At the end of our lunch, among the glitterati of a fashionable London restaurant, there is a moment of such exquisite, albeit modest, serendipity that I feel transported to the heaven whence Gordon Brittas, the leisure centre manager from hell, is dispatched in the first of the sixth series (the final episode of the previous series, when a water tank squashed him, apparently fatally, was repeated on 20 February) by an exasperated St Peter, to be reconstituted in a Swiss clinic before continuing his haphazard sabotage of other people’s best intentions.
But first we must discuss issues of acute national importance, including whether Barrie himself – 36 next month – is suffering from late adolescent trauma or premature male menopause. He is well dressed and clean cut with a pleasing but nondescript face, a bit bland in conversation at first. “I’m just the normal, boring sort of bloke, nothing to look at. Average, really – which can be a compliment or a terrible insult, particularly these days when you seem to need pizzazz to get on. I’m no good at public relations. I’ll probably wind up in a nightclub soon where something dreadful will happen with people hurling abuse at me. I’ve cornered the market in complete idiots – on television, that is.”
The parts that qualify him for this soubriquet – nerdish hologram Rimmer in Red Dwarf and Gordon Brittas – were slow starters. “Even I wondered during the first series of ‘Red Dwarf’, ‘What the hell is this?’ Rimmer was always told he was bad at everything, so that’s even sadder than Brittas, who thinks he’s brilliant. They are two monstrous characters and I love them.” Red Dwarf returns in the summer, but he will only be in a couple of episodes. “Been there, done that. But Brittas is exceptional because I’m doing things you hate people doing to you. I really revel in it. I’m booked to do a seventh series, and that may well be it.”
Although he seems born to the part, he stresses it is merely acting. “I’m untidy and deeply disorganised,” he lies, or at least I assume he is lying – every evening he writes lists of projects for the following day, which is one mark of a tidy mind. “No, no,” he says. “Brittas is very conscientious and does things by the book. Although that is petty, his ultimate aim is to help. He thinks he’s doing so much good. I don’t like him but I have a certain admiration for someone who believes a suburban leisure centre can bring world peace. He probably feels he’s contributed to the process in Bosnia and the Middle East. But his shortcomings turn you against him. He’s so rude and snaps quickly. I’ve met people like him in the Post Office and other big organisations – it’s very British for a basically working class man who is given a position of responsibility, who wears a tie and suit and maybe a blazer, to become a fierce little Hitler. It’s all to do with Empire. We’ve always been leaders and someone like Brittas takes it very seriously.”
We ponder the attraction politics might hold for a Brittas – well-meaning but disastrous – which is not far removed from the world of management seminars with their bureau-trash buzz jargon where participants bond by cliché (“efficiency gains”) and learn the phrase that might eventually dent British Telecom profits: “How may I help you?” – which Brittas insists receptionist Carole (Harriet Thorpe) utters mantra-like at every opportunity. “People say it, particularly when answering the telephone, to put a customer at ease, but it’s the last thing it does because it’s so false, stressed and unmeant.”
Brought up with a solid middle class background – his father was a general in the Royal Ordnance Corps – he went to a Methodist boarding school in Belfast at eight. “Some say that’s too young and if I have children I won’t send them to boarding school, although I enjoyed the camaraderie of six in a dorm surviving together. But I had a bad spell from ten to 13 when I missed home a bit.” He recalls the trauma of an 18 per cent mark in chemistry. “The teacher told me I was thick and would never amount to anything. I thought maybe he was right and I was in deep schtum. It’s so cruel. As a kid you don’t realise that maybe the teacher is moody because the cat was sick on a new carpet.” It was a school that produced accountants and lawyers “who thought they’d settle down young and marry Janet in the fifth form”, so when he told the careers master he wanted to be an actor, a pilot or a lorry driver, there was much harrumphing, and he abandoned his attempt to become Clint Eastwood (“I imagined all I had to do was sit on a horse, look good with a cigar and furrowed brow, and collect a fortune”) in favour of management or the army.
“My dad would have loved it. I went to a recruitment weekend and enjoyed the social side, the glamour of chaps with sun tans sitting on the turret of Chieftain tanks looking across the desert, or eating in the mess with glamorous ladies. But the reality is you spend the day scrambling through greasy pipes, climbing ropes and firing rifles whose recoil wrecks your shoulders. I was turning more and more into the idea of ‘pretending’ to be someone else.” He dropped out of a business studies course at Brighton Polytechnic after a week – “the thickness of the textbooks made school look like a doddle” – and became a grave filler, an estate agent, an import export clerk and an assistant in the sports department of Harrods. “Being an outdoors-y person I enjoyed grave filling. I wasn’t skilled enough to be a digger – you have to get the dimensions right so the coffin fits and looks good for the funeral party. I made a few sales as an estate agent. People quite liked me. I wasn’t one of those who did the hard sell.”
He left Harrods soon after impersonating the head of department on the phone and ordering a salesman who was with a customer to bring “immediately – forget the customer” – ten green cool boxes to his room. “I came across several Brittas qualities at Harrods,” he recalls. “I thought showbiz should be my next port of call. Had it not been for my mum I might not have got there. She saw an article about David Essex turning talent spotter. I applied and went on his show.”
The well-trod route followed: first stop, London’s Comedy Store. “They didn’t like impressionists unless you were doing a pigeon returning from the library. I ‘died’ quite often, which is even worse than your chemistry teacher saying you’re a complete failure. I was 22 and my act was terrible. OK, it was in front of five football supporters and seven Japanese businessmen, but if you’re onstage and they’ve paid money, you have to make them laugh.”
He graduated to voices on Spitting Image but didn’t want to remain an impressionist “ending up at 40 trying to find new voices. There’s always such pressure. I decided to get into character acting and ‘Red Dwarf’ was my big break. I’m only a vaudevillian stand-up comic who’s become a character actor. I have more worries than anyone in ‘Brittas’ because the others are ‘actors’ who think, ‘If it ain’t funny it’s the fault of the director or writer. I’ve got to be good, otherwise I wouldn’t have been booked for the job.’ I’m not criticising them for that, but I do worry whether the audience laughs. Drama is so much easier. The cast leaves rehearsals laughing. In comedy they come out with long faces, worrying whether it’s funny or not.” He took two acting lessons, at £35 a time. “They were a waste of money, but I thought I’d better learn what to do at auditions. I don’t regret not going to drama school, although you build up that core of security and cliquishness that one often needs in this business. I’m a free agent. I want to get on purely on talent, not who I know, and I’ve done better than I thought I would.”
Privately, there has been turmoil. His wife, Monica, was Italian: “Tall, dark, olive-skinned and gorgeous. It was magic. I was 27 and we fell for each other. When you’re young you mistake passion for love and attach too much value to the sex thing, but try saying that to me ten years ago. Sex is incredibly important, but you need mental chemistry as well. That doesn’t matter when you’re young because you just roger away until the cows come home. But now I’m a bit more picky. Monica had a strong Latin personality which, combined with my English reserve, cause grief. Despite the highs, the lows won out. I’d say, ‘We have a problem, let’s identify it and work it out. The last thing we should do is lose our tempers.’”
Shades of Gordon Brittas? Surely not. He takes a deep breath and mimics a fast, falsetto Italian, “‘What a stupid way to solve a problem. I am Italian. I am emotional. I do lose my temper. I hate you.’” The sound of expensive crashing crockery reverberated until they spilt in 1990. “We needed the United Nations to keep us apart,” he muses, “but they were busy.”
Three years ago he started dating a fashion buyer, Aleks, now 29. That relationship is now under some strain. “We haven’t spilt up completely, but we both feel we need a little more space – dreadful cliché as it is. When you’re this age you wonder about marriage and once bitten, twice shy. I wouldn’t say I’m frightened of commitment, but I’m a bit confused about what I want. She’s a super person and we’re still good friends. The tragedy is they say if people have been married and terminate a relationship in their mid-30s they don’t marry until 40. I’d like to settle down and have a family, but I’m not panicking. Aleks and I have a few little problems but I think we’re sorting them out. We see each other but I also go out with the lads, which means you take in the odd club, dance and try to sort of meet women, see what’s out there. But there is a part of you at this age that says, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. You should be at home.’”
When he is at home he has two dogs – Dex, a German Shepherd, and Coco, a Labrador. “We bond when there are no girlies about.” There is also his collection of vintage cars, including an E-type Jaguar, Bentley S1, a couple of old trucks. “I suppose I’m trying to bring back the past. The fifties and sixties seemed more sedate. Human beings acted the way they should. It was a better time to live. These mobile phones…” I pointed to one he had with him. “Ah, yes, but it’s a classic, from 1990. I’m a nostalgic sentimentalist.”
He also has a fitness trainer twice a week: “She kills me for half an hour and then we go on a power walk.” So he’s fit, and not going through any real crisis except the endemic fear of all artists. “I’ve got to find something as good as, if not better than, ‘Brittas’ and ‘Dwarf’. Television doesn’t give you many chances. It’s been a bit tough to convince people this isn’t the only thing I can do. But because I’m a neutral character I can swing both ways and have enough belief in my own ability to say, ‘Wait till you see the next thing.’”
He is observed by a senior Conservative figure, lunching at the next table with the Prime Minister’s political secretary, Howell James, who comes over to say how much Mr Major enjoys Blackadder, but the thinking is he should turn his attention to the “brilliant” Gordon Brittas. As Brittas is a pompous, working-class poltroon with a nasal whine, forever trying vainly to help, we wonder what this means, we do not know. We dare not surmise. RT