Gordon Brittas has a dream, a dream of bringing the community together, transcending the boundaries of sex, race and religion through the participation of sport at the Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre where he has just been appointed manager. These may sound like the dreams of an over zealous authority figure but what everyone fails to understand is that Brittas genuinely cares about the community. Not only does he have a great passion to help bring people together but he truly believes this can done through his Leisure Centre. Unfortunately for him, the staff and the patrons, Brittas dreams are never quite realised, and instead his efforts to turn them into a reality often result in disaster.
Originally broadcast back in 1991 I remember initially watching the show because it starred Chris Barrie, an actor who I knew only through his stellar work as the hologram Rimmer in Red Dwarf. Despite being a major departure from the sci-fi hit The Brittas Empire proved to be a success through the years though I was more than a little shocked to see it had actually run for a staggering 7 series between 1991 and 1997. My research on the series turned up little else in the way of interesting facts so lets move straight on to the real essence of the show.
As Brittas, Chris Barrie is the boss everyone loves to hate. His intentions are good and his goals are honourable but to achieve them and overcome any problems in the process he uses his method and no other. This in turn leads to disdain within the ranks followed by a sense of foreboding as they soon begin to take orders with nary a care of the consequences. What Brittas lacks is compassion for both his staff and the public utilising the centre. The prime example amongst his staff is the receptionist, Carole. Having recently given birth to a baby boy only to be dumped by her husband, Caroleísí mental state is fragile to say the least. Despite all this her need to care and provide for her son ensures she turns up to work in a state no real business would allow, but this is television so we have to make some allowances. As a result she is often crying or indeed tending to her baby that she keeps in a drawer by her side at reception, yet before he knows any of this the first thing Brittas does upon seeing a distraught women is to instruct her on how to project a warm and friendly welcome to the customers followed by her soon to be catchphrase, How Can I Help You?
Despite the upsets, accidents and general havoc he creates around the centre Brittas continues to believe that any fault originates elsewhere, because to his mind what he does is for the better good so the possibility that it is him causing the bizarre mishaps that regularly occur never enters his mind. What actually keeps the centre from falling to the ground around him is Laura, the assistant manager whose headstrong manner combined with a personal link to the staff allow her to direct them around Brittas mayhem, though even she cannot prevent the occasional minor disaster. And that is of course what Brittas does best as without them the show would be a little stale. From a crazed Ninja/Ping Pong enthusiast, missing babies, assassins and a rampant invalid cart with a drunken driver, the Whitbury Newtown Leisure centre is never a dull place to be, though quite how much fun the staff are having is open to debate.
Although you could label The Brittas Empire as an event comedy, say much in the same vein as Fawlty Towers due to the "man in charge creates havoc" scenario, what it all comes down to in the end is the characters. Without Brittas there is no show and without Chris Barrie there is no Brittas, for he really is the epitome of everything I have covered above in his portrayal. Round it all off with a confident stride, a smug look and a hint of Kenneth Williams (whom Barrie imitates so well) and you can see why this was a successful show, even if Barrie's portrayal is sometimes a little too convincing (which can lead to contempt amongst the viewers). Backing him up are several key cast members including Julie St John as Laura the peoples manager, the wonderfully eccentric Harriet Thorpe who is having a ball in the role of Carole, and a few others I have yet to mention.
The most noteworthy being Colin (Michael Burns), the deputy 'wet' manager who is Brittas' most loyal employee, yet someone he would prefer to keep in the background. Despite adhering to a strict health and fitness routine that includes a special diet, Colin has personal hygiene issues that ensure anyone shaking his hand will be left with a piece of fungal growth in their palm. What Colin does is offer comedy of the more slapstick variety as he comes in to work with a different health affliction each day ranging from uncontrollable bowel movements to the more mundane allergies that see him sneezing into his colleague's drinks. The other key members of the team are Gavin (Tim Marriott) and Tim (Russell Porter), a gay couple of which Tim is definitely the more feminine and the one who Brittas suspects is a little 'queer' (using the strictest sense of the word), while Linda is the perky enthusiastic young blonde who really does very little other than dart about following orders in this first series, but is still recognisable as a key member of the cast due to the often terrible extras who make up the remainder of the Leisure Centre employees. With that said the main cast members just mentioned do occasionally flirt with disaster as a hint of over acting does come through, but on the whole they handle their deliberately exaggerated characters with great flare keeping the level between method and madness just right.
No review of The Brittas Empire would be complete without a mention of Gordon's long-suffering wife, Helen (Philippa Haywood). Her character not only serves as the narrative source into Brittas past and general character quirks but also as a stark contrast to his problem solving methods. Where Brittas uses a textbook approach that alienates others his wife opts for a simple yet practical approach that gets the job done without causing undue stress to those around her. We soon learn that he is a little too much even for her but then she does have a few personal remedies for dealing with the mayhem he creates. Alcohol and depression pills being one such example, a regular daytrip to a special 'friend' being another, but when the latter arrangement falls through so does her resolve which makes for one of the better episodes in the series as Brittas tests his wife and her doctor to breaking point.
As you might expect for a show of this age the production values were hardly stellar which results in a series that looks rather gloomy with dull set design (a real leisure centre was used though most of the locations are clearly sets) and lacklustre audio accompaniment. This however is not the shows downfall, for that lies with the direction and editing, both of which lack pace meaning the nature of the comedy on repeated viewings may very well leave the viewer a little jaded, allowing various questions to arise. One in particular that springs to mind - Why doesn't somebody take Brittas to one side, slap him and bring some order to the situation at hand?
Episodes: This set features the complete series one; the six episodes were not given titles but are affectionately known as:
Laying the Foundations: - Brittas has just been appointed manager at the Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre and on his very first day manages to infuriate the builders, alienate several staff into leaving while back at home he insults the neighbours and leaves his wife to explain why he is the way he is.
Opening Day: - The Leisure Centre is finally due to open and the Duchess of Kent is on her way to conduct the ceremony. Unfortunately there are several minor problems for Brittas to develop into a catastrophe including automatic doors that will not close and a boiler assistant who is turning the Leisure Centre in to a Sauna. Worthy of note here are the terribly old fashioned racial stereotypes present in the choice of extras and their costumes, though I found these more amusing than offensive as they show just how far television has come over the years.
Bye-Bye Baby: - When Brittas finds that Carole is still keeping her baby in the drawer at the front desk he informs her it is against the rules and asks Laura to remove it. Unfortunately a mix up occurs and Carole believes her baby is lost which leads to her picking up a fire axe and rampaging throughout the centre in search of Brittas. Providing the biggest laughs though are the scenes with a stress management advisor who has come to give a staff lecture, but loses his composure after 5-minutes with Brittas.
Underwater Wedding: - Brittas interviews a prospective employee while overseeing an unusual wedding ceremony that is taking place in the Leisure Centre pool. Everything appears to be going well until the best man gets stuck underwater in one of the drains, a drunk senior citizen drives through the corridors wreaking havoc in his electric wheelchair, Gavin gets shot with a Harpoon gun and the Centre is swamped with poisonous gas!
Stop Thief: - Brittas has closed the Leisure Centre down for the day in order to quiz the staff to find out who has been stealing. Little more than a few cookies from the biscuit tin, a pencil and five pounds have gone missing yet Brittas deems this important enough to hand out questionnaires before embarrassing a few staff members by revealing their criminal records. Finally he goes so far as to set up a trap involving a wallet dusted with ultraviolet sensitive powder with Colin hid in a locker to spy on the unknowing culprit.
The Assassin: - While he baffles the staff with a new range of overly complicated special offers Brittas dances with death as it appears there is someone attempting to kill him. Unfortunately his wife suffers the brunt of the first attack and is involved in a minor car accident, but more traps lie in wait for Brittas who may not be so lucky.
Two R0 Single Layer discs hold the six episodes and bonus features found in this set.
Presented in the shows original 4:3 Full Screen aspect ratio the quality of the transfer is generally very pleasing. With no signs of damage to the print nor any stand out compression problems the only real downfall here is the series quite soft appearance that results in less than impressive detail levels and often muted colours. None of this seems to be of any particular relevance given that it looks exactly as I should imagine it did when originally broadcast, leaving you with a pleasant viewing experience.
As with the video quality there is little to report here as the series is presented in the original Mono sound format with no signs of dropouts or hiss. This results in a clean yet far from dynamic mix that again gives you an opportunity to enjoy the series exactly as you would have back when it was originally broadcast.
All bonus features are located on Disc One and manage to serve as a mild distraction from the main feature. Of minimal interest is a fairly comprehensive Chris Barrie Biography, a Brittas Fitness Quiz that asks you nine random questions about events in the series and gives you a 'fitness' grade based on how many you get right. A Management Notice Board section contains three pages of notes offering trivia regarding the show while a small Picture Gallery and a Weblink round off the static extras.
Proving to be of far more interest is the 3-minute Royal Variety Performance Sketch from 1996 that includes one new character (Julie) but sadly lacks Laura who had left the show one year prior. The final extra feature is a Series Two Trailer that although lacking in dialogue does at least manage to give you a sneak peak at a future DVD release.
Questions such as that posed earlier in this review do quite often pop into my head when watching a show of this nature (Fawlty Towers is another that springs to mind) but it has to be said that I have sat through this series on DVD a huge number of times since the check discs rolled in and it always brings a smile to my face, and if I happen to be in the right mood it will even raise several audible laughs. Yes it has its flaws and certainly will not appeal to everyone but I for one enjoyed the series a great deal and would recommend it to anyone with fond memories of the show or a general appreciation for it's star, without whom it just would not work.