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The Brittas Empire, while never a classic sitcom, was one of the better efforts of a rather dire period in the early nineties when just about every BBC comedy series was 'safe' and decidedly mainstream. Brittas was an exception because, despite appearing to be set in the humdrum world of a Leisure Centre, there was always the promise that this show could be far darker than expected.

The first five series, consisting of 36 episodes, were written by Richard Fegen and Andrew Norris and the show slowly built up a solid, if never overwhelming, reputation as a reliable ratings winner. It would be churlish not to give credit where it's due to the writing partnership for tackling a notoriously difficult genre of comedy as The Brittas Empire was lodged firmly in the tricky world of farce. In essence, Brittas operated as a highly-energised remake of Fawlty Towers; with the dysfunctional staff, pompous manager and chaotic misunderstandings at Whitbury Leisure Centre holding many parallels with that famous hotel in Torquay. A vast majority of the episodes ended with casualties, fatalities and explosions all due to slow-burning, and not entirely unapologetic, contrived situations.

Brittas Empire: The Complete Series Six, The
As the show progressed and the supporting characters developed more thoroughly, Brittas became a programme that was significantly more than the sum of its own parts. Accompanying Chris Barrie's irritating manager was Michael Burns as Colin; a deputy manager with little appreciation for personal hygiene, Harriet Thorpe as Carol, the impulsive secretary who keeps her children in an array of drawers and cupboards; and Pippa Haywood as Brittas' long-suffering wife Helen who has long since turned to adultery and anti-depressants to help her through a life with Gordan. Lending the show a much needed dose of reality was Julia St. John as Laura; perhaps the only member of staff that had any idea of just how a leisure centre should operate.

In the final episode of Series Five, our eponymous anti-hero was squashed to death by a water-tank that had fallen into the reception area of the Leisure Centre. Sent to Heaven for an eternity in paradise, he was swiftly ejected when he attempted to organise a five-a-side football league for St Peter. The last scene of the series had shown him knocking on the lid of his coffin at his own funeral.

This was an effective and relatively amusing ending to a sitcom; accurately summing up the irritation caused by a pedantic man who can cheat death since everyone else cares so little about rules and regulations.However, within the reality of the series it's possible that this metaphysical venture may have 'over-stepped the mark'. After all, while previous episodes had played close to the barriers of reality, a 'short trip to the afterlife' was as outlandish as the show could ever stray; giving the show a dramatic licence that was too liberal in it's regard for the conventions of the humble sitcom. Not that it mattered as this was the final episode. Right?

Wrong. As is the case with many sitcoms, this was not the grand finale. Sixteen more episodes followed; albeit without the original writing team and one of the main cast members.

Brittas Empire: The Complete Series Six, The
The Series
And so, here's series six which consists of seven episodes...  

Back With a Bang
Gordan Brittas returns to the Centre, a day ahead of schedule and immediately eases himself back into his old ways. Meanwhile, Colin attempts to track down a bomb.

Body Language
When a giant block of ice crashes through the centre's roof, Colin believes that aliens have invaded.

At the Double
He's exotic, he's charming...he's certainly not Mr Brittas, but complications ensue when a doppelganger arrives.

A Walk on the Wild Side
Brittas attempts to turn the Centre into a rambler's paradise.

We all Fall Down
It's 'World Peace and Hunger' day at the Centre and the preparations are not going according to plan.

Mr Brittas Falls in Love
Brittas hires a Dolphin to swim in the Centre's pool while Tim takes over the Canteen.

Snap Happy
How hard can it be to take a simple staff photograph? Brittas and his staff are about to find out.  

To call the series 'patchy' would be something of a compliment as the quality varies between episodes in quite an alarming fashion. Some entries aim high but fall short due to a reliance on humour that is less than subtle, others are more successful. The dividing line seems to be the reality in which the episodes are constructed. Many take their cues from the finale of series five and, as a result, lose any semblance of logic. When anything can happen in a sitcom, the audience usually starts to lose interest. How can we be expected to care about these characters if the world in which they live seems decidedly phoney?

The episode Body Language is a chief example; employing the sort of narrative that would find a home in children's television and then relying on characters to act in unrealistic fashion to flesh out a plot involving body-snatching aliens. This reaches it's peak in the final scene in which, after twenty-eight minutes of painfully contrived misunderstandings, it is revealed that Extra-Terrestrials truly have found a home at Whitbury Leisure Centre.

Brittas Empire: The Complete Series Six, The
When it moves away from such shenanigans, there are some rare-moments of fun in this series. The episode,Mr Brittas Falls in Love, is a more restrained affair and is more in keeping with the past efforts of the show. Sure, it relies on a suspension of disbelief, but not a complete absence of rational thought. But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the centre, along comes the series finale, Snap Happy, where the conclusion is so overtly-signposted, that you might as well switch off twenty minutes into the episode.

The aesthetics of the show (sets,cast, direction) are much the same as past years, yet the chief attribute in all comedy has changed significantly. That's the writing, by the way.

This sort of problem is indicative of a show that, while formerly controlled by just two people, has now been unleashed upon a larger staff of writers. While big writing teams are the norm in the States, back in Blighty, it's often the kiss of death for any comedy series. Whereas Fegen and Norris concentrated their efforts on building towards a range of destructive finales; here the episodes often end with little more than a whimper or, even worse, something wholly predictable. Barrie and his supporting cast try their best, but it's clear that the sparkle has long-since left the building.  

Also absent is Julia St John, who had appeared in every prior episode as Brittas' long-suffering colleague, Laura. As the only character who wasn't prone to panic attacks, we often saw the show from her perspective. In Series Six (and the following series), we lose that perspective and are left without an anchor to ground the series in the real world.  

It takes a strong will to sit through all seven episodes of this series. Despite the hysteria from the studio audience, laughs are few and far between. If farce is your bag, do yourself a favour and pick up an earlier series.

Video
The visuals adhere to the DVD sitcom cliché of 'solid, yet unremarkable'. It's a pretty straight-forward transfer from broadcast quality and, since that was less than exceptional, the DVD picture wont be winning any awards. One big gripe is that the picture never seems particularly sharp; it all seems to be shot in a soft-focus haze that severely affects the clarity of the visuals. On the plus side, skin-tones are generally good and there's an absence of grime.  

Audio
Presented through two channels, the audio mix is as good as it needs to be for a ten year old BBC sitcom. Dialogue is occasionally overshadowed by sound effects and studio laughter, but there are only rare moments when this becomes a problem.

Extras
Probably wise to not get too excited with extras that consist of a Stills Gallery and a short Out-take reel. Bizarrely, the Out-takes featured are actually from Series Four; presumably a left-over from that release due to clearance issues. For what it's worth, it contains some fairly entertaining bloopers.

Brittas Empire: The Complete Series Six, The
Overall
Patchy comedy on a well-presented, if slightly sparse, couple of discs. The fact that the extras are dull and the episodes range from 'awful' to 'mediocre' means that this package will only appeal to those who have come this far with the collection.  


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