Back from beyond

Death, it seems, is not always the end. Not on television anyway. Gordon Brittas is only the latest character to rise from the grave.
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We've all seen the figures that claim a child who watches x hours of television a year will see y deaths. If you believe the argument that screen violence immunises children against the reality of death, it's y too many. So what will they make of the new series of The Brittas Empire? Gordon Brittas, the leisure centre manager who, in the last series, went to an aquatic death when he was flattened by a water tank, has been brought back to life. What kind of a message are we advised to read into his journey back from beyond the grave? On the one hand, it could be seen as grossly irresponsible to portray death as a reversible event. On the other, Brittas's resurrection lops one off the number of deaths the viewer will see this year.

Actually, Brittas's trip to heaven and back is not an isolated incident: the screen takes care to cancel more deaths than you might imagine. The entertainment industry, which has brokered successful posthumous careers for many a daisy-root-chewing pop star, has yet to embrace the one universal truth that we're all going to die. As Conan Doyle proved when he rescued Sherlock Homes from the Reichenbach Falls, if a series needs a character back from the dead, then the means can always be found to revive them. And a post-mortem reveals that there are as many reasons for cheating death as there are ways of doing so.

In the case of Brittas, the inquest of the last series recorded a verdict of death by writer's block, in which a main character is put to the sword when his or her scriptwriters - in this case Richard Fegan and Andrew Morriss - run out of plotlines. Fegan and Morriss had done five series' worth of intricately storyboarded half-hours, and the show's producer Mike Stevens had yet to locate a writing team capable of adopting the sitcom's hectic style. So just in case he failed in his search, Brittas was granted a big exit, while the possibility of his resuscitation was catered for, Friday 13th- style, by a tap from inside his coffin as it was lowered into the ground.

Despite Brittas's survival, death remains a natural get-out clause for iconic sitcom characters (see Blackadder). This explains why the widely reported rumour that Victor Meldrew would end last Christmas's One Foot in the Grave with two feet in the grave took hold so rapidly. Although the writer never had any intention of killing him off, the script derived an unplanned frisson from its last-minute confirmation that he had indeed cheated death.

In this country we don't, on the whole, expect characters to come back from the dead. We'll tolerate the occasional ghost but only if, like Banquo or Hamlet's father, the spectre has a legitimate relevance to the plot. In both Truly Madly Deeply and its schmaltzier transatlantic cousin Ghost, characters return from the grave to help clean up the mess they left behind: the ghost is cast as a brand of post-mortal detergent. In some movie sequences, though, characters are invited to cheat death simply to do the box-office a favour. Sir John Gielgud, whose Oscar-winning butler dies in the middle of Arthur, allowed his character to be reprised as a ghost in a sequel that needed his clout to get airborne. The Empire Strikes Back was similarly motivated to get the actor-knight back on board when it shamelessly revived Alec Guinness as the ghost of the deeply dead Obi-Wan Kenobi.

There has been a run on ghosts in the cinema recently, rooted in the same contemporary fascination for the paranormal that underpins The X- Files. Flatliners sent a cast including Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland to the other side to see what was there (a reason to cancel their engagement, presumably: a case of death did them part).

But the less intellectually satisfying truth is that most characters come back from the dead to line their pockets. And soap is where they do it. It doesn't tend to happen in the British soaps, since they are a more homely strain than their American equivalents. When it does, it's gingerly done comedy. Although Ivy Brennan of Coronation Street recently died of a heart attack, having already been written out of the script and into a nunnery, her ghost has come back to haunt Vera. But we don't get to see the spook: as Lynne Perrie's contract had been terminated and she was unavailable to reprise the role, her appearances have been modestly restricted to the mind's eye.

In America, one product of the ratings wars in the Eighties was the open season on death-cheating plot twists. When Patrick Duffy quit Dallas to pursue alternative roles, Bobby Ewing was killed in a car crash. But the viewer figures suffered a similar fate, and Duffy was recalled from the nightmare of his new career (in which his first role was to be killed in a car crash) and his death was explained away as the dream of his wife Pamela. Not to be outdone, Dynasty scripted its own return from the dead, when Fallon died in a jet crash to allow Pamela Sue Martin to leave the series. Fallon returned in the squatter, bustier form of Emma Samms, a victim of amnesia, so she had forgotten the whole thing.

In entertainment, even sophisticated life-forms will resort to cheating death. A fourth release in the Aliens sequence has been announced, despite the fact that Ripley was unequivocally wiped out in Aliens 3. But in science fiction, as in horror, the natural law is negotiable, and the body of Sigourney Weaver is to be regenerated from a single skin cell.

It turns out that the only eventuality able to forestall the reversal of fictional death is factual death. David Hobbs has written a sequel to the Reggie Perrin trilogy. Despite the fact that the character was a serial suicide faker, there was nothing his creator could do to bring Leonard Rossiter, the actor who played him, back to life. With an eye on the television adaptation, he has had to kill off the character, too. The Legacy of Reginald Perrin will be seen on the BBC this autumn, with most of the original cast. No writer, however creative, can amend the script of the Creator.

n `The Brittas Empire' returns on Tuesday at 8.30pm on BBC1