Matt Lucas: “Little Britain was cruel”

Actor and comedian Matt Lucas on why he couldn't make Little Britain now, apologising to Gary Barlow – and the shock of his parents' divorce

At 16 I was as preoccupied with Arsenal as I had been at eight, and I still am at 43. The young me would be very happy to know he’ll see them win the double one day. I was not yet out as gay to anybody, so I was very anxious about that. I was kind of resigned to bad GSCE results but I was excited about the prospect of leaving school. I went to a very strict private school and I really struggled academically. At 16 I left and went to a college which was far less formal. There were girls there, our teachers called us by our first name, you could smoke cigarettes in the smoking room. It felt like a bridge to adulthood, at last.

The first thing you’d think if you met the 16-year-old me would be how strange to see a teenage boy with no hair [Lucas lost his hair to alopecia aged six]. People asked me about it every day, as often as they ask ‘will you be doing Little Britain again?’ now. I told people I’d had a car accident when I was four and the shock had made it fall out. Because that’s what I believed at the time. Then I developed a repertoire of jokes in response to being asked about it, feigning surprise at the information that I was bald. I had this wig I’d worn as a kid and I’d bring it into college for a laugh.

I told people I’d had a car accident when I was four and the shock had made my hair fall out

Looking back I think I was quite a pompous, pretentious teenager. I was quite playful, I cracked a lot of jokes. But I was still a 16-year-old dressed all in black. If I had had hair it would have been long. I took myself very seriously. I’d just got into the National Youth Theatre so had pretensions of becoming one of Britain’s great Shakespearean actors. And I expected to be successful and famous.

I was very troubled, very shaken, by my parents’ divorce. They say children adapt quickly, but I didn’t. I knew some people whose parent had divorced, but they’d been arguing for years so it wasn’t a surprise. My parents rarely argued in front of us. So I had no idea there were tensions, and it was a great shock and confusing to be told they were splitting. There was no sense of relief, as there is when there have been a lot of door slammings and shouting. We had two loving parents and wanted to see both of them as much as possible. Suddenly we saw a lot less of one. That absence of our father, who just didn’t come home in the evenings any more – that was a big change, and very unsettling. And I probably thought in some way it was my fault.

Matt Lucas in his school uniform
Matt Lucas, aged 11

The teenage me would be very, very shocked that I’ve been able to live a fulfilling and loving life as a gay man. That was not something I thought was ever on the cards. And the idea that my family and friends would accept me and then almost forget about my being gay, that would have been a huge relief. I found out, four years after he died, that my dad had told my aunt he’d worked out I was gay and said he loved me and just wanted me to be happy. I was happy to hear it but I wish he’d said it to me at the time. It would have saved me a lot of anxiety. But he was waiting for me to tell him. And he probably thought we had plenty of time ahead of us. By the time my aunt told me I’d come out to most people. So I was beyond craving acceptance, and I was moving on to the next phase of my life. It felt like that was the postscript to those years of worry, a final resolution.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

There are four things I’ve done which would really impress the 16-year-old me. One would be doing Shooting Stars with Vic and Bob. One would be singing with The Proclaimers. Another would be singing with Roger Taylor and Brian May from Queen at a charity concert. And the other would be hosting the Arsenal ball three times and meeting the players. These are the things which would blow my teenage mind. But he’d be very disapproving of the size of my stomach now.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain
Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain

When I first met David [Walliams] I really looked up to him. And not just because he was so tall. He was so charismatic and funny and confident. He wasn’t just funny, he was funny in his own, original way. There were shades of Frankie Howerd but he really had his own thing going, his way of talking and moving. I wanted to be funny but I didn’t know how to do that in a way that wasn’t derivative. If I did an impression, it would be an impression of someone else’s impression. But by the time we were writing Little Britain some of David’s unique way of thinking had rubbed off. We’d known each other a decade. We could finish each other’s sentences and thoughts. So we felt as if we were writing with one voice.

If I could go back and do Little Britain again, I wouldn’t make those jokes about transvestites. I wouldn’t play black characters. Basically, I wouldn’t make that show now. It would upset people. We made a more cruel kind of comedy than I’d do now. Society has moved on a lot since then, and my own views have evolved. There was no bad intent there – the only thing you could accuse us of was greed. We just wanted to show off about what a diverse bunch of people we could play. Now I think it’s lazy for white people to get a laugh just by playing black characters. My aim is to entertain, I don’t have any other agenda. And as I’ve got older, I’ve become more empathetic, I care more about hurting people. I’ve only met Gary Barlow a few times, but I’ve apologised every time.

Now I think it’s lazy for white people to get a laugh just by playing black characters

When I was about 11 I went to see 42nd Street with Frankie Laine at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. It’s still my favourite ever show. I used to love going to the theatre to see musicals when I was a kid, with my mum and my grandmother. Between the ages of 10 and 14 I saw Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Me and My Girl… I think I sang along with the entire show. Thirty years after that first showing of 42nd Street they put on a new production in the same theatre. When they sang Lullaby of Broadway, it was like Arsenal scoring in the FA Cup final. I felt like punching the air. So I got to feel like that very happy 11-year-old boy all over again.

Little Me: My Life from A-Z by Matt Lucas is published by Canongate Books, £20