Despite their protestations at the time, Come Fly With Me has been buried away
Come Fly With Me review by Brian Slade
When one thinks of a show that has been condemned as out of touch with modern values, one tends to expect to talk about such programmes as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Curry and Chips, shows of their time and no longer deemed acceptable to a modern audience. It is perhaps a surprise though that one such programme managed to achieve a great reception in comparatively recent years, only to be ditched from the screens, somewhat disowned by its creators and had a second series offer go unfulfilled. So it was when David Walliams and Matt Lucas brought their follow-up to the hugely successful Little Britain to our screens in the form of airport documentary spoof, Come Fly With Me.
Christmas comedy was once the lynchpin of the BBC’s festive schedule, but that has changed since the golden days of The Morecambe and Wise Show and Only Fools and Horses. Nowadays, while Mrs Brown’s Boys is a regular festive fixture, it doesn’t meet with many plaudits and the focus from the Beeb is more on Doctor Who and Christmas specials of soaps and talent shows. In 2010, they thought they had something that might go on and produce a significant hit when on Christmas Day at 10pm they aired the first episode of Come Fly With Me. Walliams and Lucas had achieved much with their television adaptation of their Little Britain radio hit, ensuring a generation of fans pointing at things and saying ‘I want that one’ or opening sentences with a bemused ‘yeah, but no, but yeah but…shut up!’ in the style of Lou and Andy and Vicky Pollard. It was hoped similar success would follow their characters created for this send-up of the many fly-on-the-wall airport documentaries.
‘The BBC’s cameras have been given unprecedented access to one of Britain’s busiest airport terminals,’ the Radio Times jokingly proclaimed. ‘For months, the producers have followed anyone and everyone to produce this portrait of life at the cutting edge of aviation. From check-in staff to cabin crew, from pilots to paparazzi, and from low-cost airline owners to their unfortunate passengers, all human life is here.’
The write up was quite correct. The check-in staff were recurring characters Keeley St Clair (Lucas) and Melody Baines (Walliams), two Liverpudlians working the front check-in desk for low budget airline Fly-lo. The pair have a fractious best friend relationship, politely handling passengers while at the same time offering them a pitiful customer service. Throughout the series they have guarded barbs at one another, Keeley eventually taking over as check-in manager from their pregnant boss, much to the chagrin of Melody.
Fly-lo itself is owned by Omar Baba (Walliams). His cost-cutting money-making efforts are extreme, even reaching the point of charging for lifejackets should they become necessary. Within the planes themselves are a number of staff that the mockumentary follows. There is a husband-and-wife team, Simon and Jackie Trent, who work on Great British Air flights. At some point in their marriage, Simon had an affair, prompting Jackie to train as a pilot. Now she accompanies him around the world but has huge amounts of resentment released at regular intervals, ensuring Simon’s spirit and freedom are both systematically crushed.
Irishman Fearghal O’Farrell (Lucas) works for Our Lady Air as a member of the cabin crew. His rather fake attention to the rules and treatment of the public hides a burning ambition to be recognised as employee of the year, one that he will do anything to realise. Meanwhile on Great British Air, Penny Carter (Walliams) is on a one-woman crusade to ensure that anybody travelling first class is actually worthy of the experience.
Within the airport, all elements of the travel experience are represented. Other Lucas roles here include Tommy, a teenager who works in the burger bar harbouring completely unrealistic ambitions of learning to fly and Taaj, a movie-loving British Pakistani who is part of FlyLo’s ground crew. Perhaps the most controversial of Lucas’s characters is Precious Little, whose job is to manage a coffee kiosk. This God-loving Jamaican woman find all the excuses she can to be forced to keep the kiosk closed, allowing her to head off to the rest of the airport shopping or head home.
Walliams has some significant solo roles on the ground too, playing incompetent customs official Ian Foot, who is racist enough to block almost anybody entering the country and Moses Beacon, a passenger liaison officer whose efforts to take care of his passengers are engineered almost solely for the praise they might bring him.
As a duo, Walliams and Lucas also play a decidedly vulgar pair of paparazzi, Mickey and Buster, who have no moral standards but are as incompetent at getting any pictures as they are unpleasant. The stars also portray married couple Peter and Judith who suffer a relentless run of disastrous holiday experiences at the hands of FlyLo, usually seeing the passive Peter suffer more painful injuries than his dominant wife, but they continue to return for more.
Come Fly With Me had mixed reviews but was a hit with viewers when it debuted. However, even before it aired the pair were fending off accusations of racism and stereotyping. In an interview with Mark Lawson before it went to air, Lucas made the valid point that as Britain has never been more multicultural, if they didn’t reflect that then Come Fly With Me in itself could be seen as racist…and he did point out that any jokes attributed to a character of race were never anything specifically to do with their race. Walliams meanwhile protested that, ‘comedy should be able to be about anything, and as soon as it’s not, I think you just have to get rid of all comedy because there’s no point in it anymore.’
Despite their protestations at the time, Come Fly With Me has been buried away. Lucas partially blacked up to be Taaj or put in a black body suit to become Precious, Walliams portraying the Arab owner Omar, or the pair made up to look like two Oriental fans waiting excitedly for the arrival of Martin Clunes, was all too much to be accepted in the main. On reflection it was perhaps inevitable, and Lucas himself has distanced himself from some of the pair’s earlier material, describing it as a harsher comedy than he would now do. It is ironic however that Come Fly With Me should carry a heavier toll than its predecessor, Little Britain. It is so accurate in terms of its style and critique, even offering an element of warm familiarity given the vast number of genuine fly-on-the-wall airport programmes, that its more controversial elements have been allowed to eclipse the genuinely funny elements, of which there were many.
Published on November 24th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.