Underrated / The best of Brittas: The case for The Brittas Empire

David Liddiment, head of Entertainment at the BBC, was recently on Biteback extolling the virtues of BBC 1 comedies. He rounded up all the usual suspects: Absolutely Fabulous, One Foot in the Grave, Keeping up Appearances, Only Fools and Horses, Birds of a Feather. But why not The Brittas Empire?

This is the sitcom that got away. The cuttings file on Brittas is a molehill beside, say, the mountain on One Foot in the Grave. Brittas's lack of coverage may well be due to its unfashionable, pre-watershed 'family' slot. But it is unfair to tar Brittas with the Terry and June brush; in terms of imagination - and more importantly, laughs - Brittas equals, if not betters, more hype-friendly offerings.

Because of the initials of the central character, Gordon Brittas, some have seen the sitcom as a state-of-the-nation satire, a Britcom. That is somewhat overstating it. But Gordon Brittas is indeed central to the sitcom's success: like Basil Fawlty and Frank Spencer before him, he is, in Chris Barrie's brilliant portrayal, relentlessly funny in his awfulness. With his suburban golf-club blue blazer, flat Estuary vowels and naff phraseology ('What can I do you for?'), Brittas is a grotesque caricature, the leisure centre manager from hell. Pedantic, pernickety, puerile, platitudinous, puritanical, he is gloriously unaware of the havoc he creates around him. As his leisure centre explodes into flames, Brittas's defiant, parrot-like recitation of the rulebook fuels the laughter. He fiddles while Whitbury burns.

It's no cosy, three-piece suite comedy, either; Brittas can be brutal (witness last week's story about a mother mislaying her children). The plots spiral off into the most implausible, cartoonlike realms. Its closest cousin sometimes seems to be Tom and Jerry. One week, a group of Pentecostalists were electrocuted during a mass baptism in the pool. The series boasts the most exuberant violence this side of The Young Ones. The scriptwriters Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss also have the nerve to run several concurrent storylines.

Now into its fourth series, Brittas is still a bit rough. Supporting players are poorly fleshed-out; at times it appears as if the lower orders of Hi-de-Hi have exchanged their yellow coats for the turquoise shirts of Whitbury Leisure Centre. But it is ready enough for the kind of praise lavished upon its rivals. A Bafta may be some way off, but a front cover of the Radio Times is long overdue.

(Photograph omitted)

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