That's all because of The Brittas Empire, a strange BBC sitcom that has unfortunately been forgotten about in modern times. But with its surprisingly dark humour, tremendously flawed characters and chaotic set pieces, there's no reason why it shouldn't still be held up as one of the decade's great comedies.
The Brittas Empire: Original broadcast from January 3, 1991 to February 24, 1997
The main attraction of the series is of course Barrie's ultimate jobsworth Gordon Brittas, a fitness fanatic who unintentionally begins running Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre into the ground from his very first day as manager.
The character is completely tactless, clueless and seems to alienate pretty much everyone he comes across. He quickly binds up staff and customers alike at the centre with outrageous rules and impractical ideas, to the extent that they have no choice but to break free by lashing out.
Brittas does have a few allies, though. His deputy manager Laura (Julia St John) treats him with nothing but respect, despite the fact that she should very clearly be running things. She's a very loyal, understanding sidekick and it's always nice to see her fight for him, especially on the occasions when the show gets too close to cruel.
Then there's the disgusting deputy manager/janitor Colin (Michael Burns). And no, I'm not sure how that works either. Permanently sporting bandages and suffering from an array of gruesome ailments, he's never really in a position to judge Brittas. And at least he gets some support at home from his frail, jittery wife Helen (Pippa Haywood). She stands by him throughout, at the cost of her happiness and, yes, even her sanity. Admittedly it's not the most joyous of partnerships, with Helen frequently indulging in affairs and popping pills just to make it through another day. But as I'll explain in more detail later, The Brittas Empire is not really a show interested in being light and fluffy.
The other poor unfortunates at Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre - like psychotic receptionist Carole, 'confirmed bachelors' Gavin and Tim, insolent secretary Julie and perma-smiling Linda - are less accommodating of Brittas, but mostly hide the resentment behind smiles for the sake of keeping their jobs.
It's credit to the show that they never come across as deceitful or bitchy. It's probably because they are fleshed out significantly more than your standard sitcom characters, making it understandable when their outside issues manifest themselves as contempt for their boss. For example, Tim's struggling with his sexuality and having regular therapy sessions, Colin is revealed to be dating a transvestite milkman and Carole's backstory is a tragic mess that results in her having to keep her kids in the reception cupboard.
The thing is, most of the hate that comes Brittas's way seems a bit unjustified. What sets him apart from Alan Partridge and other irritating faux-pas machines that have emerged since, is that it's clear there's usually no malicious intention behind anything he says or does. And yet people don't just want to bitch about him - they genuinely want to kill him.
Take the pilot episode, where a scorned table tennis instructor whose role at the facility has been diminished tries to drop a ping pong table on his head. What did Brittas do to warrant such an attack? Merely introduce a complex rota that somewhere in his twisted mind seemed the most logical. Have you ever tried to murder your boss because he mixed up your shifts?
Granted, it's hard to really describe Brittas as likeable, but he is at least sympathetic. Strangely, he is by far one of the happiest characters and usually walks around with a smile on his face, even when everything is about to fall down around him. He struggles to comprehend why there is so much venom directed at him and for that, you do wish that someone would cut him some slack.
What's striking about looking back at The Brittas Empire is how progressive it was for its time. Take Gavin and Tim - would you expect a primetime BBC sitcom nowadays to have two gay main characters, let alone in 1991? Their relationship is one of the joys of the series. It's subtle, long-lasting and not all exploitative. And most surprising of all, the two aren't the embarrassing, camp caricatures you'd probably expect. They're just... people. And then there's Laura, the silent, strong and confident woman whose professionalism is never in doubt. She was a bit of rarity in sitcoms of the day.
The Brittas Empire is also quite unsettling at times - or at least darker than a show with a laugh track should be. An episode that sticks out in this writer's mind is the one where Gordon comes back from the dead (much to the disappointment of those at the leisure centre) and Carole tries to crush him with a digger because she believes he is a zombie who has murdered her child to gain perpetual youth. Oh, and let's not forget the episode where Gordon's on trial for murder because he accidentally chainsawed in half a gangster killed in a shootout at the centre. That episode gets bonus weird points for starring both The Demon Headmaster and Billy from EastEnders.
Thankfully, those horrific storylines and the frequent (sometimes fatal) disasters that occur at the leisure centre were always designed to be as extreme and silly as possible, so that The Brittas Empire's family audience didn't walk away traumatised. In doing so, The Brittas Empire sort of finds the happy medium between goofy, physical comedy and twisted tales meant solely for adults. It's basically a proper cheesy sitcom that sometimes causes you to wince.
Granted, there is the feeling that the show stayed on air a little longer than it should have. The fifth series was intended to be the last and Brittas was even killed off in that finale. However, the BBC resurrected The Brittas Empire for two more years and powered on without the original creative team or many fans' favourite character, Laura. As a result, the quality dropped significantly for its last 15 episodes and the new showrunners actually pulled the old 'it was all a dream' trick for the final ever episode - ensuring that The Brittas Empire went out to a chorus of grumbles.
Maybe those last misguided series are the reason why The Brittas Empire hasn't really endured like some other shows from that era. It's sad, because for most of its time on screen, the show delivered in every way that a sitcom should - giving us big laughs, great characters and outrageous scenarios. In an ideal world, we'd all forgive a little shark jumping and revisit Gordon Brittas one more time (only on DVD, though. Apparently five minutes with the character is enough to give anyone murderous thoughts).
Were you a fan of The Brittas Empire? Do you think it is underrated? Leave your comments below!