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Within the vast spectrum of British comedy, the humble sketch show seems to rear its head only occasionally; indeed the last one of any worth was The Fast Show , which reached its finale in 2000. It’s obviously a tricky genre to pull off successfully as the plethora of failed pilots and axed series bear testament.

Little Britain: The Complete First Series
Little Britain is, therefore, something of a novelty. It has found its audience after being hidden away on BBC Three and, what do you know, it’s genuinely funny! The show is written by its two stars, Matt Lucas and David Walliams. Lucas is instantly recognisable as 'George Dawes’ from Reeves’ and Mortimer’s Shooting Stars. Walliams, despite winning best newcomer at last year’s comedy awards, has been appearing in various cult classics ( Spaced and Black Books to name but two) for the best part of a decade. Together they form a cast of hilarious and outrageous characters: laughter guaranteed.

Over eight episodes, narrator Tom Baker takes the viewer on a tour of Britain by introducing us to Vicky Pollard, the illiterate teenage Mum, Daffyd Thomas, the only gay in his village, rubbish transvestite Emily Howard and many, many more.

Little Britain adheres to the basic formula of the character-based sketch shows: stick the same character in a bunch of vaguely similar situations and wait for the punch-line; usually in the form of a familiar catchphrase. To their credit, Lucas and Walliams have managed to create such three-dimensional ‘little Britons‘, meaning that things only get tired towards the final episode of the series. The hit and miss ratio is firmly tipped towards the former, often, it’s worth noting, due to the cheeky charm of the show.

This isn’t high-brow comedy and, despite being touted as 'the best comedy since The Office, it carries none of the subtlety of that undisputed classic. Instead, by the double-act’s own admission, Little Britain tends to revolve around the pair sticking on dresses and playing a variety of sexually ambiguous characters. While this recipe could get a little stale by the end of its second series, here it’s fresh enough to work extremely well. Perhaps much of this is because many of the characters have hidden depths that are only revealed occasionally. Psychiatric patient, 'Anne', may talk in hilarious gibberish to her doctor, but she/he is perfectly normal whenever the phone rings. Meanwhile, wheelchair-bound Andy may pretend to be disabled, but he can use his legs perfectly well whenever carer Lou turns his back. This added dimension adds an extra bit of comedy to the show, as well as protecting it from criticism regarding political correctness.

Predictably, it’s when the show strays into more surreal territory that it truly hits its marks. A sketch in a toyshop concerning 'Pirate Memory Games' is devoid of any of the familiar characters, but might just be the funniest thing on the disc. The lack of reliance on catchphrases or broad stereotypes makes it all the more satisfying.

Little Britain deserves to be seen by every self-confessed comedy fan in the country. While some may find the humour too broad or obvious, the fact that it has created a legion of recognisable characters means it is worthy of all the attention it receives.

Little Britain: The Complete First Series
The transfer from TV transmission to DVD is faultless, but it’s worth noting that the original picture quality was hardly something to write home about. The picture lacks definition in most scenes, and there’s a noticeable difference between sketches shot on location and those filmed in the studio. Due to the general lack of crispness on the picture, some scenes look they were filmed under a coat of Vaseline! While this goes without note on Television, on DVD it’s something of a nuisance and a waste of the format’s strengths.  

Little Britain is presented with little more than a stereo mix. While this is adequate for a DVD featuring a television programme, the bursts of laughter and Tom Baker’s frequent narration sound slightly overbearing through the two channels. The sketches themselves sound fine enough, with only the occasional speaker hiss.  

The BBC has taken the rather unusual measure of sticking half the episodes and half the extras on one disc, and the rest of the series and features on the second. Let’s take a look at that extensive list of extras...

A commentary on a sketch show has one big problem: due to the fast nature of the programme, it’s common that before an anecdote one sketch reaches its conclusion, we’ve already moved onto another skit, three chapters on. The upshot of this is that some characters are overlooked and never discussed in great detail. Lucas and Walliams are joined for the first four episodes by producer Myfanwy Moore and, on the last four, by director Steve Bendelack. While the commentary is full of useful information, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not particularly funny.  

The behind the scenes documentary, ‘How to Make a Little Britain’, is a fairly lengthy look at the making of the series. Its one flaw is that, instead of concentrating on showing us the creative processes behind Little Britain, it merely strives to show us just how many costumes Lucas and Walliams had to wear during the shoot. For that reason, it lacks the insight that one expects from a documentary.

Four live sketches are included from ‘The Teenage Cancer Trust Concert’. The audio quality, as is to be expected, is less than great, but the material shines through. As an added bonus, Alan Partridge introduces the set, so Steve Coogan fans can get a little something extra from this great feature.

‘What Does Britain Mean To You?’, is an entertaining survey of the various characters, presumably shot during the recording of the series. It’s truly for the numerous fans that can’t get enough of Emily Howard et al.

Little Britain: The Complete First Series
The deleted Scenes encompass about forty minutes of footage deemed to be below standard. It’s a good sign for the second series that most of this is actually pretty good. Often you get the impression that scenes were dropped on the grounds of good taste rather than comedy value; a scene set in a cancer charity foundation is about as risky as the show will ever get and is therefore a hidden gem. Of further interest are alternate scenes that were eventually re-shot and recast. Strangely enough, some of these 'deleted' scenes are actually featured in the pilot...

Which brings us to Lucas and Walliam’s first stab at Little Britain. First shown on BBC Three several months before the series, it’s clear that the tone of the show was fine-tuned with this attempt. A few of the sketches are reused in the proper episodes, but there are some gems which didn’t make the switch, such as an entry which introduces Anthony Head’s recurring guest role as the Prime Minister. As with the deleted scenes, a commentary track is included.

Two interviews are featured on the disc, one from Radio Five (accompanied by a photo gallery to keep your eyes occupied), and a second from an episode of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Separately they’re of interest, but since they cover identical ground the inclusion of both is a little redundant.

The BBC Three Indents are of similar worth; merely using some of the more memorable character lines from the series to dub over the channel’s familiar plasticine characters which pop up between programmes. These are included for completeness rather than necessity.

The ‘Character Playlist’ is of use if you want to watch the sketches of one particular little Briton. Notice that I didn’t use the phrase 'all the sketches'; the fact that the series is spread over two discs makes this impossible.

If you‘re a newcomer to the work of Lucas and Walliams, then ‘The Best of Rock Profile’ should be of interest. Rock Profile was a short-lived comedy show for Play UK, with the double-act impersonating various members of the music world. Amongst numerous others, ABBA, Blur and Take That are all at the mercy of a gentle ribbing. Noticeable by its absence is the sketch on Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Since this was the inspiration for Little Britain’s Andy and Lou, it’s a surprising omission.

Finally, a special mention must go to the animated menus. Putting most other BBC releases to shame (one exception being Red Dwarf), they’re actually pleasing to look at and surprisingly detailed.

Little Britain: The Complete First Series
As far as BBC comedy is concerned, Little Britain is the current flavour of the month and this finely presented DVD does it justice. The extras are exhaustive and generally of good quality and, while this is not a disc to stretch your home cinema system, it is a worthy purchase. Buy it, watch it...and then annoy your mates down the pub by continuously reciting the sketches...