Essays: The Burke and Burr Laugh-in |
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The Burke and Burr Laugh-in

FRONTING what might well go down in the annals of infamy as the worst television programme ever made, James Burke and Raymond Burr gave The Inventing of America (BBC1) the benefit of their combined talents for light-hearted byplay.

The task was large: to mark America’s Bicentennial Year by mounting a co-production that would dramatise two centuries of continuous technological development — two centuries in which the New World left the Old World floundering far behind. How to shape such an inchoate mass of information? Plainly every variety of television format would need to be drawn upon: documentary, drama, comedy, quiz, comical drama, quizzical comedy, scene individable and poem unlimited. And binding it all together, as Rowan and Martin bound the ‘Laugh-in,’ must be a duo of presenters combining Yankee know-how with Limey sophistication — a symbiosis that by bridging the Atlantic would squeeze this rich concept into a marketable product. Who else but Burke and Burr?

Sporting a Union Jack lapel badge to establish his provenance, James Burke was keener than ever to clue us up on the inner workings of the Industrial Revolution in all its phases. Already a ravening technology buff in his apprentice days on ‘Tomorrow’s World,’ Burke really came to prominence during the first great efflorescence of the BBC Space Studio, where he upstaged everybody else in the room through his sheer fanaticism, the way Rudolf Hess used to stand out a mile even among 100,000 screaming Nazis crammed into the Berlin Sportpalast.

As the Apollo missions waned in fascination, the Space Studio shed personnel until finally only Burke was left, but he never seemed to realise he was alone, so consumed was he by the urge to Explain. At one point the Beeb gave him a whole series all to himself, with a studio audience he could Explain things to. With ‘Inventing America’ he had the chance to Explain 200 years in the life of an entire continent. No wonder the eyes behind his glasses were pin-balling with anticipation. His little expository catch-phrases stumbled over one another in their eagerness to inform. ‘You see?’ ‘Look at this!’ ‘I’ll tell you why.’ ‘Watch!’

Raymond Burr had an Old Glory lapel button and played the parts of all the American characters in the programme. He looked funny without his wheels, but you soon got over it, especially if you were old enough to remember him in his career before ‘Ironside,’ when he was still vertical. Burr started off in Hollywood as a heavy, with nothing special to contribute except a pair of shoulders so wide that Cinemascope had to be invented before anybody saw the edges of him. Graduating to the clean side of the law at the right moment to score a perennial success as Perry Mason, he proceeded to get rich, and later on very rich, until he ended up endowing charities and owning islands. Why so judicious an operator should want to form a comedy act with James Burke is a mystery. Burr’s talents do not lie in the direction of pointed banter. Neither do Burke’s, but the difference between the two men is that Burr knows, or should know, his own limitations.

Near the start of the show, after Burke was discovered with his hands in his pockets in the middle of what he promptly described as a Vast and Hostile Continent, we were given a playlet about Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Burr was to be seen in period dress, ruminating. ‘Mr Whitney?’ asked a plaintive voice-off, ‘Mr Eli Whitney? What you doin’, Mr Eli Whitney?’

By now it seemed likely that the character Burr was impersonating was Eli Whitney, a suspicion confirmed when he shouted: ‘Thinkin’. ‘Bout them slaves pickin’ cotton.’ At this point Burke, in propria persona, irrupted dynamically on to the scene, his explanatory finger poised. ‘I’ll tell you why he was thinking about it!’ he announced, and began demonstrating the cotton gin.

It was a rule on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ that if the technological marvel you were currently Explaining was big enough to climb into, you had to speak your piece from inside it. This held true whether the gizmo concerned was a washing machine or a cyclotron. Burke carried the principle through to the Space Studio and stuck by it to the last gasp: covering the Apollo-Soyuz mission, he delivered a speech to camera while crawling through a mock-up of the two linked space-craft from end to end. There was no way he could get inside a cotton gin, but when it came to demonstrating how the old-style plough failed to break the plains it was not startling to see him all harnessed up and operating the thing in person. ‘But ugh! It couldn’t nngh! Handle that soil on the prairies. Whoah!’

The show’s script was so bent on finding ways to say things that it hardly got anything said. At least half the running time was squandered on mock music hall routines and sub-‘Oklahoma’ dance numbers all failing to clarify some point that could have been made in a few well-chosen words, if anybody involved had been capable of doing the choosing. Condemned to learn little about the ostensible subject, the viewer was reduced to deciding which one he hated most, Burke or Burr. It had to be Burke, if only because of the intensity which has by now been attained by Burke’s Smirk.

Instead of calling a Colt .45 a Colt .45, Burke waves it at the camera and calls it ‘This thing, invented by Sam Colt.’ As he does so, he regales the lens with Burke’s Smirk — a twitching grin of self-approval at being in on secrets. To imagine there is something ingratiating about this attitude is Burke’s Quirk. It is high time somebody disabused him of the notion that he is a television personality — which is, anyway, no fit thing for a grown man to want to be, especially in Burke’s line of business, where it ought to be enough just to say what needs saying as self-effacingly as possible.

La Bohème (Southern) was a straight-up-and-down taping of the Covent Garden production and thus no innovation as television, but it was still good to have, although rather nicer to hear than see. Ryland Davies and Kiri te Kanawa in the recent programme where La Kanawa talked to Bernard Levin were a more likely looking Rodolfo and Mimi, and for screen spectacle in Act II you couldn’t help remembering the Zeffirelli film, where Musetta really set the place alight.

In this production Musetta was a trifle unstupendous. One wouldn’t quibble if it weren’t for the fact that TV could win thousands of new adherents to opera — which ought to be a popular art.

The Observer, 4th January 1976