The art of radio self-satire | Part 3…

The question I’m struggling with in this series of articles is: does the BBC have a sense of humour? Individual members of staff certainly do. I’ve worked with some of the best over the years.

But what about as a large corporate cultural institution: one that’s up there in British society with the likes of the Church, the State and the Judiciary? The capital-letter nouns are intentional.

Now, commentators have long satirised these institutions. You’ve only to pick up a copy of Private Eye magazine each fortnight to find evidence of that lampooning and criticism. But what about those organisations themselves?

I’ll leave others to consider the comedy and satire from within the Church, the legal profession and politicians. (But perhaps I could suggest, in passing, All Gas and Gaiters, Rumpole of the Bailey, and Yes Minister?)

No, here I want to continue with my historical meander through BBC programmes that poke fun at, well, the BBC itself.

This present series of articles has evolved from a talk I gave at an academic conference in Luton, England, at the end of 2022 – the Beeb’s centenary year.

That, in turn, was based on research for my current book – which examines novels, popular music, movies, and art that have been inspired by radio listening: Martin Cooper (2022), Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture: The Sounds of British Broadcasting over the Decades, New York: Bloomsbury.

You can read about my methods in chapter 1 – which is available to look at for free online here:

You can pre-order a paperback edition of my book here:

So far, I’ve considered the 1920s and 30s in the first essay.

And I’ve talked about radio satire during and after the Second World War in the second piece.

So, now I turn my attention to the baby boomer times, when that generation came of age and joined the arts and media industries – from the 1970s to the turning the century.

I’m a boomer myself, so all of these examples I hold dear to my heart. And I warn you now that as a resident of God’s own county (Yorkshire) there’s some critical humour about culinary tastes and eating etiquette (we call it “tea” round here; “dinner” is what we eat in the middle of the day).

If you live south of Sheffield, you’ll not appreciate how deliciously funny some of the stuff in the later part of this piece is. Just saying.

The Burkiss Way (1976–80) was a late-night BBC Radio 4 show of surreal sketches and satire. It repeatedly mocked the creator of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams – who himself had contributed early sketches to The Burkiss Way.

One episode (S05E02), called ‘Rise from the Grave the Burkiss Way’ and first aired on 9 April 1979, began:

‘But now the Scriptwriter’s Guide to the Galaxy, by a man who would rather write Doctor Who’

It was a snide reference to Adams’s very short time as a writer for the time-lord TV series.

In the mid-1980s there was the gently observed comedy of Delve Special (1984–8) written by Tony Sarchet.

It starred a young Stephen Fry as an inept investigative reporter parodying the Checkpoint programmes (1973–85) presented by Roger Cook.

It has not, in my opinion, aged well. In part, perhaps, because the earnest-sounding journalism championed by Cook no longer exists on the airwaves. As a result, Fry’s satire rather falls flat. Let me know what you think.

Rolling news formats, rapidly developing on TV as well as radio in the 90s, provoked Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s On the Hour (1991–2). I especially like “The Soiled Nut” society that’s recreating a battle in Essex, with awful results… listen on.

Together with its TV version, The Day Today, this series launched Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan, who initially presented the sports news with comic ineptitude.

Some sketches in On The Hour included direct criticism of intrusive journalism, such as:

“Excuse me. You’re critically injured with a shattered pelvis, pneumothorax and a partially torn off face. How do you feel?”

In addition, On The Hour poked fun at the overly serious continuity announcements of national BBC radio:

On the Hour continues on this frequency. If you wish to hear Radio 4’s normal programmes, here’s a packet of sand and a piece of old skin.”

Coogan went on to create TV, movie and online vehicles for Partridge – the quintessentially awful local radio presenter.

As for local radio itself, it’s featured in a number of BBC comedy series.

A satire of the inane and sometimes pointless chatter on BBC Local Radio and commercial ILR appeared in the Radio 4 series Radio Active (1980–7).

This was harsher than The Burkiss Way. For example, Capital Radio’s agony aunt Anna Raeburn became Anna Rabies – who was aggressively rude to all and sundry, not just her callers.

Gentler – self-deprecating – humour was to be found in Radio Shuttleworth (BBC Radio 4, 1998–2000), created by Graham Fellows. One of its jingles sang,

‘Serving the Sheffield region and a little bit further, even’.

Again, it was a parody of some of the inconsequential speech items on local radio. For example, one episode (S02E02, 2000) had Richard Whiteley being interviewed, doing the washing up, drinking too much sherry, and attempting to sing a musical duet. Delicious understated comedy.

Other classic tracks from the Shuttleworth oeuvre include “Smells Like White Spirit”, “One Cup of Tea Is Never Enough (But 2 is 1 Too Many!)”, and a live tour entitled, “One Foot in the Gravy”. Outrageously funny, yet gentle comedy.

In the fourth edition of this series of pieces, I’ll consider BBC shows from the millennium to the present day. Let me know if you have any favourites.

I’ll, of course, include toe-curling scenes from W1A (“Look, I’m not being funny or anything but…”)

Drop me a comment in the box below. Although if you’re currently either staff or freelance for a major media organisation you may need to check your latest guidelines… Just saying.

And don’t forget to subscribe. Unlike other writing platforms that send you regular bits and bobs, there’s no charge here for what you read.

One thought on “The art of radio self-satire | Part 3…

  1. Thanks Martin, enjoy learning about the past shows I don’t know. Love Partridge and W1A. First show that comes to mind since 2000 to possibly consider – Down the Line 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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