Obituary: Billy Burden

William George Burden, comedian: born Wimborne, Dorset 15 June 1914; died Wimborne 3 June 1994.

Few people in show business have cornered a particular market more effectively than the yokel comedian Billy Burden. With his farmer's smock, shapeless old hat and rich Dorset accent, he was the man the impresarios sent for when they needed someone to play the country bumpkin. Even his last television role as the straw-chewing Mr Moulterd in Grace and Favour (1992) - the sequel series to Are You Being Served? (1974) - was in the same rustic mould that he had used throughout a career spanning more than 50 years.

One of his greatest pleasures in the last months of his life was to bask unashamedly in his sudden fame in the United States, belatedly acquired as a result of Grace and Favour's success across the Atlantic. 'I keep getting phone calls and fan mail from American women. I didn't think they would understand Dorset dialect over there but they think I'm the funniest character they have ever seen,' he said.

Burden's career began in Wimborne, Dorset, where as a seven-year-old his contributions to school concerts included Farmer Giles recitations delivered in the local dialect. One performance was seen by Sir Dan Godfrey, founder of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, who told him: 'You want to concentrate on them, my boy.' Burden himself recalled: 'I didn't have to learn the accent. All my father's friends spoke like that, so it came naturally.'

Burden's first job as a teenager was in an estate agent's office but he stayed only a few weeks, leaving to fulfil his ambition to go on the stage. He joined a repertory company in Leicestershire and there continued to develop the bumpkin character which earned him the first of many pantomime roles as Simple Simon in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Palace, Reading.

This led to a stand-up comic role in Twinkle, the popular Clarkson Rose revue in which Burden used the country-bumpkin character to perform yokel sketches. He was with the show for seven years during which time he first came to the attention of the BBC and ITV. In the Fifties and Sixties he became a regular on shows like Workers' Playtime, Midday Music Hall and The Good Olde Days, never topping the bill but usually filling the first slot after the interval. Often he drove 200 miles each way - from theatre to BBC studio and back again - but it was his proud boast that he never once arrived late. By this time he had adopted a much-used sign-off line which became almost as famous as the man himself.

'Oh, well,' he would say, 'bin lovely havin' a chat. I'd better be goin' now. 'Tis a long way back to Dorset. Cheerio, cheerio.'

Burden worked with many of the great figures of post-war British show business and he was greatly moved by the way his theatrical friends rallied round when his life reached a low point in 1989 when his companion of 25 years, the concert pianist Susie Rendell, died of cancer. He swore never to work again. It was only the persuasive powers of his friends - particularly Harry Secombe, who would sing Psalm 23 down the telephone, and the impresario John Redgrave, who talked him into joining his new show at Newquay - that brought him round. Burden was no mean pianist himself and often used this talent professionally, leaving the stage in the quick-change bumpkin suit made by his mother and returning almost instantly in white bow tie and tails to 'talk very proper' and play the piano.

Burden's age was a closely guarded secret. 'My agent says 'Never tell them your age' - let's say 65 going on 70,' he chuckled during his last interview. It is only since his death that even his agent and friends have discovered it - he would have been 80 next week.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea