by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #10, 1994)
One of the most obscure British radio shows, The Burkiss Way is paradoxically one of the very best. Running for five series on BBC Radio 4 from 1976 to 1980, it was full of jokes, tricks, imagination and cleverness. Its origins can be traced back to an Open University spoof on highbrow Radio 3. The Half-Open University presented various skits representing lectures, introduced by a professor who established an unusual rapport with his distant students: ‘Stop sniggering, Perkins of the Upper Clyde.’ The show was innovative and the potential for a series apparent. The following year, pro-ducer Simon Brett took the writers and cast for a short journey up the dial and a surrealist classic began.
The stars were originally Denise Coffey, Nigel Rees, Chris Emmett and Fred Harris, but after the first series Jo Kendall (of I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again fame) took over Denise’s role. Perhaps more famous than the cast are the main writers, Andrew Marshall (a friend of Douglas Adams’ and consequently the inspiration for Marvin, the paranoid android in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and bearded David Renwick. A few others contributed to odd shows, including Adams, whose sketch from the Cambridge Footlights about a repeatedly unsuccessful kamikaze pilot was included in the 18th episode. The shows were initially produced by Simon Brett (of Stepney), later by John Lloyd (of Europe) and David Hatch (of the BBC).
Originally the show took the form of radio’s first correspondence course, early editions including testimonials from satisfied customers: ‘I used to be a weedy, gutless and insignificant apology for a human being. Men would push me aside in the street and punch me on the nose and knock my head off and saw my stomach up. . . and it started to get me down. Then a friend introduced me to The Burkiss Way and immediately it changed my life. After just two weeks of the Burkiss course in sado-masochism, I now enjoy having my head knocked off and my stomach sawn up.’ The course was run by its founder, Professor Emil Burkiss, and offered help for those lacking in self-confidence: ‘Mention the name Fiona Smoth in Shepherds Bush and people just laugh. “She’s stupid”, they say. “She’s ugly, untalented and a complete social failure”. But do I care? No. Because as you look at me today I am a different woman. I am Doris Spedding of Bayswater, and one of the people who laugh at Fiona Smoth. And I owe it all to The Burkiss Way.’ Radio listeners were offered everything they’d ever dea sired: ‘Ladies, would you like to have power over men? Try Burkiss naughty underwear. The new inflatable temptress bra with the peek-a-boo fluorescent shoulder straps and the incredible seductress revolving silk knickers with reversible lace thigh enhancers. Yes, photograph him in these and he’ll do anything to get the negatives.’ The benefits were manifold:
‘The Burkiss Way showed me how to become the sort of man who’s made love to more women than he’s had hot dinners. All I have to do is eat regularly in British Rail buffets.’
The course offered was in ‘dynamic living’, a buzz-word of the late ‘70’s. Each episode was billed in the Radio Times with a ‘lesson’ number, and a title which gave a rough theme for skits. Thus Gain Spiritual Fulfilment The Burkiss Way has items of a religious nature (‘Being in church is not a time to sit and stare at the knees of the girl in the adjoining pew. It’s a time to think of higher things.’) and Get Off With Life The Burkiss Way is tainted with a legal flavour. The latter replaces Be Patient The Burkiss Way, which is postponed for four weeks, and sees The Burkiss Way arrested for contravening §14 of the BBC Charter, on trial on three charges of ‘being funny’— ‘Legal representatives for our listeners have advised us to plead “not guilty’. One of these charges concerns the joke told in an earlier show: ‘We’re omitting the reference to Nicholas Parsons’ brain transplant and how the monkey is struggling for recovery, because we don’t want to get any cheap laughs at his expense’. The judge asks the counsel for the defence how he wishes to plead—‘in semaphore, in crab language or in grand opera?’
Later, as the shows got wilder and the themes became less obvious, they were even making things difficult for archivists. Lessons 31 and 32 were combined into one half hour, with Lesson 32 supposedly the start of a new series! The following week’s show, The Last Burkiss Way, wasn’t, and seven days later, The Next To Last Burkiss Way, which was the last in the series had cheeky references to ‘next week’s show’. Is Britain Going The Burkiss Way? was split across two weeks (Lessons 37 and 38), and split mid-sentence, naturally. The titles even became unmanageable: Lesson 45 was entitled Write extremely long titles with lots and lots of words in, like this, so that the RADIO TIMES will have to allot more space than the measly half a centimetre of billing space we usually get and at least it’ll look a bit more prominent on the page, although nowhere near the 50 column inches they give to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy The Burkiss Way. But the ultimate trick was to include two Lesson 39’s, both appropriately titled Repeat Yourself The Burkiss Way. The second of these began as a re-run of the first for more than a minute, proceeding with a new episode after an apology that the wrong tape had been loaded.
The challenge for Marshall and Renwick was to come up with an innovative new format for the series. Post-Python, a half-hour collection of unrelated sketches with clearly defined beginnings and endings no longer seemed revolutionary. The Burkiss Way approach saw sketches running into each other, taking different, unexpected tacks—a sketch with General Custer launching his attack of Bob Hope-type gags on Chief Sitting Bull’s braves at Little Big Horn, turns out to be a film extract played at a special tribute night being held at the Talk Of The Town nightclub. Sitting Bull is one of the many mass-murderers and butchers who have gathered for a special evening to honour Genghis Khan’s eight hundred years in slaughter-biz. Often the show repeatedly returns to an earlier sketch, but always in a logical fashion.
The last edition of 1977 starts with a favourite target—the tacky quiz show. This one is ‘The Dinosaur Cheese Interlude’, in which contestants have great difficulty satisfying the requirements of the game—answering questions without mentioning a type of cheese or a species of dinosaur. Most don’t seem to be able to get further than giving their names. Subsequent sketches are brought to an abrupt halt when a character unintentionally says ‘cheddar’ or ‘stegosaurus’. A later episode centres around a Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected send-up (‘starring Chubby Checker with no clothes on as the rather unpleasant twist’), with a stranger on a train inviting a lady to play a Russian Roulette video game. A cassette is proffered, containing five blank run-of-the-mill TV shows and the deadly component—a never-ending tape of Radio 4 UK. They begin after tossing a British Rail salad to see who starts (‘Your call’—’Snails’—‘Snails it is!’), each play of the tape launching a different skit.
Amongst the various and assorted characters produced by the versatile cast, a few regulars emerged. One was the world’s most important Jewish impresario, Lord Russian-Emigré, with his characteristic big cigar and entourage of ‘yes men’—a close relation to Bernard Delfont or Lew Grade. He could be found in his natural office habitat, barking orders into the intercom:
‘Max, get me the man who handles the Nolan sisters and tell him it’s ruining their image. Next, get me their image and use it to disinfect the drains. Then go into my bathroom and take down the mirror. I never see myself without an appointment.’ His Lordship was the man responsible for bringing the film version of the mathematical numbers system to our screens, and the television series about the nativity, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the Three Kings.
But star billing was reserved for Chris Emmett’s snivelling, grimy, little toerag, Eric Pode of Croydon, who could pop up at any time mid-sketch. He became the subject of short interview in most shows, his replies a collection of amusing one-liners (‘I nicked that one off Bob Monkhouse’—‘Now there’s a switch’). In Lesson 45 it turns out he has been performing professionally: ‘I see you’re playing somewhere rather interesting at the moment.’ — ‘No, I was just getting me handkerchief out.’ He is even contemplating matrimony: ‘My new girlfriend is expecting a little one. I don’t think she’ll be disappointed.’ In the last Burkiss, Mr. Croydon makes public his plans to move into a new line of work—carrying out vasectomies on goats. No kidding.
One of the most striking qualities of The Burkiss Way is the wealth of comic ideas. Not only is there a show which finishes very early—continuing with an old film—and a show which supposedly starts 25 minutes late (Lesson 12: Make Short Comedy Programmes The Burkiss Way), but there is another which begins with the closing credits, continues with Dean Martin’s drunken sign-off—’Goodnight from dynamic livers everywhere’—and is then interrupted with an apology that the show appears to be running backwards.
Sadly, in Lesson 22 there is an accident—the show is dropped, shattering into many fragments. These are hastily reassembled as well as can be expected under the circumstances, however continuity suffers somewhat. Marshall and Renwick also experimented with false endings (sometimes giving false information about next week’s programmes!) and making things difficult and embarrassing for the BBC Radio 4 continuity announcer following the show. Sometimes film concepts were transferred to radio—Lesson 13 presents the Cinemascope version of ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’, entitled ‘Tiny On The Bount’ since all the beginnings and endings of sentences won’t fit on the small screen wireless. In Lesson 23, stunt men are brought on to deliver sketch punch-lines (‘Well, would you dare say it?’).
In February 1977, The Burkiss Way became the subject of This Is Your Life. Eamonn Andrews sets up the ruse by disguising himself as a joke (‘There — that didn’t take long’) and hides on page three of the script. The show is taken on a trip down memory lane, from birth (‘Congratulations sir, it’s a BBC comedy!’) to early achievements: ‘Do you remember this laugh? Yes, it was the very first laugh you ever got—way back on show eleven’. A straight man from an early sketch recalls behind-the-scenes problems. Finally, the closing signature tune has been flown in from New South Wales, and the credits are read in an Aussie accent.
Despite their fondness for unconventionality, the writers did not eschew good old-fashioned jokes. Some were of a very high standard, but unfortunately we only have space for the one about the American gambler, who in two hours had collected over 2,000 G’s—it was the worst game of scrabble he’d ever had. Or the one about the poor young gravedigger who was struggling to bring up a family of four, when his shovel broke. Or maybe we can just squeeze in the one about the man who is unemployed because he can’t keep a job down, on a strict diet because he can’t keep his food down and has sixteen children. Above all, the show never took itself seriously—sketches featured characters called ‘Mr. Funnylines’ or ‘Mr. Differentperson’ & ‘Mr. Sameperson’ , and a South Bank Show parody was introduced by ‘a man squeezing his nose in order to sound like Melvyn Bragg.’
The team had fun with their versions of other radio and TV programmes. The impersonations of personalities from The Archers’ Walter Gabriel to interviewer Michael Parkinson are generally surprisingly accurate. The Burkiss Way presented their interpretations of Just A Minute, A Book At Bedtime, Blakes 7, Top Of The Pops, World of Sport, the Carry On films, wartime ITMA and Dick Barton—Special Agent. Some included unlikely guests—Arthur C. Clarke on Does The Team Think and Genghis Khan popped up on both The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Mongols From The Ministry. However, in Lesson 41 (broadcast on the 26th December 1979 and naturally titled Eric Pode of Croydon’s Easter Special), the real Peter Jones hit back. After a false ending, familiar space music faded up and Jones began reading in a familiar fashion:
‘Somewhere in the shady part of the Milky Way, just outside a small bluish star orbited by a few damp planets of dubiously desirable habitation, there is a tiny hole in the electromagnetic airspace. To plug this void in the continuum, the inscrutable monoliths of the collapsing star system of Radio 4 Light Entertainment occasionally employ a tiny imperceptible device known as The Burkiss Way. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy defines this as “a programme of infinite tedium, which gets cheap laughs by doing pathetic parodies of other much more successful shows. Its impressions are notoriously unrecognisable. This one, for instance, sounds absolutely nothing like me. And as if that weren’t bad enough, it invariably ends in a silly fashion, just when you least . . . ‘Needless to say, the show breaks off at this point.’
A few items later surfaced in other shows, strangely in better versions than the originals, largely due to thorough rewriting. A Mastermind parody with the contestant answering one question behind each time was expanded into a very funny and clever spot for The Two Ronnies. A sketch from Lesson 23 set in a modern hi-fi shop, with an old-fashioned, timid man trying to buy a ‘gramophone’ from a smartarse young salesman, cropped up in the 1980 series of Not The Nine 0‘Clock News, performed by Mel Smith and Rowan Atkinson.
In 1981, a hardback book of the show, by Marshall & Renwick, was published by George Allen & Unwin under the title Bestseller! It purported to be a collection of the life works of Eric Pode found in a strong-box by the Controller of Programmes at Anglia Television. It consisted of diary entries, school tests, published stories, advertisements and submitted radio/TV scripts (together with the inevitable letters of rejection). Most of these works were taken from the radio scripts and novelised or even put into cartoon form! However there were also original items. One was a Painting By Numbers picture depicting an outline of a sexily-posed naked woman, but with every area marked to be coloured white. The picture’s caption read ‘Christmas Snow Scene’.
Post-Burkiss, the writers moved on to an LWT political comedy series, Whoops Apocalypse (a whimsical coverage of Armageddon), which also became a book, a film and a scented nasal spray. This began an association with Alexei Sayle, and his BBC-TV series, Stuff, which is probably the closest we’ll get to a televisual Burkiss Way. Spike Milligan, being a Burkiss fan, invited Marshall and Renwick to contribute to his 1982 TV series, There A Lot Of It About. Later they worked separately on different sitcoms – Marshall on Two Point Four Children, Renwick on One Foot In The Grave – and together on If You See God, Tell Him. Which only goes to prove what dynamic living can do for one.
The main (discernible!) sketches are itemised.
The Half-Open University
Both editions first broadcast on Radio 3 (stereo).
Cast: Timothy Davies, Chris Emmett, Christine Ozanne, Nigel Rees
Script: Andrew Marshall, John Mason, David Renwick
Archimedes’ principle/Common frog — This Is Your Life/Germ warfare/Sound/Heat/Gases/Frankenstein
Course 2: History, etc
Joke recital/Prehistory/Ancient World of Sport/Caxton/The Great Frost of London/The guillotine/King Charles
THE BURKISS WAY
All editions first broadcast on Radio 4 (stereo from series 4).
Cast: Denise Coffey (series 1), Jo Kendall (series 2 onwards), Chris Emmett, Fred Harris, Nigel Rees
Script: Andrew Marshall, David Renwick, John Mason (series 1 only)
27.8.76 Lesson 1: Peel Bananas The Burkiss Way
Man accused of being Max Bygraves/Sufferer from death/Harry Nelson, P.I. — The kidnapped orchestra
3.9.76 Lesson 2: Pass Examinations The Burkiss Way
The Aunty Game/University for sheep/Escape from Stalag 10
10.9.76 Lesson 3: Escape From Prison The Burkiss Way
Prison/Sport/The Count of Monte Cristo
17.9.76 Lesson 4: Solve Murders The Burkiss Way
Murder on a train not nearly as famous as the Orient Express
24.9.76 Lesson 5: Keep Unfit The Burkiss Way
British television-watching Olympics/Buying a box of matches/The strange case of Dr. Jekyll
1.10.76 Lesson 6: Win Awards The Burkiss Way (¼ hour only)
Awards show/The Scarlet Pimpernel
15.12.76 Lesson 7: Influence Friends And Win People The Burkiss Way
Whizzo Dead Rat Company/Ask the Cleverdicks/Nickertwist Copperby
22.12.76 Lesson 8: Plan Christmas Schedules The Burkiss Way
Children’s hospital/Squid/A Stiff Called Ironside/Ticket collector/Celebrity Morons
29.12.76 Lesson 9: Gain Spiritual Fulfilment The Burkiss Way
Insurance against becoming Jewish/Installing a new pope/The Pantomime Gang
5.1.77 Lesson 10: Govern Britain The Burkiss Way
Bielection toad vote/Drycleaners/Liberals’ pun bill — The Puns of Navarone
12.1.77 Lesson 11: Journey Into The Unknown The Burkiss Way
Reincarnation as a buffalo/Erich von Contrick’s book/Orpheus & Eurydice Sproat
19.1.77 Lesson 12: Make Short Comedy Programmes The Burkiss Way
Radio Times/Patents Office/Eurovision Raquel Welch gag contest
26.1.77 Lesson 13: Commemorate Jubilees The Burkiss Way
Tiny on the Bount/Garage mechanic/The Hound of the Baskervilles
2.2.77 Lesson 14: Do You-Know-What The Burkiss Way
Sketch is expected/Gnat watchers/Documentary addiction/Dental check-up with Judge Jeffries
9.2.77 Lesson 15: Skive From School The Burkiss Way
Edgar Lustgarden’s annals of Scotland Yard/Moses Minor and the boys of Greyfriars
16.2.77 Lesson 16: Get Off With Life The Burkiss Way
The Burkiss Way on trial/Treasure Island Dairies/Pencil-poking plays/Miss Old Bailey 1977
23.2.77 Lesson 17: This Is Your Life The Burkiss Way
Speeding continuity announcer/Irritating man on train/Doctor/The legion of superheroes
2.3.77 Lesson 18: Become A Rock Star The Burkiss Way
9.3.77 Lesson 19: Replace The Burkiss Way
The Mongols from the Ministry/Just A Minute/Miss Quasimodo’s air hostess interview/Travel agent/Doctor No
15.11.77 Lesson 20: Discover Gravity The Burkiss Way
Children’s Favourites with Uncle Hitler/The life of Sir Isaac Newton/VAT Inspector/Nativity TV series
22.11.77 Lesson 21: Get Cut Off The Bur
Go to the Lavatory/PM Reports comedy leak/The Arabian Nights
29.11.77 Lesson 22: How To Succeed In Business The Burkiss Way
It’s That Script Again/Little Women/Cruelty to animals/Satan’s planning application/The Loan Arranger
6.12.77 Lesson 23: Son Of The Burkiss Way
13.12.77 Lesson 24: One Hour To Burkiss Way
The Alarmist Report/Research plant/Investment consultant/Mr and Mrs/Leg-sawing/The VAT man
20.12.77 Lesson 25: Not To Be Unwrapped The Burkiss Way
Tales from the Script/Lord Tennyson meets Queen Victoria/Lord Hackinbottom’s Last Will/Nose City
27. 12.77 Lesson 26: First Prize The Burkiss Way
The Cheapo Quiz/The Dinosaur-Cheese Interlude/Whizzo Holidays/Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon/Script conference
3.1.78 Lesson 27: Around The World The Burkiss Way
Book critics/Around the World in Eighty Days/Sex Factor Coloured Water Bottlers Ltd
10.1.78 Lesson 28: Ignore These Programme Titles The Burkiss Way
Dick Barton/Doorhandle of the Day/Napoleon & Josephine/Menswear shop/The Lives of the Great Composers
17.1.78 Lesson 29: Complain About The Burkiss Way.
Desert Island Wobblies/All You Need Is Viewers/Charles Darwin/Harrabs board meeting/Royal Heritage
24.1.78 Lesson 30: Not The Burkiss Way
Tonight/Falling to pieces/Galileos before the Curia/World of Sport
31.1.78 Lesson 31:* Bruce’s Choice
Star Bores/Heaven/Beat the Granny/Travel agent
31.1.78 Lesson 32: * Start New Series The Burkiss Way
Ivan the Terrible/Embarrassment of the Century
(* combined into one ½ hour episode)
7.2.78 Lesson 33: The Last Burkiss Way
Custer’s Last Stand/Genghis Khan/Hi-fi shop/Golf tournament/The Old Grey Whistle Test/Avogadro’s Playhouse
14.2.78 Lesson 34: The Next To Last Burkiss Way
The Holy Bible/Doctor Batman and Robin/Underpants donor/Syrup on Sunday/Robin Hood
2.4.79 Lesson 35: Remember The Burkiss Way
The Game Show Game/The Blood Gushing All Over the Screen in Question/The fall of the Roman Empire
9.4.79 Lesson 36: Rise From The Grave The Burkiss Way
The Scriptwriter’s Guide to the Galaxy/Hitchcock’s Half Hour — Dracula/Undertakers/Oedipus Rex film/Maternity ward
16.4.79 Lesson 37: Is Britain Going The Burkiss Way? (Part 1)
The Homecoming by Harold Pinter/David Frost’s global clipboard/All Opium of the Masses Great and Small/Hospital/Just A Minute/Adam & Eve/Moses
16.4.79 Lesson 38: Is Britain Going The Burkiss Way? (Part 2)
Supplying the poets/The War of the Worlds/Ordering drinks/The South Bank Show
30.4.79 Lesson 39: Repeat Yourself The Burkiss Way
Edward & Mr. Simpson/The Hound of the Baskervilles/Snow White/Selling a house
7.5.79 Lesson 39: Repeat Yourself The Burkiss Way
Edward & Mr. Simpson/Blankety Blank/The Eamonn Andrews Disaster/Mr. William Bunter’s cannibalism/The Zulu wars
14.5.79 Lesson 40: Avoid Like The Plague The Burkiss Way
The Masque of the Red Death/Houdini/The French Revolution
Guest star: Tim Brooke-Taylor
26.12.79 Lesson 41: Eric Pode Of Croydon’s Easter Special
Face the Smart Alecs/Junk Box Jury/Terminal Hogmanay/Nixon’s middle name/Aquarius/The Superstars/The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Guest star: Peter Jones
11.10.80 Lesson 42: The Man From The Burkiss Way
Tales of the Unexpected/Dentist/Soul Destroying Job
18.10.80 Lesson 43: Sack The Burkiss Way
Week Ending credits/The Trojan wars/Spotty Young Cleverdicks of the Year/Eddie’s 24-hour all-night sniffery/Family Fortunes
25.10.80 Lesson 44: Love Big Brother The Burkiss Way
Not the Next Week’s News Huddlines/Nineteen Eighty-Four/Lady Marquis-Melville/Catering advisor/Friday Night Saturday Morning
1.11.80 Lesson 45: Write Extremely Long Titles… The Burkiss Way
The Muppet Show with Richard Nixon/The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm/Yesterday in Quango/Thames TV/The Welsh/Looks Familiar
8.11.80 Lesson 46: Settle Out Of Court The Burkiss Way
Things Club/Bob Langley Gives you the Willies/Travel agent/Dr. Magnus Pyke/Amoeba
15.11.80 Lesson 47: Wave Goodbye To CBEs The Burkiss Way
Queen Mother’s birthday/Death-on-Sea/Psychiatrist/The mathematical numbers system/The voyage of Salvador Heyerdali
Guest star: David Jason
Bestseller! — The Life and Death of Eric Pode of Croydon
by Andrew Marshall & David Renwick (George Allen & Unwin 1981)
The Burkiss Way
BBC double cassette ZBBC 1470
a selection of highlights