David Walliams on a career in comedy, a life in the spotlight and the joy of being the butt of the joke

"There’s nothing more funny than being sent up by your friends" say the comedian and writer ahead of Britain's Got Talent 2018

David Walliams (RT shoot by Ian Derry, EH)

On TV, David Walliams is the ultimate class clown. From dressing as a “laydee” on Little Britain to pulling his trousers down on Britain’s Got Talent, he gives the impression of a perpetually gooning jack-in-the-box.

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But there’s no larking about at our photoshoot. I’m almost surprised when he fails to do a single pratfall or camp impression. Hell, he doesn’t even flirt with any of the crew – male or female.

So will the real David Walliams step forward? Is he the show-off we’re used to seeing on screen, or the quietly spoken man who turns up early to the shoot with a rack of clothes, shaking hands with everybody before getting on with the job without fuss?

After a couple of hours in his company, I decide he’s both: able to lark about when the situation calls for it, and be serious and empathetic when it doesn’t.

“I choose my moments on Britain’s Got Talent,” he says. “We record for 12 hours a day and you only see a bit of it, so it’s not all gold. Sometimes I say something that isn’t funny and doesn’t get a laugh. At other times it’s just inappropriate to joke. We had a girl this year who was injured in the Manchester bombing, and she did a dance routine, and because she used a wheelchair, all her friends did too, so that was beautiful.

“I’ve been writing books for ten years and now I’m always thinking of life in terms of stories. That was a beautiful ending to a story. Incredibly moving.” The ability to straddle these two different sides to his personality so seamlessly seems to be key to Walliams’s success and longevity. We may see him as a comedian on TV, but behind the scenes he’s a serious (and successful) writer and businessman.

He shot to fame with Matt Lucas on their BBC show Little Britain: a larger-than-life, thoroughly OTT series of character sketches that were unashamedly populist. Lucas and Walliams were, for a time, the biggest comedians in the country, performing to packed arenas as their characters, which included Vicky Pollard and Lou and Andy.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams, Little Britain (Getty, EH)
Matt Lucas as Andy and David Walliams as Lou in Little Britain (Getty)

When that finished in 2006, the pair continued working together, but their next project – the airline mockumentary Come Fly with Me in 2010 – wasn’t as successful, and they went their separate ways.

Walliams says the adjustment wasn’t easy. “It was amazing being in a show that was so present in the culture. But you can’t sustain something like that. It’s like being in a car going downhill, and the brakes have been cut, and you’re just trying to keep control of it. The juggernaut came to a halt. I’d never thought beyond that: being in a big comedy show was my life’s ambition, so that was the end point.”

And yet, in a way, that was really just the beginning. Two years after the end of Little Britain, Walliams wrote his first children’s book, The Boy in the Dress, a touching portrait of a child who was different from his friends. Although it wasn’t initially a bestseller, the subject matter began to change the public’s perception of him from a lightweight comedian to someone rather more thoughtful. In 2011 he swam 140 miles along the River Thames for Sport Relief, and his reputation took another major shift; in particular, the moment he rescued a dog that had fallen in the river elevated him overnight to a national hero.

Three years later, he set up a TV production firm, King Bert, with Miranda Hart and producer Jo Sargent, which has made well-received versions of Walliams’s own books. Now, Walliams is practically a member of the establishment; he was even awarded an OBE last year. So does that mean he will only do “safe” comedy, now that he has such a reputation to protect? Little Britain and Come Fly with Me, after all, both attracted criticism for their portrayals of people with disabilities, trans people and people of colour, and Lucas said in an interview last year that he would not do the sketches again, branding them “a more cruel kind of comedy than I’d do now”.

David Walliams after completing his Sport Relief swim (Getty, EH)
David Walliams after completing his Sport Relief swim (Getty)

“You’d definitely do it differently,” Walliams agrees, “because it’s a different time now. You’d make any comedy differently. We started working on Little Britain nearly 20 years ago, because it was on radio first. It’s hard to say specifically how it would be different. There’s all kinds of tolerances that change. People understand people’s predicaments more now. Maybe it’s, ‘We see this differently, we’ve got more information’, and it would be a different type of joke. I wouldn’t rule out anything because I basically think you have to be able to make jokes about everything, everyone. Otherwise there is no point having comedy.”

But some people were offended at the time. Did Walliams and Lucas think about that before going ahead? “Yes, of course we did, we’re not stupid. But then also you’ve got to understand that comedy for me is celebrating things. There were gay guys at Pride dressed as Daffyd [a Little Britain character who called himself “the only gay in the village”].

“We went to a hospice for children with disabilities in Wales and the kids in wheelchairs wanted to be like Andy with me as Lou, their carer. The idea for The Boy in the Dress came from a boy who sent me a picture of himself as [the cross-dressing character] Emily Howard, and now boys go to school in a dress holding a football and I feel I might have made it OK to be different.

“There’s an assumption that someone on the ‘receiving end’ of the joke has no sense of humour about it. But there’s nothing more funny than being sent up by your friends. I’ve got funny friends – Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr – and they destroy me. And it’s hilarious.”

David Walliams and Rob Brydon (Getty, EH)
David Walliams and Rob Brydon (Getty)

Matt Lucas also said he apologised to Gary Barlow “several times” after he played him in 1999 sketch show Rock Profile (Walliams played Barlow’s bandmate Howard Donald). Perhaps Lucas is more sensitive than he is? But Walliams says, “I actually apologised to Gary Barlow as well. We were doing this little show tucked away on a cable channel, and we never thought that we’d actually meet these people.”

I tell Walliams that Barlow has, by sheer coincidence, been spotted in the photography studio next door, and he laughs. “I heard! I’d like to say hello but I didn’t want to break away and be all showbizzy and you’d write, ‘He’s not doing the interview because he’s gone to do air kisses with Gary Barlow’.”

When Walliams arrived, in tracksuit bottoms and nursing a cold, my heart sank. Celebrities who are not feeling very well are not, in my experience, the most fun interviewees. And there had been a few concerned messages in the run-up to the interview between Walliams’s people and Radio Times, including a polite question to ask if the photographer would mind that the star is currently sporting a beard.

But I needn’t have worried – Walliams is open, honest, and thinks hard about what he wants to say. I ask how he felt when he heard that Ant McPartlin – co-host of BGT – had been arrested for drink-driving.

“Ant and Dec are popular beyond anybody’s imagination, aren’t they? Every single person who comes to the show says, ‘Can we meet Ant and Dec?’, and they are so generous with their time. And they are incredibly relatable and recognisable, and the hard thing about when you’re well-known is that when things go awry in your life, it gets played out in public.

“I’ve had similar things in my life. I remember when my father was dying, I was on the phone to him and people were coming up for selfies. It’s hard because they want you to be smiley and happy but you’re going through something that’s causing you pain.”

David Walliams, Anthony McPartlin, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Declan Donnelly and Alesha Dixon at Britain's Got Talent auditions in 2018 (Getty, EH)
David Walliams, Anthony McPartlin, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Declan Donnelly and Alesha Dixon at Britain’s Got Talent auditions in 2018 (Getty)

But during other parts of our interview Walliams is quick to laugh – usually at himself – and great company. We talk a lot about pinch-me moments when Walliams has felt star-struck – encounters over the years with Nick Cave, Roger Moore and Michael Caine – or the time he and Lucas kept Kate Moss and Pete Doherty waiting because Sir Paul McCartney had popped into their dressing room to say hello.

I ask about a down-to-earth moment where Walliams felt his bubble had burst, and he pauses before saying, “I really hope I can think of something better than, ‘Well, I was having dinner with all the James Bonds, and the diamonds fell off my shoes…’”

When I tell him he sold more books than JK Rowling last year he rolls his eyes. “Yes, because she didn’t have a book out. She’s sold 500 million books so I don’t think she’s too worried.”

I suggest that he may have put his comedy days largely behind him – he replies, mock offended, “My books are quite funny, you know.”

David Walliams attends a BFI Southbank preview of Ratburger, Sky 1's TV adaptation of his book (Getty, EH)
David Walliams attends a BFI Southbank preview of Ratburger, Sky 1’s TV adaptation of his book (Getty)

In fact, his TV comedy days are not entirely over. He currently has new shows in development with the BBC and Sky – “a studio sitcom and a multi-character comedy show, not a sketch show” – and is writing film scripts in the US with Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright.

But mostly he writes at home so he can spend time with his four-year-old son Alfred, by his ex-wife Lara Stone. He credits him with his current happiness after experiencing bouts of depression and self-loathing in the past.

“All is good. My career is great, I’ve got a beautiful son. Of course there are things I worry about that sometimes keep me awake at night, but I’ve got a lot to be very, very thankful for.

“Being a parent is a great thing because it makes you a lot less self-obsessed. All you really care about is that little person’s life and what the future holds for them. And your own worries really fade into the background. So, yes, my life revolves around him. Everything I do, I think about how it impacts upon him, is it going to disrupt my time with him… It’s hard, because there’s lots of great things out there – I’d love to do more theatre – but I don’t want to do anything that’s going to take me far away from him or stop me putting him to bed.”

It sounds, I say, as if he is taking more and more of a back seat when it comes to performing. When I suggest the future may involve him retreating fully into writing, he looks horrified. “I mean, no – unless you’ve heard something I haven’t?

“There will be an age where I’ll be doing shows about cathedrals. When you’re old you find something you’d like to bore people about. ‘Great Steam Journeys of Britain’, perhaps, or cakes! Tea shops! Scones! Fascinating. I always used to wonder what I would do when I was 70, and I thought it would be great to be in Last of the Summer Wine with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. I can’t think of anything better.

“Sketch comedy might be a bit of a young man’s game but I’d like to do more straight comedy. There’s a day when you’re pensioned off television, unless you’re Bruce Forsyth, but if people want me on screen I’ll happily be on screen – I love it.”

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Britain’s Got Talent begins on Saturday 14th April at 8pm on ITV