The Burkiss Way is probably the most underrated comedy show ever to be broadcast on BBC radio, especially at tea time. It had everything: regular characters, catch-phrases, a versatile cast and writing that was original and inventive and which, for the first time since The Goons, fully exploited the medium of radio (though she later claimed she had not been exploited because the nudity had been essential to the plot).
Most of the later programmes had a remarkably complex structure as the programme temporarily left one sketch to join another, often returning to the original sketch much later in the programme. A programme could be dropped on the floor and broken, only to be reassembled in the wrong order, or the closing credits might appear at the beginning of the show, which would then work its way methodically backwards to finish at the beginning. Dummy endings and fake continuity announcements were commonplace.
The scripts may have been downright silly but they also sparkled with a rare intelligence which gave the show virtually instant cult status. Indeed, if we dig down to the show's roots we find that it began life as that almost unique animal, a Radio 3 comedy programme! It was called The Half-Open University. The first of these was effectively a pilot for The Burkiss Way and was broadcast during the August Bank holiday weekend of 1975, on 25 August. The cast consisted of Timothy Davies, Chris Emmett, Christine Ozanne and Nigel Rees; the writers were Andrew Marshall, John Mason and David Renwick, and the producer was Simon Brett (who can be purchased for just a few pence).
It took more than a year for the second Half-Open University programme to appear in the schedules but it was eventually broadcast on 1-Dec-1976, also on Radio 3, but by then the first series of The Burkiss Way had been broadcast on Radio 4 and the second series was about to go out.
The regular cast of The Burkiss Way was Chris Emmett, Fred Harris, Jo Kendall and Nigel Rees.
All the shows were recorded in the BBC's Paris Studio, Lower Regent Street, London and from Lesson 28 onwards the shows were recorded and broadcast in stereo.
The shows were written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick and produced first by Simon Brett 'of Stepney', then later by John Lloyd 'of Europe' and ultimately by David 'Hatch of the BBC' Hatch, who was previously known to fans of radio comedy from his appearances in I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again.
Cast member Nigel Rees recalls:
In the early series, until about 1978, The Burkiss Way was, without doubt, a cult show. I have never known anything like the studio recordings in those days. So many people wanted to come, we had to sit them on the floor and even on the stage.
And it was a very young audience, very un-Radio 4, with pubescent girls wearing T-shirts saying, "I do it the Burkiss Way"! But the BBC - particularly Radio 4 - didn't know what to do with it, as there were a lot of complaints. When David Hatch took over as producer he took the programme in a more mainstream direction.
You may remember there was a lot of fuss made at the time about the very last edition of the programme, Lesson 47 "Wave Goodbye to CBEs the Burkiss Way". It poked fun at the grovelling Radio 4 celebrations of the Queen Mum's 80th birthday (and featured David Jason as a guest).
The then Controller of Radio 4 was so appalled at this lèse-majesty (more against her than the Queen Mum, I'd say) that when the programme was repeated it had had six minutes chopped out of it and they filled up the time with guitar music.
Ironically, producer David Hatch (by this time boss of BBC Radio) duly collected his own CBE in 1994!