Obituary: Billy Burden
Friday 10 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.
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