Cult TV

Cult TV Essentials: The Brittas Empire

Running for seven series between 1991 and 1997, The Brittas Empire was created by Andrew Norriss, and written by Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen. An often bizarre journey through a world filled with disaster, the series followed proud English leisure centre manager Gordon Brittas, and his utter failure to manage the fictional Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre.

Gordon Brittas is an obsessive bureaucrat and a stickler for rules and procedures, no matter what the situation, resulting in catastrophes on a regular basis. According to his wife Helen, he thinks he’s the oil that keeps everything running, but he is in fact the grit in the engine. He is talentless, tactless and utterly hopeless.

Played with gusto by Chris Barrie, Mr Brittas was a swarm of over complex plans, initiatives and regulations dressed in a blue blazer. Presiding over a team consisting of homeless receptionist Carol, who kept her children in the cupboard, handyman Colin, whose permanently septic hand left its mark on many a visitor, overenthusiastic coach Linda, stroppy secretary Julie, shy Gavin and his over-attentive partner Tim, it was hardly surprising that each new scheme the visionary Brittas conceived was reduced to rubble by each episode’s end. A similar fate was also to befall the mental state of Gordon’s philandering, broken, narcoholic wife Helen (Green Wing’s Pippa Haywood).  Only stalwart Deputy Manager Laura ever succeeded in halting Brittas’s madness.

Wherever Mr Brittas lurked the prospect of serious injury (or Brittas’s attempted murder) was never far away and, wherever he had been, chaos (cars filled with concrete, public footpaths through the women’s loos) dwelt.

Gordon Brittas: “Since I have been manager, I am proud to say there have only been 23 deaths. And not one of them was a staff member.”

In its positioning of an incompetent in charge of others, The Brittas Empire mined the traditional vein of TV humour (e.g., Dad’s Army or Are You Being Served?). Yet it also had a high element of absurdum. How many mainstream comedies can claim to have done the following?

A pool full of reborn Pentecostals are all electrocuted to near death. Gordon himself also ends up being pumped full of electricity, when Gavin’s mentally disturbed wife Jessica ties him up to Colin’s waste management system.

Sebastian Coe is chained to a stair-rail while the leisure centre is pillaged and ransacked by an army of Romans

Knocking out a famous Russian pianist with a bowling ball

The building’s structure weakened by the receptionist excavating more space for her children to live, leading to a water tank dropping through four floors

Helen, already an unstable and mentally damaged woman, goes on the rampage with a fire axe when she spots undercover reporter Roger Ferguson, who she also had an affair with.

The Motivational Speaker who comes to give the staff a lecture on not turning to drugs to cope with stress. His encounter with Gordon Brittas has him popping pills in front of an audience and extolling the virtues of “the little green ones,” before smashing up the projector and physically assaulting Gordon in a blind rage.

Colin has the genius idea of blocking up a corridor with cardboard boxes to stop a drunken pensioner in a wheelchair. Unlike other uses of this trope, Colin forgets to empty the boxes beforehand…

An unconscious man is decapitated by a chainsaw wielding Britas.

A shark is released into the company pool

Happy children holding hands after they had to witness pigeons flying and frying in the ceremonial torch Brittas had just lit.

Gordon Brittas was a train wreck that you could just not avert your eyes from. . Everyone sees his flaws; his staff, his customers, everyone except himself and his loyal if somewhat smelly acolyte, Colin. Nonetheless, there is a noble, virtuous streak in him which redeems him and makes him above all else a sympathetic character.  Indeed the character was quite obviously an early forbearer of the type of character explored in Alan Partridge and The Office’s David Brent.

I’ve never understood the school of thought which says all prime time comedy is ‘bland’ whilst anything post-watershed is ‘dark’ and ‘original’. ‘The Brittas Empire’ was enjoyed by a family audience, yet also managed to be ‘dark’; people got shot, electrocuted, decapitated etc. Richard Fegen and Andrew Noriss have not received nearly enough credit for their cleverly constructed scripts, which carefully balanced ‘slapstick’ with ‘black comedy’. For some reason The Brittas Empire is often not regarded as one of the comedy classics of the ’90’s, but it is much funnier than many of the ones that are  (*cough Absolutely Fabulous)

Series five was originally meant to be the final series, and Norriss and Fegen killed off Brittas at its end, when he was crushed to death by a falling water tank. However, the show’s popularity meant the BBC resurrected Brittas and brought on a team of new writers, who carried the show on for a further two series, including one further Christmas special in 1996.

Now after almost 20 years it seems that Gordon Britas may be back. Recently Chris Barrie revealed that a script is being written, potentially for a one-off Christmas special. Being as we still live in a world filled with Gordon Brittas clones a welcome return from the series could still be as popular as it ever was.

Categories: Cult TV

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