The Burkiss Way

From Academic Kids

The Burkiss Way was a BBC Radio 4 sketch comedy series that ran from August 1976 to November 1980. It was written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, with some additional material in early episodes by John Mason, Colin Bostock-Smith, Douglas Adams, John Lloyd and others. The show starred Denise Coffey (series 1 only), Jo Kendall (series 2 onward), Chris Emmett, Nigel Rees and Fred Harris. The series had three producers over the years, announced as "Simon Brett of Stepney", "John Lloyd of Europe", and "David 'Hatch of the BBC' Hatch".

Jo Kendall had previously appeared in I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, and thus has the distinction of having appeared in not one but two acclaimed cult radio comedy shows.

The series had its roots in a pair of half-hour sketch shows entitled Half-Open University which Marshall and Renwick had written with Mason for Radio 3 as a parody of the real life Open University programmes. The first of these shows, broadcast in August 1975, spoofed science, while the second, in December, lampooned history.

In a similar vein, The Burkiss Way was originally based around a fictional series of correspondence courses by "Professor Emil Burkiss" entitled The Burkiss way to Dynamic Living, and each episode, or "lesson", had a number and a title based on one of the course's fictional subjects: "Lesson 1: Peel Bananas the Burkiss Way", "Lesson 2: Pass Examinations the Burkiss Way", and so on. Although these numbers and titles were maintained throughout the show's run, an obvious and rapid change of style early in the second series saw the notion of a radio correspondence course become a hook rather than a narrative device, and it was thereafter mentioned only in passing. From here on the programme continued in a more obvious "sketch" format, though it was to use increasingly Pythonesque devices including surreal, stream-of-consciousness linking, back referencing and aggregation. Like the Pythons before them the writers lampooned and tinkered with the very medium on which the show was broadcast. Radio 4's continuity style was often spoofed. Many later episodes had false endings, sometimes cunningly disguised as genuine continuity announcements. Both the opening and closing credits might be placed anywhere within the show. One particular show ran "backwards" from the closing to the opening credits, while another was allegedly dropped and broken, and subsequently glued together with a tube of BBC coffee, resulting in a disjointed running order with many of the sketches beginning and ending in mid-sentence.

The show's humour was based on surrealism and literary and media parodies, liberally sprinkled with bad puns. In the first series Chris Emmett made several appearances as a nondescript dirty old man; in episode 2, for instance, his character becomes Prime Minister thanks to the Burkiss Way. From series 2 onward this voice became known as "Eric Pode of Croydon", one of the show's few recurring characters and the only one who is not a parody of a real person. Pode is a dirty old man with unsavoury habits, probably inspired by Round the Horne's "J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock".

Each week Pode is interviewed by Fred Harris's character, who calls him "Mister Croydon", is disgusted by his habits and his terrible puns, and always remarks, "isn't he a panic". This was one of the show's only two catchphrases, the other being "there will now be a short intermission". There was usually a series of linked sketches running through each episode, with the "intermission" sketches providing a break.

The fact that Douglas Adams had written for the show did not prevent him from becoming a favourite target for satire in later episodes. He is frequently parodied as "Mister Different Adams" whose catchphrase is "I see comedy as a kind of..." Naturally Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was also a frequent target.

As time went on the show became increasingly surreal, and in several sketches the writers seem to be trying to see just how many strange ideas they can cram into a single sketch. For example, one of the later episodes contains a sketch about an amoeba that has been employed by a company as a token Desmond Dekker and the Aces but who keeps reproducing asexually by mitosis while singing a Lee Dorsey song instead.

The Burkiss Way ran to 47 episodes in six series, but the episode and series numbering are derailed by "Lesson 31" and "Lesson 32" which are actually a single episode masquerading as two separate half-episodes, the first of which ends series 3 and the second of which begins series 4. Just as confusingly, there are two "Lesson 39"s, both entitled "Repeat Yourself the Burkiss Way" which have identical beginnings. The consequence of these irregularities is that "Lesson 33" through the first "Lesson 39" have lesson numbers that are one greater than the actual cumulative episode number; from the second "Lesson 39" onward the correct numbering is restored.

A sketch in Lesson 28 featuring unsubtle references to newscaster Reginald Bosanquet's alcoholism was cut following the first broadcast for reasons of taste and was never reinstated.

The show has gained a cult following over the years and has recently gone into continuous reruns on BBC 7. Listeners have complained about some omissions, which may indicate that episodes have been lost or wiped - most notably Lesson 1 - and some episodes have been broadcast in mono, suggesting that the original stereo masters were wiped. Given the show's enduring popularity, it is almost certain that off-air recordings of the entire run survive in collectors' hands.


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