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Interview: Matt Lucas

The most surreal Jew in the village

    Persistence finally paid off for Matt Lucas. The rotund funny man ­had some near misses and minor hits before Little Britain made him one of the nation’s biggest stars. Indeed, it now transcends the UK: “It plays in over 40 countries. there’s nowhere to hide now!” laughs Lucas. The idea for the show, which also stars his longstanding friend and comedy partner David Walliams, was “to get as many characters out as possible, keep the show moving, make each sketch last not much more than two minutes so that if you don’t like something then there’s something else coming up very shortly”.

    The pair had been writing projects which “were too adult for TV — we were getting audiences to our live shows and making them laugh but we couldn’t get to the next step”.

    In 2001 they wrote their innovative sketch show for Radio 4 and the rest is history. Lucas explains that they didn’t want to be The Two Ronnies, who played the shows as themselves. “We were too shy and self-conscious — which might sound weird when you think we run around dressed as women!”

    Hence the idea of using Tom Baker as narrator, a device that would suit radio while introducing characters and linking sketches. “Radio needs devices like this to distinguish one show from another. We hit gold with Tom. We were very lucky. He was our first choice. If he said no we were going to ask Harold Pinter!”

    Lucas made his debut on the London stand-up circuit in October 1992. Aged 18, he played the character of Sir Bernard Chumley, the legendary actor and raconteur. Comedian Bob Mortimer noticed Lucas five weeks later when he performed a show at The White Horse pub in Belsize Park. Lucas was flattered by the attention. “He and Vic Reeves inspired me and David to become comedians.

    “I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to work with them.” In 1994, Matt, still doing stand-up in the evenings around London, began to write with his friend David Walliams, whom he had met four years earlier at the National Youth Theatre.

    The duo teamed up to take their show Sir Bernard Chumley is Dead… And Friends to Edinburgh, spending the festival with a residency at the Assembly Rooms. The following year they took Sir Bernard Chumley’s Gangshow. The character would later feature in Little Britain. “Sir Bernard was an amalgam of all those funny, fruity old types me and David had met doing youth theatre.”

    In 2002, the pair finally found their way on to “proper telly” with Little Britain. “It was a big risk for the channel to commission, because sketch shows are very expensive to make and we weren’t everyone’s cup of tea.” Three Baftas, four National Television Awards and a record-breaking live tour later, it is looking like a good decision. Most recently, Little Britain has joined an increasing number of British comedy shows which have crossed the pond to the US. Little Britain USA was taken there by media mogul Simon Fuller. The first season aired on HBO and was also shown in the UK on the BBC. The show featured well-known characters such as Lou and Andy and others devised for the American market. “The ratings have gone up each week, so the channel are pleased with us. The reviews in America were mainly good.

    “Obviously, America is a huge place so you don’t become an overnight success there. You have to build gradually. Simon calls it ‘the ripple effect’.”

    Lucas and Walliams have just started writing the second series. He explains that “we write together, as we’ve always done, from the days of collaborating in David’s bedsit. We start work at 10am and write all day until 5pm in one of our houses, eating M&S ready meals. Maybe we write in bigger rooms now, but the process is the same.” As a performer, Lucas’s range is eclectic; playing surreal, farcical, weird and wonderful characters — not to mention a spot of Shakespeare in Troilus And Cressida at the Old Vic in 2000.

    “It’s important to challenge yourself. I tried Shakespeare and I also appeared in Boy George’s musical, Taboo. Next year I plan to do another play, this time a serious role. I don’t know if I will pull it off but it’ll be interesting to have a go.”

    Racking up so many credits as a performer has served its purpose well, with Lucas having just completed his first Hollywood film.

    Lucas landed the roles of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Tim Burton’s 3D Alice in Wonderland (scheduled for release in 2010). He says he feels “very lucky that my first Hollywood film was a Tim Burton film. I was on set doing scenes with Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway. I had to pinch myself.”

    He’s also recently shot a sitcom with John Rhys-Davies and Sean Maguire playing the baddie in Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire. “It’s very different when someone else writes it. In Little Britain we are acting, but we are also keeping an eye on everything else — the budgets, the schedule, the casting etc. When you are acting in someone else’s piece you can just worry about what you have to do.”

    Lucas describes himself as “a secular Jew and proud of my Jewishness”. He grew up in Stanmore and went to Edgware and District Reform Synagogue, where his mother works. He has close ties to the community, with “many observant members in my family. I was a good boy. Shul on Saturday mornings, Hebrew classes on Sunday mornings, club on Sunday afternoons, more Hebrew classes on Tuesday and cubs on a Thursday! And there were many fun weekends away at Manor House.

    “Then I became a madrich, which I loved. I helped run the youth clubs regularly until I was about 19.” In April 2006, EDRS had an evening with Matt Lucas: “An Audience with… Little Edgware”. The event raised almost £5,000. “It was weird to go back to the shul and sit on the bimah, with TV screens up showing my sketches. It was very weird. like a surreal dream!”

    Lucas uses his high-profile status for the good of the community and is involved with the Karen Morris Memorial Trust, a charity set up to continue the fundraising initiative of a 23-year-old student who died from leukaemia.

    He explains that his motivation for getting involved was simple, “Karen was a friend and I felt that what the charity was trying to achieve was a truly noble aim.”

    He adds that the charity offers “an understanding environment, with realistic aims and ambitions”. Furthermore, “the concept is tangible, useful and fundamentally improves lives”. “It is a great tribute to Karen that the charity is flourishing.”

    He is contributing to an event next month in which he will be interviewed by the BBC’s Jon Sopel. “Maybe we’ll all get up and sing ‘David Melech Yisrael?’”

    Lucas and Walliams have prepared several new sketches for Comic Relief. With a giggle, he explains that “they are top secret. I could tell you but I’d have to kill you. The truth is we have written some sketches but not cast them yet”.

    Viewers last saw Lucas on TV in December in a Shooting Stars festive special. Lucas is still a fan of Reeves and Mortimer and would “count myself in” should they wish to make more of the hugely popular surreal quiz show.

    “I love working with them. They are the reason I got into this business. I still see them socially when we can. Bob and his family came round for tea on New Year’s Day. We had some lovely cakes.”

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