If you were around in the Nineties and of an age to appreciate a proper sitcom done damnably well then that name will mean something to you. If not then, like my eldest boy, you will have to delve in the BBC’s back catalogue and get the boxed set.
Continuing my boy’s odyssey through the comedy shows of my formative years we have finally reached The Brittas Empire.
Gordon Brittas (played by Chris Barrie) was way ahead of his time. He was a forerunner for every Fire Safety diehard, every devoted Risk Assessor, every in-your-face, dyed-in-the-wool, dog-savaging-a-rabbit, never-going-to-let-it-drop-ever Health & Safety Officer who has ever walked, breathed and told you to move that pencil sharpener from the edge of your desk in case a colleague should trip over their own brogues and impale themselves upon it. He was the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: Mr Bump.
At the time I thought The Brittas Empire was hilarious. By the third series the writers (Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen) were well into their stride and managed to demolish Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre in ever more inventive and bizarre ways. Rogue fireworks ignited by sunlight cast through a carelessly discarded pair of spectacles would in turn ignite a storeroom being used to house petroleum because the fuel tank had a hole in it; over elaborate fire safety drills would actually result in staff being injured and horribly maimed; the most improbable of small events would domino and coalesce into disasters of national proportions in the space of half an hour. Mr Brittas would be the author of all. The more obsessive he became about doing the right thing and following safety guidelines the higher the body count would rise. I think in the fifth series the writers actually managed to destroy the Centre in every single episode.
In theory Mr Brittas should have been an unsympathetic character whose blind adherence to local byways and the letter of the law rendered him beyond redemption. But he was saved. He was saved by Laura Lancing his long suffering, ever patient, ever understanding Assistant Manager played by the gorgeous Julia St John (pictured above). Rather than create a mean two-dimension caricature of an overzealous jobsworth, the writers – through Laura’s insights and interventions – created a more rounded character who, despite scoring a whopping 100% on the National Annoyance League Table, was nevertheless a decent, well-meaning man who constantly tried to be kind and caring and morally upstanding and who was only ever hampered in achieving this by his fevered need to always do the right thing.
Laura was an angel. Laura was a goddess. And she had the soft, smooth voice to match and a ready ironic smile where most would have had gritted teeth.
Naturally I fancied the gym skirt off her back when the series was first aired and watching it again now she has lost none of her allure. Even my wife has commented that most guys she knows “had a thing” for Laura. Laura was the calm in Mr Brittas’ storm. The Ying to his Yang. The sensible, sane response to the madness that he unfailingly caused. And she had eyes that could stun a charging red blooded male at 50 paces. I would have died for that woman and, if I’d worked at Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre, the chances are I probably would have.
I laughed at the time. I thought the premise of the show was hilarious.
And while I’m still laughing now, watching it years later, that laughter is distinctly tinged with nervousness. It is tinged with a sense of burgeoning tragedy.
Because suddenly Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre is all around me.
It has become the world I live in. A world where workmen cannot abandon their ladders in case some cranially challenged hoody decides to show off to his mates and swan-dive from the top of it and then sue the company for his inability to sign-on every week. A world where hot water cannot be too hot lest it scald the person washing their hands but not so lukewarm that it allows Legionella bacteria to grow and flourish. A world where everything from opening a trap door in the floor to lifting a hot cup of tea to your mouth during work time has to be risk assessed and approved by a Health & Safety Officer and underwritten by an insurance company lest the corporation be responsible for your accidental demise.
It is the world I work in.
It is the modus operandi of my working life.
I have become Mr Brittas.
Only I don’t have a Laura to sweeten the pill. A Laura to save me from myself.
As the song goes: tell Laura I love her, tell Laura I need her...
But onwards and upwards, people. Now excuse me while I just move this unexploded World War II bomb I’ve found into the gas boiler room for safe keeping... oops, look at that petrol spilled on the floor... someone could have slipped over on that...