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“It’s like I’m having a terrible dream. Only I know I’m not dreaming, I’ve still got my trousers on,” proclaims Chris Barrie’s jobsworth leisure centre manager Gordon Brittas.
Cursed biscuits, deadly kedgeree, methane-filled stench pipes, a racist subplot about gypsies, infidelity, illegitimate twins, manslaughter, a miniature Noah’s Ark, an actual size Noah’s Ark, an angry, poisoned goose (below) and themes of approaching apocalypse; the final episode of the hugely popular 90s sitcom ‘The Brittas Empire’ was stunningly, inexplicably weird considering it was a mainstream, primetime TV show.
Created by Andrew Norriss, a children’s author behind the 'Woof!’ series of books, and Richard Fegen, it ran through 53 episodes, and was at times amazingly dark. Brittas’s bewilderingly annoying – yet still somehow sympathetic – character made the lives of those around him a nightmare, notably his jittery, pill-popping wife Helen (Pippa Haywood) and the mentally fragile Carol (Harriet Thorpe), who kept her three children in the cupboards and drawers of the reception desk.
The show regularly pulled in 10 million viewers in its BBC1 slot between 1991 and 1997. Plots involved, variously, mental breakdowns, an OAP squash court massacre, outbreaks of deadly diseases, electrocution of children, chaining up Sebastian Coe, Belgium, pirates and, in one episode, chainsaw dismemberment and decapitation. It was utterly and thoroughly bananas, the TV historian and writer Mark Lewisohn marvelling at its 'unusual obsession with death and danger’, death in particular being a trope rarely employed in the sitcom genre. And thanks to the horribly afflicted maintenance man Colin, played by Michael Burns, it also boasted a recurring predilection towards seeping infections and human effluent.
It was originally only set to run for five series, which is why at the conclusion of series five, Gordon was killed off after being crushed to death by a falling water tank. However, such was the popularity of the series, it was resurrected by the BBC – as was Gordon – but without writers Norriss and Fegen.
A dream team of new writers with some superb pedigree behind them were drafted in to take over, including Paul Smith ('Not The Nine O'Clock News’ and 'Alas Smith and Jones’), Terry Kyan ('Spitting Image’ and 'Murder Most Horrid’), Mike Walling ('Birds Of A Feather’, 'Me And My Girl’) and 'Monty Python’ cohort Ian Davidson.
But when it wound up after seven series, it did so in ignominy. Taking its cue from 'Dallas’, the episode ‘Curse Of The Tiger Woman’ revealed that the entire show had been a dream, one Gordon Brittas had experienced having fallen asleep on the train to his interview for the manager’s post at Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre, the cast of the show all made up from fellow commuters in his carriage, 'Wizard of Oz’-style.
In it, Gordon is beset by catastrophe, as per usual, but also faced with being forced into early retirement by the council. He is then confronted with the bombshell that he is the father of Carol from reception’s twins, following a case of mistaken sex at a fancy dress party in series two, at which Carol and his wife Helen were wearing the same tiger outfit. And, obviously, he’s been cursed by a gypsy, after moving a group of travelling folk on from the leisure centre car park, with any food produced by his fair hand rendered poisonous.
There’s also a bizarre 'dream within a dream’ sequence, in which, after being knocked out by an angry goose, poisoned by some of his cake, Gordon wakes up in Noah’s Ark, blazerless, and with his other leisure centre colleagues all dressed up like their in some kind of warped nativity-style school play.
The three female leads (below) tell him: “We’re your wives. We’ve got to repopulate the world!” Hardly family sitcom material…
He then wakes up, and it’s revealed Brittas was dreaming THE ENTIRE SHOW! It ends with his wife Helen asking him on the train why he wants the leisure centre job. “Because I have a dream!”. Cue credits… and much bemusement.
Despite the talent behind it, the bizarre conclusion of the show was not only slated by many, it also managed to completely contradict the plot of the 1994 Christmas special, which was set years in the future, showing what happened to the staff following their careers at Whitbury. Oh, and it also invalidated seven series’-worth of material.
Many fans didn’t love the ending either. “The show just went down hill after Fergen and Norris (sic) stopped writing it, until the whole thing was just so stupid that the final episode was a blessed relief,” says one on the show’s IMDb page. “Yeah, we pretend the ending was all a dream!” says a fan. “Maybe it is better for us diehard Brittas fans to ignore this ending,” adds another.
Others, however, found it surreally fitting, one adding: “I thought the ending was perfect, one of the best tv endings in fact.”
Barrie, also famed for his role as Rimmer in cult space comedy 'Red Dwarf’, has often said that the show is set for a comeback, claiming as recently as last year that a one-off Christmas special comeback was in the offing, though it has thus far failed to materialise.
That said, as surreal as the show was, bringing it back would probably be a piece of cake. No sequence of events would be too bizarre for Gordon Brittas.
What did you think the finale? Genius or terrible? Let us know in the comments below.
Image credits: Gold/BBC