Empire and a setting sun

Written By: Michael Pattison
Published: May 8, 2014 Last modified: October 25, 2016

There appears to be something very “1990s” about the leisure centre. Perhaps I’ve come to make this connection because it was in the early- to mid-90s that I learned to swim, and I spent many hours during my primary-school days at the local pool. The smell of chlorine, the unique acoustics, the tension between a liberating communal setting and the traumatising intimacy of the changing rooms… Born in 1987, I’ve possibly downplayed the extent to which those hours, so deeply rooted in that decade, were formative.

Leisure and Lycra in the 1990s. There was Mr Motivator, the spandex-clad health guru beaming at us from our television sets with motivational patter on GMTV every morning. There was Gladiators, the sports entertainment series made by London Weekend Television and recorded at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena every week. And there was The Brittas Empire, Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss’ hilarious sitcom (1991-1997), in which obliviously hapless busybody Gordon Brittas (Chris Barrie) tries in vain to instil administrative order upon Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre – a fictional recreational base in Aldershot, Hampshire. Owing to popular demand, DVD distributor Eureka! have reissued all seven series in one box set, after their 2007 release went out of print.

In many ways, The Brittas Empire appears today like the quintessential British sitcom of its decade. With a title echoing the country’s former imperialist imperatives, here was a comedy whose main character was a well meaning but incessantly irritating idiot convinced of his own right of way. Arriving in the first episode to assume managerial duties of a newly refurbished leisure centre, he causes a workers’ strike and other frissons as he bludgeons onward with egregious self-confidence. His long-suffering wife Helen (Pippa Haywood) is seeking sexual satiation elsewhere; colleagues pronounce his name “Brit-ass”. Only in the ’90s could someone be at the wrong end of a joke without knowing it.

From its very premise, the show suggests that by 1990 the British Empire might have found its most fitting avatar in that mundane and depressing embodiment of the country’s service sector: the leisure centre. This image is, of course, a contradiction – of a battered economy and fragmented working class on the one hand, and yet a cosy, all-inclusive and even utopian public space on the other (Whitbury Leisure Centre’s motto is Semper Omnibus Facultas: “Open to All”). While in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher actively crushed the nation’s heavy industries and the working communities of the north, drastically bastardised economic priorities informed a surge of interest in the tourism sector. Britain was to be a nation whose wealth came not from manufacturing but from people holding doors for one another.

By 1985, UK unemployment was at approximately two million. Grasping for ways by which to justify its destructive policies, the Conservative Government initiated an inter-departmental review of tourism. Led by Lord Young and titled Leisure, Pleasure and Jobs, the review “identified tourism with a buoyant leisure sector” – as Victor TC Middleton notes in his 2005 study British Tourism. Under Thatcher, the north-south divide sharpened. As Kenneth O Morgan writes in Britain Since 1945 (1990), by the end of the 1980s: “Much of Britain in the Midlands and the south relished the new prosperity the Thatcher years had brought. The glossy shops and building societies of towns like Swindon and Basingstoke, the proliferation of ‘leisure centres’ and recreational amenities in much of the south, appeared to be firm signs of the enjoyment of the good life.”

These objective conditions no doubt informed Fegen and Norriss’ show. An excruciatingly upbeat air permeates Brittas’ workforce. The immaculate turquoise polo shirts and sweaters that comprise the Whitbury Leisure Centre’s uniform have a colour and vivacity that is often at odds with the sheer banality of the show’s setting. Centre employees Linda (Jill Greenacre), Tim (Russell Porter) and Gavin (Tim Marriott) remain cheerfully invested in the upkeep of their community even while their blazer-clad boss renders such services nigh on impossible. Responding to the rather unthinkable prospect of a 1992 Tory re-election by pushing things into farce, The Brittas Empire placed all of its characters into a hotchpotch of collective but somehow endearing idiocy.

At a time when too much television is of a distinctly miserable sensibility, Eureka!’s re-release reminds us of comedy’s political energy. The second episode of the first series in particular is a perfect example of the show’s anarchic wit: as the leisure centre staff prepare for a royal visit, the episode recalls the first half of Ken Loach’s savagely comic television two-parter The Price of Coal (1977), in which pre-Thatcher Yorkshire miners anticipate a similar visit. Preceding The Office’s David Brent, Gordon Brittas is representative of a managerial class largely ignorant of its own incompetence – and yet one that is shaped by a wider cultural malaise, of which it appears to be in constant denial. The bosses remain in charge not in spite of their own ineptitude, but because of it.