Little Britain - The Complete First Series
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $29.98 // August 16, 2005
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted July 30, 2005
Highly Recommended
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Graphical Version
In 10 Words or Less
The British experience through the eyes of two hilarious oddballs

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Sketch comedy
Likes: British comedy
Hates: "The League of Gentlemen"

The Show
Is there a genre that confounds mainstream American audiences more than British comedy (and perhaps anime?) There's something unique about their sense of humor (or even humour) that simply doesn't translate easily. It might be the variety of accents, the extensive and unusual jargon or the difference in culture, but there's something that gets lost in translation for most American audiences. Though "Mr. Bean" has his following and "The Office" has made something of a successful jump across the pond, cross-Atlantic hits are few and far between.

It's not likely that "Little Britain" will join the likes of Monty Python, but it's certainly got the kind of hype and reputation that an heir to the "Flying Circus" throne would need. By instinct, I am hesitant when it comes to British series that get the critical acclaim "Little Britain" comes to America with. "The League of Gentlemen" had similar hype when it appeared on Comedy Central, but it ended up being a bit too odd for most viewers and left screens without leaving much of a mark. "Little Britain" has an even higher profile, and thus, my guard was up. After watching the first season, I can say the critics are not off the mark on this one.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams brought their radio show, which took concepts related to the ordinary Briton and pushed them through a warped prism, and brought it to BBC TV, where they write the show and act as the two main actors. They work off each other with such a perfect chemistry that it would be impossible to do the show without them. In terms of the style, the show takes the two-man comic power of "Mr. Show" and adds the transvestite styling of "The Kids in the Hall," while producing the whole package with true visual style. Because the show isn't done live, and is instead filmed and edited, they can get the concepts down perfectly, but thanks to some fine post-production work, the energy of a live performance comes through well.

While Walliams is very much an everyman, he can still play the out-there roles, like mental patient Anne and Ifan the gay hair stylist. A tall thin man, he can pull off both a respectable newsman and a raving, man. He may have created the series' best character, the underused school teacher who married one of this former students, and still treats her like they are in the classroom. Lucas, on the other hand, is a round-faced man who pulls off a well-mimicked woman in a way that comes off not like a man in drag, but a not-so-pretty woman. When not wearing a dress, he's an excellent shlub or blue-collar bloke. Between the two of them, and with a bit of make-up help, they can portray just about any character.

The series moves so fast, that to try to pick out a handful of sketches to represent the best of the show is to try and pick the best blade of grass on your lawn. Unlike a series like "SNL" or "MAD TV," sketches start and end so quickly that if they don't hit as well as another sketch, they are replaced by a better bit before a bad taste is left in your mouth. Using an idea like a proper British school room or a piano recital as the basis, the show goes off on bizarre tangents to fill space between the longer sketches. As a result, a high level of comedic energy is maintained throughout the episodes' 30 minutes.

There are a handful of re-appearing characters, like FatFighters leader Marjorie Dawes, Lou and his wheelchair-bound pal Andy, lonely gay Daffyd, and rude, fast-talking teenage mom Vicky Pollard, but they are essentially one-trick ponies. It's the quicker one-off segments that deliver the bigger laughs, as there's more of an element of surprise to them. Though Vicky gets her laughs and Marjorie delivers some truly vicious lines, after watching a few segments, I could have written them myself and possibly matched what Lucas and Williams came up with for them. This is especially true for Lou and Andy, as their sketches are the same time and again, relying on the same joke each time, committing the same sins that the popular characters on "SNL" commit.

There are a couple of regulars on the series that constantly deliver though. One is Emily Howard, England's worst transvestite, played by Walliams. Though, in look, he's similar to the female characters played by the Kids in the Hall, but he's recognized for not passing for a woman at all. Thus, when he plays up the idea that he's a "lay-dee," the joke truly works and Walliams plays it to the hilt until the situation becomes a bit too much for Emily.

The other consistent hit is the Prime Minister bit, which features "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"'s Anthony Head as the PM. He plays the straight man, literally and figuratively, to Walliam's Sebastian Love, a mincing cabinet secretary with an obvious crush on the PM. That he's so obvious, yet the matter is never truly mentioned, helps increase the comedy, in a completely opposite way from the Emily Howard sketches. Though the sketch is powered by Walliam's over-the-top, fey portrayal of the gay secretary, it's not so much that he's gay, it's just that he's so outrageous.

Though it could have been just another part of the show, in the hands (or more correctly, mouth) of "Dr. Who" star Tom Baker, the series' narration is a riot. Speaking in an extremely nonsensical, yet documentary style, Baker explains the history of Britain, including its invention of the cat and the introduction of books to the country in the 1950s. He sets a proper tone for the show, and keeps the laughs going between sketches. When one considers how well even such minor portions of this series work in comparison to most sketch series, it makes it obvious that the hype for this series is well-deserved. This is easily one of the best comedy series to ever come out of British TV.

The DVDs
A two-disc collection in a single-width white keepcase, "Little Britain"'s eight first-season episodes are split evenly across the two DVDs. The discs feature a stylishly-designed animated anamorphic widescreen menu, which offers a play-all option, episode selections, set-up choices and extras. Inside of each episode choice is a chapter breakdown with titles and still previews. There are no language options, but there are subtitles available in English.

The Quality
Presented in the original anamorphic widescreen aspect ration, the show looks great, though the video is a bit soft, with wash-out around windows, deficiencies that were found in the original footage. Color is solid, with nice detail, when the shots allowed for it. There's not a speck of dirt or damage to these transfers as these episodes are presented as well as they possibly could be.

The audio, done in Dolby Digital 2.0, is just as good as the video, though its hardly the most impressive track ever. Even so, there's nothing here that would benefit from a more complex mix. The dialogue can be hard to understand at times, especially during Vicky Pollard sketches, so utilizing the subtitles is highly recommended. Even so, the subtitles can hardly keep up, and often miss bits and pieces of the dialogue.

The Extras
The extras for this set are split up onto the two discs, starting with audio commentaries on every episode. Lucas and Walliams chat with producer Myfanwy Moore on the first disc, while director Steve Bendelack sits in with the boys on Disc Two. Impressively, for a series that is rather silly, the commentaries tend to stick to the facts, talking about the writing and how the episodes came together. In later commentaries, when all the info is out there, there's more joking around, but the tracks remain very informative for fans.

Disc One features almost 40-minutes of deleted scenes, most of which are as good as what made the final cut. Some of the concepts are alternate takes of scenes that made it onto the air, but some are never-before-seen, and make a great bonus for fans who want more of the show. A commentary track is also included for these scenes.

Impressively, the series' pilot episode is almost as good as the regular series, which shows how tightly the idea had been nailed down. A different opening and several sketches that were redone for later episodes mark a generally good time. Once again, an alternate audio track provides a commentary for the fans.

"BBC Three Indents" are bits of animation with lines from the show, which must have run between shows on the BBC. It's nothing too interesting. More enjoyable is an interview with Lucas and Walliams, from "Friday Night with Jonathan Ross." It's standard TV shmoozing, though the guys have some fun playing down their successes.

Disc Two has the bulk of the extras, including the 36-minute behind-the-scenes featurette "How to Make a 'Little Britain.'" Starting with the live production of the radio show that launched the series, the process from the page to the tube is documented. Lucas and Walliams explain some of the concepts behind the series' comedy, before the camera heads out into the field to observe the shooting. It's nicely in-depth, with on-set interviews and plenty of raw footage of the filming.

Likely shot at the same time, "What Does Britain Mean To You?," surveys the various characters about what their country means to them. Whether it was scripted or not, and it seems to have been improvised, the characters remain true to their parts on the show, extending the jokes out of the series.

If a TV series has done live shows, it's become something of a DVD tradition to include them on disc, and "Little Britain" is no exception. Four sketches done live during The Teenage Cancer Trust Concert are found on Disc Two. The guys are joined by a couple of other big names for four bits that will be very familiar to fans of the series.

Surprisingly, there's an extra from an entirely separate series, "The Best of 'Rock Profile'" The series starred Lucas and Walliams, which explains why it's included, and its quite entertaining, as the duo impersonate various music personlities, including Tom Jones, Abba, Blur and a delightfully loopy Shirley Bassey. This show looks to be great fun, and should be on DVD itself.

Another interview, this time a radio interview with a slideshow image gallery, is found on this disc as well, but it doesn't reveal much more than the previous interview clip.

Included on both DVDs is a Character Playlist that allows users to select sketches of the more frequently-appearing characters from each set of episodes. For those with just one or two favorite characters, this is the perfect way to watch the show.

The Bottom Line
"Little Britain" is one of the most impressive comedy series to emerge from the UK in some time, and as a rather universal, yet cult-accessible series, it really has the chance to gain a massive audience on DVD. BBC Video must have realized this, as they pulled out all the stops for this set, delivering a beautiful set of well-produced episodes and an extensive collection of extras that go beyond the show and should satisfy old fans and new. If you're a fan of what good sketch comedy can produce, and can handle a British accent, this is a must-see series and the package makes it well worth purchasing.

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