In Praise Of … The Kamikaze Pilot Sketch
There are possibly younger readers (Yeah, right, who am I kidding?) who are open-mouthed listening to this, thinking that it’s incredibly offensive to Japanese people, and that you’d never get away with this now. They’d be right about the very last part. I’m not sure anyone would commission this sketch today, which is a great shame. But I love this sketch, and I’m going to try and explain why.
The first reason I love it is because it was written by Douglas Adams. Yes, that Douglas Adams, the Babel Fish and towel guy. It first appeared in Lesson 18 — Become a Rock Star the Burkiss Way, broadcast on Radio 4 on 2 March 1977 (1). At the time, he’d been struggling as a writer for work, and sketches like this, and occasional bits on Week Ending were few and far between. It was still a few months before things were due to turn around significantly, and he was to begin writing Hitch-Hiker’s Guide and acting as a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. He didn’t enjoy writing for Week Ending apparently, as he found the treadmill of topical gag writing as not playing to his strengths, or indeed interests. I can understand why when you look at a sketch like this. Adams only wrote a little for Burkiss, but it didn’t stop his mates who worked on the show (including John Lloyd) poking fun at him later on, after the release of Hitch-hikers, with a couple of running gags at his expense.
The Burkiss Way was a handy proving ground for an awful lot of talent, and has been majorly, yet quietly, influential, though of course it had itself also been heavily influenced by Monty Python(2). It was, for example, the first place where the famous Two Ronnies’ Mastermind(3), and the Not The Nine O’Clock News Hi-fi Shop sketches(4) first appeared in embryonic forms. David Renwick, who later created One Foot In The Grave, also cut his teeth here, writing with Andrew Marshall. They went to write a number of things together (including Whoops Apocalypse!) before going their separate ways. One of the earlier ones was End of Part One, which appeared on ITV in the late 70s, and which I liked. I wish then I’d known about the radio show that was its direct inspiration, especially because of Fred Harris, an ongoing presence in my childhood. I only discovered it later because of BBC7 (later 4Extra) repeats, and it’s a joy.
Isn’t he a panic?
Burkiss employed a lot of running jokes, including the repeated appearance of Eric Pode of Croydon (fans of Round the Horne will recognise some similarities to J Peasmold Gruntfuttock), and Lord Russian Emigré. It even went as far as the sometimes nonsensical listings they placed for the programme in the Radio Times. It’s not beyond reproach though. It is very much a product of its time, so the Mastermind episode for example has some now-questionable gay jokes in the 3–2–1 section, and generally Lord Russian Emigré himself might be seen as potentially anti-semitic, though it’s also clearly supposed to be specifically parodying Lew Grade, who was a huge figure in the UK entertainment industry at the time, along with his brother Bernard Delfont (and later his nephew, Michael Grade). It’s in this context we need to talk about the Kamikaze sketch.
Another of the shows’s running gags is the use of the name “Simpkins”, as a generic placeholder for the name of any annoying antagonist in double-handed sketches. It crops up all the time across the series, and works for me because it sounds so simpering and passive as a word itself. I think it’s probably the -kins suffix that seals it for me, because it’s immediately diminutive and almost childsish. The Kamikaze Pilot Sketch uses it too, and that’s the very first thing I find immediately funny: a kamikaze pilot called Simpkins.
The sketch starts about three minutes into the episode. Chris Emmett introduces it with the words:
A script that combines the wit of Arthur Mullard, Bernard Manning and Esther Rantzen in one breathtaking never-to-be-forgotten full stop. Witness again the agony, the sheer pathos, of two grown men struggling to simulate a Japanese accent
We can’t not talk about the accents. Frankly, a kamikaze pilot in a briefing with a senior officer just wouldn’t have worked in plain English: it would have been too much of a code shift(5). The “futile gesture” staging of Beyond The Fringe wouldn’t have washed as a mood here either, so they had to do something different. Given that you have a pilot called Simpkins, and not something like Yamada (to pull a random Japanese family name out of the sky), we’re clearly venturing into absurdist territory. It can only conceivably happen in Japan; you simply couldn’t set it anywhere else. That means there’s only one way to go: turn it up and make it utterly ridiculous, especially because you know there’s absolutely no way that that scene could ever really have happened. To me at least, the fact that the accents are terrible is also funny, because we can tell they’re not properly pretending to be Japanese at all, just a cheap knock-off copy of it purely to keep the internal logic of the sketch intact. The first laugh when the audience discover his name is Simpkins pretty much confirms that to me.
Then we get to the content itself, which is frankly peerless, and exactly the sort of deranged logic that Adams was utterly brilliant at. Hitch-hikers is crammed with it.
Let us for a moment refresh our memories about the function of a kamikaze pilot.
The lead in is beautifully constructed, establishing premise very quickly. Hardly a word wasted. And then the sketch hits its stride, with the layered repetition of his failures getting funnier and funnier, especially when Nigel Rees very nearly corpses at numbers 8 and 9, but continues to get ever more frantic at his charge’s unwillingness to play the game. Fred Harris is superb here too, playing the wide-eyed (not so-)innocent perfectly. He doesn’t want to die. He knows it; his superior knows it; we know it. But he can’t admit it. The excuses become increasingly outlandish, and the pay-off itself is slipped in like a stiletto to the ribs.
Just under four minutes of genius, and a pretty much perfect bit of writing. I love it.
(2) Leaving aside Adams’ own significant connections with Python, and John Lloyd, David Hatch had worked with Cleese on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, and was a Cambridge contemporary of the Cambridge Pythons and the Goodies.
(3) The sketch was written by Andrew Marshall, who was the inspiration for Adams’ Marvin the Paranoid Android (in early drafts he was actually called Marshall). It first appeared in Lesson 35 — Remember the Burkiss Way, broadcast on 2 April 1979. It’s pretty much at the beginning of the show.
(4) In Lesson 33 — The Last Burkiss Way, broadcast on 7 February 1978. Another Marshall. It’s about 10 minutes in.
(5) A perfect example of that kind of comedic code shift is the Armstrong and Miller running sketch series about the two wartime RAF pilots speaking street in their cut glass public school accents.