The Brittas Empire: The sitcom will return, but the revival might be disappointing

The greatest sitcom ever to be set in a leisure centre is rumoured to be returning to TV. But can its knockabout charm still raise a laugh?

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The Independent Culture

Whether or not you watched it, or remember it with enduring fondness, nostalgia or contempt, we can all agree that The Brittas Empire still stands as the greatest ever sitcom to have been set in a leisure centre. And it's back, according to reports in the comedy world, and a Daily Mirror "exclusive" yesterday, as yet another 1990s revival of questionable merit.

The dreadful, incompetent, blue-blazered Mr Brittas himself, played by Chris Barrie, confirmed at a recent comedy convention that a script was well under way. His Red Dwarf co-star Norman Lovett added: “That show was better than a lot of things today. I know there’s still a lot of support for Brittas Empire. And that character would be very funny today.”

But was it? And is there? And would it? I am an unashamed Brittas fan. I was nine when the show began its six-year run in 1991, in the days when kids still watched actual television. It was as safe as anything on BBC 1 at 8:30pm, with huge cross-sofa appeal (and much safer than any of the mismanaged facilities at the Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre).

Created by Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen, it was the kind of show your dad, who didn’t go in for much popular culture, laughed out loud at, to your secret delight. And you laughed, too, because it was childish and knock- about, while including more grown-up themes of failing marriages and child care (remember Carol “yesmistbrittas!” Parkinson, the receptionist who kept her kids in the filing cabinet?).

But I watched anything as a teenager, and once went through a phase of enjoying indoor bowls on BBC2. Nostalgia does not guarantee that a sitcom was or will be a success. I mean, I used to like Waiting for God, the one set in a retirement home, and bloody loved Keeping Up Appearances. I probably wouldn’t campaign for their return.

“I haven’t read anything about people marching on Broadcasting House demanding that the Brittas Empire be remade,” says Bruce Dessau, the comedy columnist and editor of beyondthe joke.co.uk. “I always watched it and liked it but it was one of those series that never quite attained the cult status of something like Blackadder or Red Dwarf. It was too mainstream.”

Cult hits produce online forums and tribute sites. The biggest one devoted to Brittas has only three new posts in the past year. The most recent one includes links to old episodes of Emmerdale, now on YouTube, that feature Mike Burns, the actor who played Colin in The Brittas Empire, the accident-prone pool manager with a suppurating hand wound.

Yet Harriet Thorpe, who played Carol, the receptionist, argues, not unbiasedly, that the time is right for The Brittas Empire to strike back. “There are still plenty of officious middle-management jobsworths about,” she says. “And fitness and the EU, the two central subjects of the series, are even more central issues now.”

Dessau notes that Brittas was part of a strong lineage of vain yet ridiculed management figures in British sitcoms, and that the show got laughs out of a dull workplace long before The Office. “But to me, Brittas never had the same stature, in critical terms, as a Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty or David Brent,” he adds.

Thorpe says that she adored playing Carol, and remembers having a baby in real life during the making of the show. “My son was the original baby in the drawer,” she says. “I made a little crèche in the BBC rehearsal rooms, and one day I found myself washing my daughter’s clothes in there. It was art imitating life.”

Or the other way round. She also recalls the characters Gavin (“Deputy Manager Dry”) and catering manager Tim, who were a nicely observed couple in the show, at a time when gay relationships were rare on television. “No one even thought anything of it,” she says. “The show’s creators should be very proud of that.”

She has not had a call from her agent yet, but is keen to revive Carol,, and believes that Brittas remains popular enough to succeed again. “I get a lot of people who grew up with it coming and telling me how much they enjoyed it and asking when’s it coming back.” Soon, perhaps, but don’t watch this space.

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