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Burnistoun

By Steffan Alun on 26 April 2010

Thanks to the magic of iPlayer, the rest of the UK can catch up on BBC Scotland’s latest sketch show, ‘Burnistoun’. I’ve now seen the first two episodes.

The sketches are mostly surreal takes on mundane, everyday experiences. Setting the show apart from most sketch shows is its amiable tone, as well as the length of some of these sketches – they last for several minutes, extending the jokes into extreme territory, and often delivering a final twist at the end.

A particularly successful sketch from the first episode involves a character being heckled by kids on a street, and throwing his bottle of soft drink at one of them. The bottle hits, and there follows a series of clips showing increasingly elaborate consequences – including a chat show appearance and a brilliant mock-up of a Hollywood-style film adaptation of the event, with ersatz American actors delivering Scottish dialogue. And the ending, which I shan’t give away, changes the joke completely, and was far funnier than I expected.

This is a recurring theme for many of the sketches. Gags that seem weak or predictable at the beginning twist and turn.

There are occasions, however, when this approach fails to hit the mark. A sketch in the second episode has a writer choose to add realism into his soap opera by including many scenes of characters needing the loo. ‘Burnistoun’’s trademark creativity seems to abandon them here, and instead, we’re presented with a series of nearly identical scenes of characters simply leaving for the bathroom halfway through a sentence.

Something else which doesn’t work for me are the sketches based entirely on surrealism, without a mundane starting point. The two brothers who work in a vending van and share a strangely childish relationship didn’t hold a candle to more universal situations, like the best mates who visit a buffet restaurant and can’t admit they don’t know how the system works.

Of course, humour’s subjective, and it’s possible that these moments will seem very funny to others. More fundamental a problem is the lack of female characters – the two female performers in the show are far too frequently given tiny, peripheral roles.

This seems a sad oversight, since the few scenes where they’re allowed to be comic characters in their own rights prove them to be just as capable as the men of conveying ‘Burnistoun’’s surreal tone. It’s clear this is a result of the show being co-written by the main two performers, but with so few actors in the show, we could do with a break from the same two faces once in a while, particularly since the title of the show suggests more of a sense of community.

The show’s definitely worth a look – it hits its stride immediately, and thanks to its low budget and Scottish origins, it has a genuine charm borne from its differences to most BBC sketch shows. Don’t expect anything earth-shattering – this is very gentle comedy – but the cheapness of the production has encouraged great creativity in the writing and the ideas.


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