The Brittas Empire: The Complete Series Four DVD Reviews Posted by John Hoare on 15th September 2006, 10:57 And so, over two and a half years late, we continue our look at the Brittas DVDs. Does the series continue its excellent run? Clue: yes. Incidentally, It’s quite amazing how many things we end up reviewing here that were part of my life long before I knew, or at the very least thought about, the Red Dwarf connection. I loved Spitting Image for years, without knowing it Rob and Doug were head writers for a time. And I loved The Brittas Empire and Maid Marian long before I ever watched Red Dwarf. There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind. Packaging Ah. Digipacks. Let me count the ways why I HATE YOU. Now, most of my DVD collection looks pristine. Even the old stuff. But I’ve had this Brittas release less than a couple of years, and it’s already looking scuffed – the top left corner in particular is torn slightly to show an ugly white line. Now, I know don’t look after things as well as perhaps I should, but I don’t chuck my DVDs round the room. Digipacks are a prime example of looks being deemed more important than functionality. And once they’re scuffed to buggery, they don’t even look that good, so it’s wasted anyway. Gaaahhhh. But onward. The front cover is… pffft. The picture is fine as a publicity photo, but doesn’t really work as a cover (the shadow across his face isn’t great, and the pose is wrong). The logo is fine, but the rest of the lettering (the “Starring Chris Barrie and Pippa Haywood”, and “The Complete Series Four” slogan at the bottom) are both in different – and equally as inappropriate – fonts. It’s all a bit of a mess, really. If you want to see how nice the cover could have looked, check out the Region 4 cover – much nicer. True, he looks a bit like Benny Hill, but at least it’s professional. The back cover is more nicely designed, although the letter spacing is a bit off (probably too much text there for the space, really) – and the start of the text is irritatingly misaligned with the photo. (Look, I know. I’m sorry. Little things like that irritate me.) Pull off the cardboard slipcover (bah), and a full cast list for each episode greets you. This is a really nice idea, and one positive thing to be said for digipacks is at least they allow more scope for things like this. I have to say though, I would have chosen to lay it out differently – what’s the point in listing the same core cast members for each episode? Wouldn’t it have been better to just list the main cast members at the top, and then only include the guest cast for each episode? As it is, it’s all rather cluttered with repetitious information. Listing the core cast members at the top would also have meant that poor old Richard Fegen, Andrew Norriss, and Mike Stephens weren’t crammed in uncomfortably at the bottom, looking for all the world like an afterthought. Open it up, and you’re greeted with a chapter listing, and your two DVDs. Unfortunately, the chapter point listing is a bit odd – each one misses off the end credits point, and worse, the first two episodes miss off the first one. Sloppy. Each of the panels is backed with a nice publicity shot – in the case of the two behind the two discs, there’s a nice one of Brittas coming out the wreckage of the leisure centre, which looks really good. Ah – the discs. And here we spot a problem. The first disc is labelled Disc 1, and the second is labelled… Disc 1. This is just appalling – how can something be printed with this kind of major error? It really shows a lack of care in the production of this release. Luckily, each disc is labelled with which episodes the disc contains as well, but you have to squint rather more than should be neccessary. Apart from the mistake, each picture disc is nicely designed and printed. Some people may wonder why I review packaging in so much detail. Well, firstly – how something is presented is important in its own right. But it’s also interesting because it gives an idea as to how much thought has been put into a release. I’m not entirely convinced that a huge amount has been put into this one. Animated Menus Sob! Once you get past that, however – the menus are really quite nicely designed – on first glance, at least. The animation when you select an option is difficult to describe, but it works beautifully – a pair of trainers kicks the basketball, and it bounces around the screen – and the graphics spin around and animate to the next menu, accompanied by appropriate sound effects. It works really really well, and is definitely the best-looking set of menus out of the first four releases. Unfortunately (and you must have known an ‘unfortunately’ was coming), all the option text is green. And the highlight text is… green. Yes, a slightly different shade of green, but green nonetheless. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve selected the wrong option – it’s infuriating. Why didn’t they just make the highlight text yellow, or something? A fundamental user interface design mistake. Stupidly, the episode selection menus don’t actually give the episode title – they’re simply labelled “Episode 1”, “Episode 2”, etc. I can see no sensible reason for this at all. There’s also the problem with the chapter menus; there isn’t a “Play Episode” option – instead, the first chapter, which is named differently to the episode, begins the show. This is just needlessly confusing. There’s also the fact that if there’s five chapter points, and two of them are taken up with the start of the episode and the end credits, then that’s really only three chapter points an episode – which, in a fast-paced series like Brittas, just isn’t enough. There’s no “Next Episode” option on the chapter menus, either. Again, there’s the feeling that this release just hasn’t quite been thought through properly. Episodes Bloody wonderful. Surprised? Eight episodes this time round, so this being a two-disc set is sensible – unlike with Series 1 and 3, which only had six episodes each. One interesting thing about this series is that it starts an incredible run of seventeen episodes that year (another eighl being broadcast in Series 5 later in the year, followed by a Christmas special), all written by Fegen and Norriss. It’s not completely unprecedented – Perry and Croft managed 24 episodes of Allo Allo in one series (two being written by other people), but it’s a hell of a lot, and the quality didn’t suffer in the slightest. As with Series 3, this series has a running plot – and it concerns the potential of love blossoming between Brittas and Laura. It’s wonderfully done – believable, poignant, and funny – and adds a lot of depth to their characters. This is the great strength of the series – it’s not snobby about what it includes, and contains everything from slapstick to beautiful emotional moments. It’s perhaps in this series that we really fully understand Brittas, as we see him through the eyes of Laura. Oddly, however – considering there’s a running plot – the series isn’t presented on the DVD in broadcast order. And we’re not talking about a couple of episodes swapped around, either – only the first and last two episodes are presented in their original order: Broadcast Order DVD Order Not A Good Day Not A Good Day The Christening Mr Brittas Changes Trains Biggles Tells A Lie Playing With Fire Mr Brittas Changes Trains Shall We Dance? Playing With Fire The Christening Shall We Dance? Biggles Tells A Lie The Chop The Chop High Noon High Noon I have no idea why this could be – is the DVD release the production order, or something? Most odd. It doesn’t matter hugely – it doesn’t actually affect the running plot that much – but I wish it’d been presented as originally broadcast. Whilst we’re on the subject – the plotting in the series is top notch. The way the seperate strands of plot weave and seperate, and then come together for the big climax is wonderful. In Biggles Tells A Lie, the main plot strands include: Colin pretending to be the manager, a problem with the boiler, Ben’s pet kitten, and Helen appearing in Reader’s Wives – and they all come together perfectly at the end. And that isn’t even the most complex episode in this run – it’s just an episode I plucked out of the air. I love many things about Brittas – the characters, the plots, the gags – but I think the thing I love most of all is its sheer unpleasantness. This is best exemplified in The Christening – when Horatio’s wife Philippa accuses Helen of being a bad mother for losing her children (Helen’s response: “Oh, and I suppose you’ve never left anything on a bus…”), most sitcoms would be happy with a heated argument. But no, Helen has to headbutt her violently. And the production team had to show a huge amount of blood pouring out of Philippa’s nose. And then they had to have Helen flushing Philippa’s head down the toilet. And daubing “COW” on her forehead. And show Philippa looking extremely distressed. And then have Helen whacking her hard over the head again when she’s already in a fucking state. And have Helen show absolutely no remorse whatsoever. It’s incredibly violent for a mid-evening family sitcom, but it’s not just violent for the sake of being violent – it’s done because it’s funny. And Brittas is often funny for doing things most other sitcoms would pull back from. Not just occasionally – but time and time again, in every episode. It’s wonderful. Another thing I love about the series is its sheer sense of style. Witness the cat flying out of the boiler in Biggles Tells A Lie – a perfect blend of effects, camera angles and editing combine to create a sequence that makes the audience applaud. And all it is is a cat flying out of a boiler. There’s such a sheer confidence in the material, and the sense that everyone’s doing their absolute best to make this show as good as possible. There’s not a single weak performance or dodgy section in the entire series. The series ends with the two-parter The Chop and High Noon. Now, whilst I love traditional sitcoms (Terry and June is not twee bollocks, thank you so very much), I especially enjoy sitcoms merging with other genres. Part of the reason I love Red Dwarf is the perfect fusion of sitcom and science fiction it manages. Here, it’s sitcom turned into action movie – and it’s hugely impressive. The set constructed on location for the destroyed leisure centre is marvellous. You get the feeling that Fegen and Norriss had tired of simply blowing up corridors. And you really feel for Brittas as well – a far cry from Series 1 where he’s portrayed as simply a bit of a cunt. (It’s not just Brittas, mind you – the end of The Chop is just heart-wrenching, and that’s just as much down to Harriet Thorpe’s performance as Carole.) Like Rimmer, the character grew – thanks in part to the writing, obviously, but also thanks to Chris Barrie, who is never less than superb. And who isn’t afraid to pull silly faces in the name of comedy, which is something some people would do well to remember these days. So – one of the best sitcoms ever made, and pretty much at the top of its game. Yeah. Good. “Extras” Weblink: Oh, fuck off! We’ve made fun in the past of the weblink on the Dwarf releases, but at least reddwarf.co.uk is filled with loads of information about the series, and even specific, in-depth stuff about how the DVDs was produced. This is merely a link to Eureka Video‘s site – which has hardly any information about Brittas on at all, beyond the usual DVD advertising copy. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What kind of cretinous idiots do they take us for? Worse still, it has a ‘Back” button… but takes you back to the extras menu anyway after a few seconds – another bad bit of user interface design. Let people decide when to go back, don’t force them. Gallery: I love DVD photo galleries. You must have read my rant about how good they are far too many times now, so I won’t bother with it. But. BUT. This is an abomination. Now… would you like to guess how much of the picture is cut off there? And how much pointless border there is there that could be used to make the picture bigger instead? Pictures are rectangular – they’re not bloody oval. And the Brittas logo overlays the pictures, obscuring them even more. Admittedly, this is a problem on nearly all DVD galleries to some extent – needless cropping of the picture that destroys its original compostion. But this is taking things to ludicrous extremes. A travesty of a photo gallery, all in all. And I usually like them. And that’s it on the extras front. Conclusion Episodes: well worth five stars. No more needs to be said. As for the extras… well, it’s all a bit unimpressive, isn’t it? The thing that gets me is – despite my huge number of moans, I’m not unreasonable. I don’t expect a Red Dwarf-style extras package for Brittas – the budget just isn’t there, because the release won’t sell as much. I understand that. And I don’t know what survives in the archive for this series either – there may not be deleted scenes or outtakes for this series. (You’d think you’d be able to hunt down some VHS-sourced trailers mind you, if you’d asked around a bit.) But all I want something of substance – a set of commentaries, an interview with Fegen and/or Norriss, anything to just help give the series a bit of context. A weblink and shitty photo gallery doesn’t do the series justice. I know the budget for these releases is stupidly tight, but if Replay – which is one guy working alone – can manage four commentaries and a short documentary on Joking Apart, why can’t Eureka manage the same for Brittas? That’s the level of extras I’m asking for here. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. At least the previous Brittas releases managed to drag something interesting out, like the Wogan interview. The episodes are some of the best half hours of sitcom you will ever see. And with a release like this, having the episodes is fantastic in itself. It’s just a great shame that the opportunity to give the series a bit of context was passed up, that’s all. Combined with some odd packaging decisions, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this release could have been so much more. It’s certainly well worth buying… but only now it’s reduced to a silly price. If this was still full price, I’d be advising you waited until the price dropped. Which surely, is not what Eureka or online retailers would want you to do. But when an extras package is this lacklustre, it’s the only sensible option.