Ting Tong, while few actors play kindly, put-upon men as well as David, so the latter was obvious for the part of the soon-to-be downtrodden Mr Dudley. From then on, it was down to their long-term hair and make-up designer Lisa Cavalli-Green and her team to create and record the look that would bring the script to life.
'Euphoric. Over the moon. And very, very relieved.' That's how Matt summed up the pair's feelings after that first emotional evening in Portsmouth. Over the next couple of weeks, as the tour moved on through Bournemouth, Southend, Plymouth and Sheffield on its way to Manchester, the audience reaction seemed, if anything, to be strengthening. And still the touts were trying to get a slice of the action. The standard £25 tickets for shows at the country's huge arenas in Cardiff, Birmingham, Glasgow and the like were attracting around three dozen bidders and finally selling for up to £130 each on eBay, where a thriving and lucrative secondary market had sprung up. Outside the theatres the queues for returns were still as long as those for all the Little Britain merchandising that had sprung up to accompany the tour.
And the pair certainly didn't get bored while performing. In Brighton, on their eighth week on the road, they were halfway through one of their favourite Daffyd sketches, for example, when Denise Van Outen walked on to the stage with a live camera crew in her wake. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, I am ever so sorry to interrupt your performance,' she said, as Matt froze and the audience tried to work out what was going on. 'As you are probably aware, tonight in London is the British Comedy Awards Live and I am very, very pleased to announce that the winners for Best TV Comedy are Matt Lucas and David Walliams for Little Britain.'
As the south-coast audience took to its feet and awards host Jonathan Ross tried to make himself heard through the cheers, Matt and David thanked their television director Declan Lowney, their producer Geoff Posner – and their fans. The impromptu interruption added hugely to the success of the Brighton night and after the encores that evening the BBC cameras came back, this time to Matt's dressing room, where the pair were awarded something they coveted even more: the inaugural Ronnie Barker Writer of the Year Award.
Excerpted from Kings of Comedy by Neil Simpson. Copyright © 2007 Neil Simpson. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Opening Night,
2 A Suburban Boy,
3 Another Suburban Boy,
4 Learning the Ropes,
5 Hard Knocks on the Stand-up Circuit,
6 Shooting Stars,
7 A New Act,
8 Separate Ways?,
9 Rock Profile,
10 The Power of Radio,
11 The Pilot Show,
12 Creating Vicky Pollard,
13 The Backlash,
14 Private Lives,
15 Mrs Emery and Beyond,