Looking Back At THE BRITTAS EMPIRE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE BRITTAS EMPIRE

Tony doesn’t go to the gym. He watched The Brittas Empire on broadcast.
If there are two main trends in successful British post-war sitcom, they are 1) that Britain makes heroes of perennial losers, rather than successes, and 2) Britain loves to watch people who are well-meaning but entirely lacking in self-awareness, and in whose wake comes utter chaos.

Think about it: Tony Hancock, arguably - perennial loser, but entirely unaware of the trouble and chaos his self-interest causes to others. Steptoe and Son – losers, striving against their situation. Basil Fawlty, both a loser AND forever creating chaos while meaning well, his life devolving into desperate farce around him. Del Boy and Rodney Trotter – perennial losers (at least until the very end of the series). Frank Spencer – well-meaning, clueless, trailing chaos in his wake. Victor Meldrew – well-meaning chaos magnet. David Brent – clueless and uncaring creator of dissension and mayhem. Norman Stanley Fletcher – perpetual recidivist, and for all his wisdom, one of life’s overall losers. Arnold Rimmer and Dave Lister – both utter losers, though arguably Rimmer also counts as a clueless chaos magnet (or indeed a smeghead), as his ineptitude leads to the deaths of the crew of Red Dwarf

And so on.

In the Nineties, that idea of the clueless, well-meaning beacon of chaos and offence was given a new body and crystalised into an entirely singular performance by Rimmer actor Chris Barrie, as Gordon Brittas in The Brittas Empire, written by Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen.

Brittas is the new manager of a brand new leisure centre in Whitby New Town, and right from the very beginning, two things marked the show out. Firstly, the central performance by Barrie is of a man who thinks he knows what’s best in every. Single. Situation, and will not bend from that view, even as the consequences pile up around him. And secondly, the sheer pace and scale of devastation that unfolds in his wake – the Brittas Effect, if you like – is faster, higher, and more calamitous than at least the Nineties was used to.

There are comparisons to be made to the likes of Fawlty Towers and Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. But Brittas in a sense drives his own pathway between the two. While Fawlty treats most people with either an undisguisable contempt or a fawning sycophancy, and Frank Spencer is an almost fey character, trying to achieve normality in a world where the physical universe is against him, Brittas is something both more and less forgivable.

In a sense, he embodies what we, some thirty years on, would call white male managerial privilege – the fundamental certainty that he’s right about everything, and the assumed authority to change everyone else’s life around him BECAUSE he’s right about everything. That he’s doing it with the best of technical motives – a belief in making everything in the world better – makes him sliiiightly more forgivable than Fawlty, but his ultimate stubbornness and refusal to back down from his position, even when the consequences of not doing so are potentially deadly, makes him a practical poster child for the white male entitlement that much of the world is trying to dismantle for the sake of us all.

Chris Barrie knows a thing or two about creating a believable grotesque (see also, Arnold Rimmer), but in Gordon Brittas, he does something rather more clever than that. He absolutely shows us the laudable aims of the man – the intention to help, to improve, to make things better. But he balances that with a voice and a manner that make Brittas, if anything, actively more slappable than Rimmer. And that doesn’t really change throughout the seven series of The Brittas Empire. Brittas sails through the carnage that erupts in the wake of his own certainties, blaming everyone but himself for the chaos, and taking whatever meagre credit there may be for the successes of the leisure centre entirely to himself (while at least mouthing the words of organisational culture and the impeccability of his team).

His level of obliviousness is such that he can – and more or less always does – say appalling things about people when he thinks they’re out of earshot, only to be reminded that they’re right there with him, and then breeze on through, blinking out the things he said as if he hasn’t said them. And if challenged on them, he will stand by his statements, and force a confrontation that everyone finds awkward except him.

But while Brittas is the lynchpin on which the series turns, responsible for all its mobility and chaos, and as such its humour, he’s by no means a solo act.

For someone like Brittas to flourish, he has to have people around him, to essentially bear the brunt of his personality, to try to hold things together when that personality would turn them to matchwood.

And Chris Barrie is ably supported through seven series of The Brittas Empire by two distinct ‘classes’ of characters. Those who are, to all intents and purposes, ‘normal’ – which can come across as anodyne and forgettable on screen – and those who have distinct personalities of their own on whom he makes an impact.

Among the normal are Gavin and Tim (Tim Marriott and Russell Porter respectively), a couple who are not particularly out at work, and Linda (Jill Greenacre), about whom little is known about from the fact that she’s better at her job than she’s allowed to be under the Brittas regime.

Chief among the “personality” characters is his wife, Helen, played by Pippa Haywood. She starts out as a reasonably self-confident person, more or less used to dealing with her husband, who she says “thinks he’s the oil that keeps the wheels turning, but is actually a shovel full of grit.” But she’s always known him on the way up.

As time goes by with her husband in the local equivalent of the top job, with no-one able to countermand his authority and no-one able to sack him, despite explosions, deaths, disasters and more, the ways in which she copes with the growing nit-picking monster to whom she’s married become more and more realistic, including heavy self-medication and occasional affairs with other men, none of which are particularly noticed by Brittas. It takes Haywood’s delicacy of performance to keep Helen on the right side of funny, rather than the real side of tragic.

The same is true to some extent of Deputy Manager (Dry), Laura Lancing (Julia St John). Clearly from Day #1 a far more effective manager than Brittas will ever be, she finds herself constantly locked in a battle between doing as her self-revolving boss wants, and not allowing the inevitable, often-foreseeable carnage that Brittas getting his way will bring.

Hers is a different evolution, because of course she comes to him fresh in his newly elevated position, and, where Helen at least has an equal share in their lives, Laura is technically Brittas’ underling and every battle has to be considered carefully. So for her, life at the leisure centre becomes about succeeding through ploys and damping down any overly-innovative ideas her idiot boss may have. Brittas’ force of character though often gets past her reasonable suggestions – with the result that the level and pitch of farcical elevation practically every week make Whitbury New Town leisure centre a place that could practically be twinned with Beirut.

Colin Weatherby (Mike Burns) is Deputy Manager (Wet), an unfortunate title for a man never short of suppurating wounds, boils and other unnerving illnesses. Nevertheless, he’s introduced as a competent and highly intelligent man in his field – but quickly becomes almost a forelock-tugging serf under the greater force of personality that Brittas exerts, and is, for most of the run of the show, regarded more as a caretaker and odd-job man than the manager he officially is.

Carol, the receptionist at the leisure centre, played to distraught perfection by Harriet Thorpe, COMES IN to the show in Episode 1 with a three-week-old baby, a runaway husband, and subsequent financial issues. She’s therefore already living on her nerves before she even encounters Gordon Brittas.

Never a character comfortable with confrontation, she perhaps suffers almost as much from Brittas’ behaviour as Helen does – his request-demands that she smile, for instance, even mid-breakdown, exhibit the toxicity of managerial privilege that Brittas was all about.

Meanwhile, Julie, Brittas’ secretary, played by Judy Flynn, takes the opposite tack, refusing to acknowledge Brittas’ supposed seniority over her, and doing practically nothing he asks her to. In a world where most people are cowed into some kind of social or workplace submission by Brittas, Julie is a vital barometer of what isn’t – or at least, shouldn’t be – normal and acceptable.

They all coalesce into a world that gives the writers plenty of different avenues to deliver comedy and chaos week after week for seven series.

The Brittas Empire was hugely popular in its day, and the humour was both intensely slapstick and thoroughly dark, meaning it served two markets – those who, like many Brits, revelled in the chaos one clueless person can cause, along the lines of Fawlty Towers but turned up to 11, and those who had a more macabre funny bone, and appreciated the comedy of cruelty of Brittas’s effect on those around him and the subsequent calamity in which it engulfed them with staggering regularity.

But while it’s probably true that any re-watch of The Brittas Empire in the 21st century should probably come with a range of trigger warnings (especially for those who’ve worked under people like Brittas and may still have the nervous twitch to prove it), the show is also an object lesson in not pushing things too far.

At the end of Series 5, writers Fegen and Norriss left, having decided to kill off Gordon Brittas once and for all by crushing him under a falling water tank. Julia St John, who played Laura, understandably left too. But the BBC was unwilling to let go of Gordon Brittas quite so easily, and brought in alternative writers to essentially resurrect Brittas for two more series (though replacing Julia St John with Anouschka Menzies as Penny, who herself only stayed for Series 6).

What that meant was that, two years after he’d been satisfyingly crushed to death in a moment of sublimated vengeance for all the lives he’d strained, ruined, and occasionally accidentally destroyed on his crusade to have the best leisure centre imaginable, The Brittas Empire came to an end not with a bang and a crash and a suitably macabre crushing accident, but with one of the lamest damp squibs since Bobby Ewing turned up in a shower and the previous 18 months of Dallas turned out to have been a dream.

In fact, it’s very similar to that deflating moment, because at the very end of The Brittas Empire, it turns out that – spoiler alert! – we’ve been watching a dream in Brittas’ head for seven series. A dream he’s having on the way for the interview for the manager’s job at Whitbury New Town leisure centre.

Yes, absolutely, if you invest and care about the people in the series, that’s an enormous emotional cop-out. So if you’re going to do a Brittas re-watch – or indeed, an initial watch, thirty years on – it’s worth taking each episode on its own merits, without necessarily over-investing in what turns out to be a complete fantasy – however much the fantasy explains why Whitbury New Town leisure centre is never shut down, and Gordon Brittas is never arrested.

Also, in the intervening decades, there’s been some talk of Brittas being an example of someone who is on the autistic spectrum because he seems unaware of correct social and behavioural norms. That doesn’t seem to have been in the minds of either the creator or the actor at the time, however.

And if we think of him that way, the whole thing becomes even more morally dubious, since most of the gag is that he’s actively thoughtless and self-absorbed, and the chaos that follows in his wake is a result of his self-revolution.

That can be funny, because it’s a personal flaw, like Basil Fawlty’s contempt for the poor, or Fletcher’s recidivism. Whereas if Brittas is on the spectrum, it more or less places the emphasis of the joke on his condition, equating people with autism with the kind of monster boss he becomes. It’s also the case that Helen says he never used to be this bad, and that it’s the authority that turns him into the insecure, projecting nightmare he becomes, rather than a condition he’s always had.

Overall, The Brittas Empire is fundamentally a very tightly written slapstick farce with a thick seam of black humour underneath. The central performance by Chris Barrie is extremely funny to watch, and potentially triggering to think about, especially if – as it fairly likely – you’ve ever had a boss like him. The rest of the cast deliver exceptional support to both the writers and to Barrie, and you end up with a show that’s both funny, skin-crawling, and well-observed, while also pushing the disaster-farce levels far beyond anything Fawlty Towers could ever imagine.

Is it two series too long? Probably, yes – it would certainly have been a better ending for Gordon Brittas to have been crushed to death at the end of Series 5. But for dark slapstick in a Nineties tracksuit and a deceptively middle-of-the-road premise, The Brittas Empire has a lot to offer in semi-binges, with perhaps a break for some fresh air between series.

Watch The Brittas Empire today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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