Mr Flibble Talks To... Barrie Banter
Chris talks to Mr Flibble about the release of Brittas and his appearance in the forthcoming Tomb Raider movie.
18 July, 2002
Chris Barrie
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble began the interview by jogging to prove his fitness level. Andrew, with an eye on the stopwatch, asked Chris about the DVD AND VIDEO RELEASE of The Brittas Empire, which has been a long time coming...

It is a long wait, yes. I thought that just about everyone had decided about The Brittas Empire that the end was the end - okay it might live on a little bit on UK Gold, but I really didnt think anyone was even going to conceive of the possibility of doing DVDs. Even on video it was... not half-hearted, but just sticking it out.

There was just a best of episodes tape in the UK, wasnt there? Not a series release.

Thats right. I remember once trying to get a copy of it and they said, "Oh no, weve stopped running that now, weve stopped production of that." So the DVD did come as a slight shock. It was a better show than people give it credit for, and any way at all that it can be perpetuated, the better.

Those were sitcom days, and nine million [viewers] was pretty good. It was behind the likes of Only Fools and Horses, but just nudging the tale of Keeping Up Appearances. It did very well - seven seasons, Christmas specials... cant be too bad!

In these days of niche markets, I think Brittas was one of those last shows that really was for the family. There was something in it for everyone. It was anarchic enough for people who liked that sort of thing, but accessible enough for the whole family. Like many worthwhile sitcoms it created its own world, [one] of escapism.

It was purely situation comedy. I remember when I got the script, having had Red Dwarf scripts for all those years, I looked at it and thought, Hang on, where are the jokes? Then I was rightly told by the producer, Mike Stephens, that the laughs will come when the situation and characters build. And thats exactly what happened.

Mr Flibble picked up a barbell and promptly found himself pinned below the beak. Andrew shrugged and moved on. How did you get involved with the show originally?

At the middle or end of 1990 I was doing a tour in a play, and my agent said this script had arrived - and to be fair to him, when I thought, Where are the gags? he said to me, "Look, situation comedy takes a while to get going. Lets give this one a whirl. Because even if this one isnt a success and isnt very good, at least people start to think of you as someone who plays leads." Not that I was on the threshold of not doing it, but he did make me see sense. I did it, and, a lot like Red Dwarf, after two series it really started to hit home. And a little monster was born.

The next-door neighbour was [removed]. It was one of those things where you set off looking for the comedic playing fields, and that was one that collided a bit with some of the other characters. So we figured [it was better to have] one less set-up there.

Like any sitcom it had its hallmarks - the staff meeting at the beginning where most of the shows were set up, and then the mounting chaos for the next twenty minutes. Some great characters - Colin, of course. And Ive got two children and one is still a baby - and people still say to me, Do you keep them in drawers? (Laughs)

How did you get on with that, different, regular CAST?

We got on very well as a team - I was impressed by them all. Especially - theyll probably hit me on the head for this - the heavyweights in the cast, people like Harriet Thorpe, Philippa Hayward, Mike Burns and Julia St John. They were great, they were superb to work with, and you do learn a lot from other comedy people.

We also had Jill Greenacre, Tim Marriott and Russell Porter. They were members of the cast that I maybe hadnt heard of (though Id heard of Jill because Id just done a play with her!), but who were all, again, very good.

All of them were proper actors, of course, not comics - which must have been very different from the dancers, comics and poets of Red Dwarf...

They do approach a piece from a different angle - which is refreshing; its a change. With Red Dwarf youve got the guys sitting around the table and its pretty... every man for himself! (Laughs) But we all know that weve got to mould it into a team piece, which we do. But with Brittas its much more building the scene, motivation. Why would this character do this? The actors point of view.

On Dwarf youre known for being the straight one compared to Craig or Robert, but I believe you were considered the live-wire on Brittas...

Exactly. I guess compared to some members of the Brittas cast I was pretty mad. We were all fairly straightforward people, there was no-one who was completely bananas. (Laughs) I was pretty sane compared to some of the members of the Red Dwarf cast - sane in inverted commas, of course! - but on occasion I was looked on as insane - again in inverted commas - by the cast of Brittas.

We did it side by side, essentially, which is why for Red Dwarf series VII I only contributed to a couple of the shows. I really was just exhausted from doing these shows back to back. Although they only took three months each, it was incredible how close to each other they were.

Mr Flibble, finally free and now working out with a punch bag, asked Andrew to forward a question. What were the performance origins for the Brittas CHARACTER?

Initially I think some people wanted me to do the character just like Rimmer, but I thought that would be a little bit boring for me, first of all. I thought he might turn out to be a little too much like the Simon Cadell character in Hi-De-Hi - I had lots of misgivings, reservations, about doing him just like Rimmer. So I said, Why dont we make him more of a working class lad whos been to college? [In Brittas voice] Give him one of those slight Estuary accents...

I remember in the first series me and the producer had a bit of a tug of war over how far the character should go down that road. But by the second series the writers [Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss] had seen what Id been doing with it in the first. [Having] the voice and the walk helps the writers picture it in their minds, helps it go down on paper more easily.

I believe there were a couple of real-life influences, too...

I got my Equity card touring in the early days with Diana Dors and The Bachelors - it feels like centuries ago! (laughs) - and there was a band we toured with, and their musical director was a guy called Dave Carson, and he spoke in a certain way. I exaggerated it, amplified it, and gave it to Brittas.

The physical mannerisms came from my neighbour in East Cheam at the time, who was the life and soul of the party. He used to have all these parties and I remember him talking to the people: Right folks, were going to have a drink here, and then Ive booked a table for 48 - the restaurant manager now loves me ... So all the physical movements, the ten-to-two stance, the hands, I took on board and put together with the voice.

Watching My Flibble get whacked across the room by his punch bag reminded Andrew that Chris is a man who keeps fit. Did that affect the way you thought about the show at all?

Oddly enough, at around that time I dont think I was that fit. Now Im probably as fit as Ive ever been. I was always aware of fitness, and I was pretty fit at school because I did rowing. But I knew that when playing Brittas Id have to look reasonably fit, and fortunately Ive got the metabolic rate - or did at that time - that I never got totally fat. You cant be the physical shape of Ken Clarke and be a fitness instructor! (Laughs)

A note we should make for female fans - Chris does wear shorts quite a bit in the show.

Exactly, yes - we had tight little shorts that we had to wear on occasion. And those lovely green T-shirts...

You do seem to end up having to exercise on camera - it was the same on Dwarf!

Oh yeah, the exercise bike - and doing star jumps with myself. [Brittas] was quite physically demanding, you know - getting soaked, having things hurled at you. Probably the most strenuous bit of Brittas work, though, was being chased by a dog! (Laughs) At the end of one of the shows Mrs Brittass dog chases me.

Which brings us to the Brittas exercising with the credits on his clothing title sequence...

With my shoes going up [with the writers names on]! God yes! I remember that - youve brought that memory back! I had my doubts about using that as the credits, but again the producer persuaded me that it was a good idea. Now its... synonymous.

Picking himself up, Mr Flibble returned to the treadmill. The last two series of Brittas had NEW WRITERS - what happened there?

Rumour has it that, after about series one of Brittas, one of the writers kept writing to the producer saying, Great to have done that series, but Im afraid weve got no more ideas and I dont believe we can write another series. I think he did that for every series right up until they left, series five! (Laughs) But the other writer just never said no...

I think what the new writers did was take on board what the guys had done, that formula, and then just let their minds go wild. But I do think that in some of those last two seasons you could... see the joins. Fegan and Norrisss scripts were beautiful in terms of the story and characters - they never resorted to gags. Everything was perfectly in character, they werent afraid of ending a scene without a laugh. The rhythm and the structure were spot on.

Im not saying the others werent good... in fact one of my favourite episodes is a Terry Kyan script about a shark in the swimming pool. Thats one of my best memories - Brittas in a home counties leisure centre explaining to a lady that her daughter may have been eaten by a shark! (Laughs)

Will we ever see Gordon Brittas again?

Every time I see Mike Stephens, or some of the other people from the cast, I always remember talking right at the end about a day in 15 years time where they all meet up on a cruise liner. We all find our way back to each other somehow. Maybe when the people at the BBC who were fans of the show get into the [top] positions...

Weve not seen you on TV for a while - has that been by choice?

I did A Prince Among Men with the same team as Brittas, but it didnt really work - although I dont think it failed as badly as a lot of people think. I think it coincided with a world where people were tiring of situation comedy and wanted to watch people decorate rooms and cook meals.

It seemed to be missing the satire that was intended in a show about a former-footballer-celebrity...

I think youre right - thats more how I wanted it to be. But others wanted a more knock-about, gag-based sitcom. I guess it was a kind of low point in my career, and with the influx of Changing Rooms and their ilk... I dont know. TV at the moment I dont watch that much - because Im not that interested in cooking or decorating my house! (Laughs)

Still, theres always the movies. How has TOMB RAIDER changed your career?

In a strange kind of way I dont think it did! (Laughs) It had an influence on how people thought of me, but it wasnt the right role to have people think, snap him up for this, that and the other. Who knows, maybe after the second one thatll change.

How have things changed on the second film, the ridiculously-long-named Lara Croft Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life?

It was actually quite comforting for myself and Noah [Taylor, who plays Brice] - and obviously Angelina - to be the three regulars and get a new cast of goodies and baddies around us. The first film, in my own humble opinion, did get a bit bogged-down - in an ideal world itd be action-serenity-action-serenity, but occasionally it was action-boredom-action-boredom... (Laughs)

Whereas this one is a lot more... jumpy. Its more James Bond, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It skips along beautifully. I think theres also a little bit more humour in it... which wouldnt be hard. (Laughs) I think its going to a much more watchable film. Ive seen some of it, because I was doing dialogue [re-recording] for the film.

They also took you abroad this time...

We went to Kenya - that was fantastic. It was exciting on many levels, a breathtaking 12 days - not just because of the sheer enormity of Kenya and the beauty, all the reasons people talk about Kenya, but also on a social scale as well. It was an eye-opener.

We had Jan de Bont directing this one, who directed Speed, which is one of my favourite films of recent times. He knows how to put together an action film, and thats what you get with this one. There are a lot of differences - and all for the good, really.

You also get a funky bit of combat with quarterstaffs...

In both Tomb Raiders Ive had my sort of big moment, which in the first one was the gunfight - which wasnt a sort of Red Dwarf, Toys R Us, painted grey... (Laughs) Thats being very unkind. Using those weapons was fun, but in Tomb Raider you get the real McCoy and a days training with the weapons trainer. That was good - we only had a few hours, but he said to me, Chris, you seem to be a bit of a natural at this. (Laughs) All those years in the cadets obviously held me in good stead!

However on Tomb Raider 2, the stick fight was another matter. I really did need training. A fantastic girl called Nicky Berwick - who is like a 10,000-time European champion at stick fighting - trained me up, and played the part of Lara [to rehearse] our scene. And I had many weeks to learn how to do it, poor Angelina had ten minutes at lunch - if she wasnt learning how to ride a motorbike or a horse.

As Mr Flibble got a flipper caught in the treadmill and wrapped himself around the device, Andrew asked what else Chris has in the pipeline.

Interestingly theres a presenting job at the moment thats about all the things that I love, such as machines, that might be happening on the Discovery Channel. Im quite excited, but its still early days - but Ill let the fans know through the site when it happens. But obviously the most exciting thing at the moment is the Red Dwarf movie.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Chris Barrie, and now that its over... Mr Flibble is very cross.

You can grab Brittas series one right now from the Red Dwarf Shop.