Little Britain may have been daring and creatively crude but it was never that funny. The writing was lazy and repetitive, the characters were one-dimensional and the sketches that riffed on class and racial stereotypes were regressive. While comedy purists will argue that anything and anyone is a valid butt (evidently, that's the rulebook David Walliams and Matt Lucas work from), I’d add a caveat: the target must be able to fight back. The strike on teen mums by Lucas’ Vicky Pollard was a sneery attack on defenceless, underprivileged girls.
It was with these grumblings in mind that I approached the pair’s latest offering, Come Fly With Me (Thursdays 9pm, BBC1) a spoof of aviation fly-on-the-wall, Airport. I’d ignored it in real time but finally forced myself to watch the first three episodes stacked on iPlayer. Having growled at the adverts, I knew there was absolutely no chance I’d laugh at the Japanese schoolgirls who worship Martin Clunes, or Lucas’ bearded Muslim Taaj, a ground crew worker who thinks his electric airport cart is a “bitch” magnet. But five minutes into episode one and I was tittering, out loud. After half an hour I was itching to watch the second instalment.
Come Fly With Me demonstrates just how much Lucas and Walliams have grown as writers. The sketches – rather than a blur of tedious catchphrases and crassness – are thoughtful, well constructed and the gags work more often than they fall flat. Moses Beacon, executive passenger liaison officer played by Walliams, is a brilliantly nuanced mash of spineless obsequiousness and low self-esteem. In one sketch he has to tell a passenger that her dog has frozen solid in the hold. He attempts to do it face to face but instead makes sycophantic small talk then slithers off. Finally, he holds a placard up to her window that reads, “Dog is dead.” Hetty Wolf, the old lady first time flyer who cons Moses into buying her cigarettes and booze, is a seriously smart construction, as is the woman obsessed with Disney. While Little Britain was merely Russ Abbot reinvented, Come Fly With Me is much more League of Gentlemen.
However, I do understand why so many viewers have found it uncomfortable viewing, with its white male stars blacked up, seemingly just to give wet liberals like myself the hump. None of the "ethnic" characters work especially well but the stand out failure is Precious--a West Indian woman who runs a coffee cart but shuts up shop to loaf about the airport. She’s lazy, hypocritical and an evangelical Christian, played by Lucas. The Precious skits come off as cruel, not to mention deeply unadventurous. Next time Walliams and Lucas write a sketch show they need to keep their mitts off the face paint. Then they'll have cracked it.