David Walliams flashes me a wry grin. I’ve just reminded him that the first time we met was several years ago, when mutual friends introduced us on a night out because they thought he might be bisexual. “I wasn’t aware I was being fixed up at the time,” he laughs. “But there should be a plaque on the wall outside now.”
We joke about how awkward the evening was and try to work out when it happened; we manage to pin it down to 2002, before Walliams filmed the first series of comedy sketch show Little Britain and became a major star. “And it’s all been leading up to this moment,” he jokes.
We’re chatting over lunch in Manchester, where Walliams, 45, is staying while he films a lead role in the TV adaptation of his children’s book, Ratburger. It follows hot on the heels of TV versions of several of his best-sellers and comes just before he returns to his role as a judge in the studio finals of the latest series of Britain’s Got Talent.
It’s a show on which he’s often flirted with male contestants — not to mention Simon Cowell — and built on the camp persona established through several of his Little Britain characters, despite the fact that all his relationships so far, publicly at least, have been with women. But is he genuinely attracted to men? And would he describe himself as bisexual, queer or just plain old straight?
Britain’s Got Talent has often celebrated its LGBT+ contestants, which it brings into the mainstream on prime-time TV.
Well, it’s interesting. In our first year we were in Blackpool and we had this male duo on who were ballroom dancers [The Sugar Dandies]. I asked how they knew each other and they said, “We’re a couple,” and the audience laughed. And I was quite surprised. Anyway, then they danced beautifully to Westlife’s You Raise Me Up. By the end of the song everyone was on their feet, loving it. It was a glorious moment. But I’m glad we have a lot of LGBT+ acts — sometimes we have drag acts and Amanda [Holden] in particular is very gay-friendly. She likes camp stuff.
As do you.
I love it!
And you often openly flirt with the hot male contestants when they take their tops off. So, are you actually attracted to them or are you just having a laugh?
Urm, it’s a bit of both. Mainly having a laugh but it’s great when someone attractive comes on, be it a man or a woman. Although if you’re flirting with the women it feels a bit different.
A bit seedy?
Yeah. But it’s kind of fun because sometimes you’ll get a gymnast from a foreign country and I’ll ask if they’ve got anywhere to stay that night — as if they’re going to come and stay at my house!
But occasionally some gay viewers have felt offended and accused you of making fun of them.
Well, it’s complex. I am naturally very camp. When I was at school I used to play Wonder Woman in the playground. But I remember when Sir Ian McKellen criticised Little Britain; he said he wasn’t sure if it was helpful to gay people. And Matt [Lucas] and I were devastated because he’s a god who we worshipped. But people think you’re degrading something by having a laugh; there’s an assumption that if you’re making a joke about something that you’re belittling it, whereas I think you can be celebrating it.
Well it depends on whether you’re laughing at something or with it.
It’s so complicated, isn’t it? Because anything can be read any way. Take a character like Dafydd in Little Britain and you could think it’s great to have a character like this on mainstream television. And someone else will say, “Well, I find it offensive because it’s laughing at aspects of gay culture.” But what is it? I’m the co-creator of it so it’s almost not for me to say.
Well, I can say as a camp gay man, that your character Sebastian Love, for example, had lots of mannerisms that kids in the playground used to put on when they were doing impressions of me. But I didn’t find it offensive because there was no sneering behind it.
He was just genuinely in love with someone who he could never be with.
And you humanised him and encouraged us to feel sorry for him.
Oh completely, you’re rooting for him. He just doesn’t understand it, he’s just got this massive crush on his boss so he’s making a bit of a fool of himself. And I don’t think that had anything to do with sexuality. Anyone could relate to that. Everyone has met someone they fancied and has gone to pieces. As I am today during this interview.
[Laughs]. Also there’s a big difference between camp, effeminate and gay. They can cross over or collide in the same person but they can also be separate, can’t they?
You can have lots of things that are camp that have nothing to do with homosexuality. Have you ever seen the film Flash Gordon? Anyone would consider it a camp classic, but it’s very straight and quite sexy. So, it’s got a camp aesthetic but it’s got nothing to do with homosexuality. But that’s what’s great about camp — you try to pin it down but then it moves.
Also, things change and our understanding changes over time. I haven’t seen Little Britain since it was on telly but I wonder what I’d think about it now?
Neither have I. But you do what you think was right at the time. And you live with it because it survives. But you have to think about intention. Our intention was always to celebrate all those things that we made jokes about. And when you make jokes about something, you’re not analysing what it means. You’re just working out what you think is funny and doing it. Your aim is purely to amuse people.
There’s a long tradition of camp in light entertainment and comedy, isn’t there? Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
I grew up watching and loving those people: John Inman in Are You Being Served? And Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams.
I love Kenneth Williams!
Yeah, me too. Obviously at that age I didn’t understand that they were playing off notions about sexuality, I just thought they were funny. But there’s so much more awareness of gay people and their lives now.
When you were growing up as a camp boy, were you called gay in the playground?
Yeah, all the time. It was a way to punish you when you were that age. But that’s the comedian’s way, isn’t it? They say the comedian’s worst fear is being laughed at and the way you counter it is by being in on the joke. And that’s what I did, I would camp it up. I’d go, “Yeah, you’re calling me gay — I’ll be the most effeminate, outrageous, camp person in school.” After that, it can’t really harm you any more.
While all this was going on at school you also were dressing up in women’s clothes, weren’t you?
Correct. My sister used to dress me up. She’s two years older than me and put me in a bridesmaid’s dress and a fur hat, with a handbag. Then she’d parade me up and down the street. I was at an all-boys school and nobody wanted to play the girls’ parts in the plays so it fell to me.
But all this obviously had an impact on you because you created the character Emily Howard all those years later. Where did the idea come from to do Emily and celebrate — if that’s the right word — your love of transvestism?
[Laughs]. Matt and I just made an observation that sometimes transvestites at the time — or at least some that I’d seen — dressed like women from another age. Because they had a lot of accoutrements and gloves and hats and things that, generally, women today don’t wear. We thought we’d take that idea and exaggerate it for comic effect. And we had the idea that she was Victorian.
And she was a crap transvestite, wasn’t she?
Yeah, which we thought was silly but we felt it was funny, too. But now with my book The Boy in the Dress, boys are going to school for World Book Day in a dress with football boots on. For me, that’s a great thing, a positive thing.
Yeah, but interestingly, a lot of your children’s books celebrate the outsider and have outsiders as empathy figures.
That’s what I thought Little Britain did, too. All the characters we created were in some ways not quite in their environment but they were all winners. So, people thought we were having a laugh at Vicky Pollard but she’s a winner — she’s a brilliant character and you like her because she’s funny and outrageous.
So, you say you never analysed it and just went for what was funny but you can look and identify that creative through-line can’t you? That they were all outsiders. Is there any kind of political element to what you do?
There is in the children’s books. In books there’s more time to examine themes and ideas. For example, Mr Stink is pretty political — it’s about how you treat people who are less fortunate than yourself. Awful Auntie ends with this girl Stella renouncing her title; she should become Lady Saxby but she decides to turn her country home into an orphanage. I’m a left-wing person and when I write I suppose I express some of those ideas.
Tell me about the gay thing because you did once say in an interview you were 70 per cent gay.
Weirdly, I didn’t actually say that. It’s just become one of those things. Matt and I were interviewed very early on and we were asked what our gay rating was, based on our taste in things.
We used to do a series called How Gay Are You? in Attitude and it really should have been How Camp Are You?
That’s what we were being asked. I mean, I love women and I’m attracted to women.
So would you describe yourself as any percentage gay — bearing in mind gay basically means being attracted to men.
Well, you know, I had gay experiences growing up, which I enjoyed. I was a teen and in a lot of all-male environments.
So, was it about necessity rather than desire?
I don’t know. It was enjoyable but I do love women and I’m attracted to women. Sometimes I think it would be simpler if I wasn’t because people think I’m gay and I’m camp. It would just be quite easy but I do find women really, really attractive.
And is there any part of you as an adult man that finds adult men attractive?
I’m not one of those men who says he can’t tell if David Beckham is attractive. Of course you know he’s handsome because you can’t miss it. But I don’t feel a sexual attraction towards him. He probably does for me but unfortunately I don’t for him [laughs].
What about an emotional attraction because you also said once, although this may be a misquote again, you could see yourself falling in love with a man.
Yeah, maybe. It hasn’t happened so probably not. I don’t know why anyone would rule that out for themselves. Why would anyone say that’s never ever going to happen?
Well, you say that but I would rule out ever falling in love with a woman.
Because I don’t like fanny.
But you could learn to love it.
I don’t think I could. I tried it when I was a teenager and I know I don’t like it.
All right, so I don’t think it’s likely to happen for me but I wouldn’t totally rule it out. You can only speak for yourself. I don’t know how other people think and feel about things.
But by the time you get to our age, you’ve worked out what you like.
OK. So I think it’s unlikely because I really find women attractive and I like that their bodies are different. You just feel attraction and it’s overpowering. You can’t control it.
What you can control though is how you choose to identify. And over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of people who we would have called straight, choosing to identify as queer because they feel different or they feel a solidarity with LGBT+ people. Would you identify as straight or queer?
I don’t think I’m queer. Maybe if I was an avant-garde artist it would be different. Someone doing something very edgy and provocative. It’s difficult to pin the whole thing down.
To what extent have you been deliberately coy about pinning down your sexuality because you like making people question it?
Maybe, but why would it matter? Why would anyone care and why should people have to define themselves exactly? Why does anyone’s sex life matter to anybody else?