Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Burkiss Way spoofs The War of the Worlds.

I dimly recall encountering the BBC radio show the Burkiss Way while dial surfing years ago, but I think I was too young then to get to grips with its surreal brand of humour. So it was with some surprise and delight that I recently rediscovered the show and the unexpected fact that it had spoofed the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast, in an edition first broadcast on April 23rd 1979.

The titular character of this weekly comedy show (first broadcast in 1976) was intended to be a professor, who each week would offer a “Burkiss Way” to such dilemmas as how to peel a Banana or how to solve a murder. By the time of the 1979 edition this format had all but been dropped and the show had evolved into a strange mix of loosely connected sketches. I won’t go into a detailed history or analysis of the show here (there’s several very good specialist sites that cover this way better than I can) but the best comparison I can make is to Monty Python, though really the Burkiss Way exists in a strange universe all of its own. Listening to it now, there’s much that would bypass the average person without some knowledge of everyday British life in the late 70s and early 80s, but certainly the episode spoofing the War of the Worlds has broader appeal, and while it will sound odd and even quaint to some, it is well worth tracking down. Unfortunately this episode has not been released commercially, but does feature fairly regularly on various BBC radio channels (broadcast online as well), and thus can be heard if you care to keep a diligent eye on the schedules.

The episode that concerns us here was called Is Britain Going The Burkiss Way (part 2). I should add that there’s zero requirement for you to also seek out part 1, as there is no connection at all. Part 2 starts exactly as part 1 ended, but that’s the totality of the connection, as it then goes off on a completely different and rather wonderful tangent.

Some 4 minutes into a typically meandering interview with a Mr Croydon, the programme is interrupted by an announcement, “which is not to be believed.” The Ministry of Defence is reporting that very large spherical shaped objects have been sighted over several major European cities including Paris, Brussells and Moscow. Radar indicates the objects have come from the direction of Mars and more are likely on the way. The reporter goes on to pronounce, “In accordance with instructions received within the last 5 minutes from Her Majesty’s Government, the domestic radio and television networks, together with the commercial broadcasting stations, are to close down their transmitters in order to block all outgoing radio signals. Listeners are therefore urgently requested to switch off their radio sets please, NOW!”

While it would be funny to imagine that some credulous listener actually obeyed this official sounding proclamation (delivered in very precise BBC tones), had they but endured the several seconds of silence that followed (taking a leaf here out of the Orson Welles broadcast), they would have quickly had their fears allayed by the next brilliantly farcical pronouncement. “Right, if you’ve done that, please listen carefully.” The announcer goes on to calmly inform listeners that they can all expect to be massacred by the invading Martians, though there is no need to panic. The show then rambles off into a strange discussion on the merits of 19th century classical poetry, before introducing a wonderfully throaty impersonation of Orson Welles, who proclaims, “Good evening. The story I have to relate tonight is one of unmitigated horror, nameless dread and ineffective throat pastels.”

As the music of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds swells dramatically, the show parodies the opening paragraphs of the original novel and then after a further series of random diversions the listener is transported to Hampstead Heath, where a Martian spacecraft wipes out the gathered onlookers. This is the cue for one of several irreverent nods to the reaction caused by the Orson Welles broadcast, as the announcer gravely informs the listeners that they are listening to a fictional Martian invasion. The gentle mocking of the panic caused by Welles continues with a sketch set in a Government panic station, which definitely reminds me of the Ministry of Funny Walks from Monty Python, as a tremulous member of the public attempts to convince an official that he should be given a job as a government panicker.

Undoubtedly the funniest moment other than the gravel voiced Welles impersonation is the scene set in a Martian pub, where the regulars pour humiliation on one of their compatriots by asking him to order an ever more embarrassing series of effeminate drinks, including a sissy special lemonade and my personal favourite (delivered in a distorted faux alien vocoder voice), a small sweet Nancy’s Ruin.

Brilliant stuff, but did anyone actually get suckered in as in 1938? Well, implausible though it might seem, it has been reported that there were complaints and it seems that one of the announcements in the show warning that it was a fake was added in latter for repeats. I must admit, the moment when the reporter orders listeners to switch off their radios could have done the trick, if and only if, someone had tuned in at that precise moment and was oblivious to the true nature of the Burkiss Way. Other than that, this episode of the Burkiss Way is exactly as it sounds, a very funny and affectionate send up of the Orson Welles broadcast. I wonder if Welles ever heard it, I think he would have enjoyed it.