Small (minded) Britain?

The past few weeks I've been getting into the comic brilliance that is Little Britain (and you thought the scarce posting was due to work and uni commitments...). Without doubt, the content is funny, but the more I watch it, the more I see a nasty, almost xenophobic streak running through the portrayal of the characters. In fairness, I've only watched the first series, so things might be different with the recent stuff, but I doubt it.

Here's my take on it. Little Britain is a show for middle class, tertiary educated BBC-watchers (and their Australian counterparts) which takes the piss out of everyone else: the old, the decrepid, the gay, the disabled, the working class, the transvestite, the fat, the Scottish. In other words, it's cultural insiders laughing at (most definitely not with) cultural outsiders.

The dozen or so regular characters represent the subconscious prejudices of a mildly insecure audience. None of the characters represent the sort of people who might actually be watching: they're not in on the joke. A few examples helps to illustrate:

- Vicky Pollard is the 'yeah but no but' girl who is the epitome of chav/bogun. She's crass, loud, crude, chubby, and ugly, but has absolutely no self-awareness of her own ridiculousness. She is the girl that every middle class family fears hopes their daughter never becomes. And she'd never watch the BBC.

Vicky Pollard

- Andy and Lou are the coupling of the physically and mentally disabled man with his carer. Andy, as the indicisive, slightly disturbed twit, is a subject of derision and scorn, completely devoid of pity. But then so is his carer, Lou, whose noble but pathetic existance is relentlessly mocked. (The sketches, incidentally, are of panto-like simplicity: "Do you want X?" "Yeah." "Are you sure?" "Yeah" "But you don't like X?" "I know." "But you're sure you want X?" "Yeah." "Okay." "I want Y.")

Lou and Andy

- Sebastian, the Prime Minister's aid, is a sadly deluded gay man who can't take a hint. Here the contrast is interesting when the hopelessly camp gay man is compared with the serious and refined Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the straight man (in more ways than one), and is one of few characters who is never the butt of the joke. He is, after all, white, straight, male and educated.


The point I'm making is not that there's something inherently wrong with LB or that we should feel guilty and finding it funny. I'm a firm believer that the biggest offence in black comedy is not being funny: so long as it is funny, you can get away with it. And this stuff most certainly is. I think, though, that audiences are not attuned to the political nature of what they're watching, and need to face up to the fact that the show reinforces prejudices rather than challenges them.

It's ironic that there are a legion of lefties who are usually very sensitive to prejudices and stereotypes elsewhere, but will declare themselves LB fans. I suspect the BBC/ABC gives the show 'cover' from criticisms that can quite righly be levelled at the show.


Anonymous said…
Little Britain is awesome. Keep on watching Ari, if you've only seen season one that means you haven't yet seen Carol Beer the 'computer says no' woman and Linda Flint the university councilor - two of my favourites. I don't know if you're right though about BBC viewers beeing middle class and tertiary educated. It is the highest rating station in Britain so a comparison to channel 9 rather than our ABC would probably be more apt. Looking forward to hearing your kareoke at trivia on Tuesday. All the best for the fast, Dozza
Anonymous said…
Ari, you are reading to much into "Little Britain". Remember the bloke who plays Vicky is both gay and fat. This program follows on from great shows like the "League of Gentlemen" but not the dated "Benny Hill Show" which is being repeated on Ch 7.

Regards, Adrian Jackson
Peter said…
I think you might be missing the point a bit, Ari. True, these characters are parodied, but like all satire, it serves to force us to think about the stereotypes we naturally form.

I find they present quite an affectionate view of these various stereotypes. I don't know British culture well enough to recognise most of them in my own life. So I can't say how accurate they are. But I can't agree that their protrayals are derisive. The thing about the characters is they are all happy and comfortable with themselves.

The message I take from it is (and I'm assuming the personality types are real) when you see one of these types in the street, they're harmless. None of them are presented as anyone to be afraid of.
Dan said…
I have a very different take on Little Britain from you Ari. I have internalised a lot of the sensitivities of the kind of 'Cafe Latte Set' you refer to, and LB offends many of those sensitivities. It is certainly anything but politically correct, and that alone is sufficient reason to question your argument.

Personally I think that LB too frequently crosses the fine line between funny and 'just offensive' (League of Gentlemen went way over that same line). However it has its moments: "I'm the only gay in the village" is a cack and now you can get a doll of him complete with recorded statements!
Kit Fur Cat said…
OR, like some of us... you could just not see what is funny about it and think it's as low brow as"The Ronnie Johns Half Hour".

Un PC is fine, mirrors to society are great, but LB I don't get. Nor do I understand the "But it's fat gay people doing it at themselves" argument.
But then, I didn't like League of Gentlemen either.
mutikonka said…
LB is mildly amusing the first time, but just not very funny on repeated viewing. You're right - it does reflect all those unspoken British middle class prejudices (look at the way they treat the Indian character - "What you say? Curry? Can't understand you ...")
If you want to see the successor to the Young Ones and the Goodies, try the Mighty Boosh.
Anonymous said…
my favourite sketch was one in which 2 old WASPy women were concerned about buying cookies from the ethnic browny (female version of scouts??)...this pokes fun at bbc viewer noo? (or at least the mothers of your suggested audience), Marc
Anonymous said…
Britain, Britain, Briatin. We've had running water for 10 years...

I think some of you have missed the point. LB makes fun of exactly those prejudices. It's worth getting a copy of season 2 and watching 'the making of'.

And the character list does widen in season 2. Dozza mentioned Carol Beer in the bank. Here's a couple of other examples:

Two white middle class ladies (Judy and Maggie) tour around fetes and church do's sampling jams and cakes. When Maggie finds the cook was invariably a foreigner or a gay she projectile vomits over some poor child nearby. (This makes fun of Maggie, not the cook, for those that don't get jokes.)

Another character, 30 year-old Harvey Pincher (season 2?) comes from a WASP family. Not only is he not weened yet, but his aging mother is unaware of anything wrong with breastfeeding him in public, even on the altar.

And back to commenting on season 1:

Michael W doesn't like Marjory Dawes (the fat fighters coordinator) because she isn't nice to the Indian lady. Of course she is horrible ("What you say? Curry? Can't understand you ..."). That's the joke, all the members of the group are nice, functional and supportive and she is one who needs the group.

Daffid (the only gay in the village) is desperately seeking prejudice from his community but no-one will have a bar of it. His mother irons his g-string and says 'well dear, we did have an inkling'.

Andy is not is not physically or mentally disabled at all. He's just a complete arsehole. He even wins an episode of 'the price is right' behind Lou's back (Andy come on down!!).

I think the audience is much wider than Ari suggested. Everyone watches BBC - there are only 5 channels in England and three of them are BBC (Ch 1,2 and 4) with almost 80% of the ratings share.

Anonymous said…
Spot on Tafty. I wrote something to similar effect here a few days ago but for some reason it didn't come up on the comments page and I couldn't be arsed writing it again.

Making fun of the Indian lady, for example, is not anti-Indian as Michael W suggests, but is making fun of those who make fun of Indians.

Some people are just far too sensitive, and in being so sensitive fail to see what LB is actually all about.
mutikonka said…
There's a fine line between making fun of the racist/snob etc and celebrating them. A bit like the Loadsamoney character that Harry Enfield mocked in the late 80s, which he had to drop as the character's lines were adopted by the newly rich Thatcher kids and used to mock the unemployed. And the Pub Landlord character, who was meant to be a piss take of a racist but became a hero of the new skinheads and Little Englanders. You say the lines directed at the Indian woman are harmless ... but I heard a coouple of 13 year old kids repeating them almost word for word to the Indian neighbours kid - calling him "curry" etc. That's why I don't like Little Britain. It pretends to be an affection parody of petty English prejudices, but actually acts to reinforce them and reassure us all that it's OK.
Anonymous said…
You're off-line on this one Ari. There is no real option except the BBC for TV in the UK, so its not perceived as an educated/elitist channel (Eastenders, Heartbeat, Coronation Street etc etc etc). The UK is a nation of where viewers need licences actually to own a TV, and the money goes to support 3 out of the 4 free to air TV stations. LB is immensely popular everywhere - in fact it is actually helping to break down stereotypes - 'I'm the only gay in the village' is an incredibly popular line at lots of primary schools all over the UK. The series is brilliant and clever, and if you want to get theoretical essentially points out in a true Socratic way certain hypocrisies in British culture.
Anonymous said…
have you seen "Bromwell High"?
love bez

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