Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Brittas Empire: Not a Good Day

The Brittas Empire was a slightly surreal - at times very surreal - British sitcom that I absolutely loved in the 90s. It focussed on the well-meaning but inept manager of a local leisure centre, Gordon Brittas (Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf), who had a dream to unite the world through sport but whose dream was continually interrupted by his own tendency to drive everyone around him completely insane with anger.

'Not a Good Day' was the first episode of the fourth series, and storylines included Sebastian Coe MP being chained to a stair rail, Carol's toddler Ben running amok in the ventilation system and having to be coaxed back like a wild animal and one woman and her daughter actually having a really nice day at the leisure centre - possibly a first. The storyline I want to talk about though, involved the centre coming under attack from the Tenth Legion, some Carthaginians and an elephant...

The Classical War Society, a battle reenactment group, are apparently re-enacting the Second Punic War in the grounds of the leisure centre. While they are outside, Brittas places the 8-yr-old son of a centurion under citizens' arrest for refusing to pay the 20p entrance fee for the swimming pool. When Brittas refuses to release the boy, the centurion calls all his friends and the entire society attack the leisure centre with arrows, missiles flung from catapults (or possibly trebuchets, but I think they're catapults), siege ladders and a battering ram. Various staff members mention that these are apparently mostly the 10th Legion, with some Parthian mercenaries, and the Carthaginians they're fighting, with an elephant. I'm not that hot on military history so I don't know if those names match, but I'm sure someone will tell me. I am reasonably sure that the Praetorian Guard, no matter how highly trained, probably shouldn't be at the back, since they were imperial guards, from long after the Punic Wars.

The really funny thing about all this, of course, is that Brittas and his staff get to say lines like 'There's a centurion to see you' and 'We're being attacked by Romans!'. The police refuse to come to the centre 'again this week', and the Romans eventually break in by catapulting the engine of a Morris Marina through the window and breaking down the doors with a battering ram with a lion's head on the front.

The best bits of this episode are where we see the crazy goings-on - the enraged centurion with his old-fashioned big glasses, the group of Romans with their catapult, Linda defending the centre with a bow and arrow, presumably used for archery within the centre. What's a shame is that, as ever on a BBC budget, we don't actually see most of the action once the group outside gets really big - it all has to be described as if in a radio play. On the other hand, this means they can get away with lines like 'they have an elephant!' without the utter ludicrousness of an elephant in a British leisure centre sending the whole thing into complete insanity.

An elephant. Not actually seen in The Brittas Empire.

I enjoyed this episode very much. The idea of Roman legionnaires attacking using an internal combustion engine is somehow especially amusing, and the way everyone talks about the battle reenactors as if they were actually Romans keeps the humour level high. I won't join in with some of the jokes made at the expense of battle reenactors, since people who go to Star Trek conventions shouldn't throw stones, but the whole idea is really very funny - and the scene at the end where the woman who has had a great day, apparently completely oblivious to the chaos around her, thanks Brittas and tells him how he must be used to getting praise and presents from customers, is the cherry on top of the cake.

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