To say that Count Arthur Strong is out of step with the modern world of comedy is a huge understatement. Think of the mockumentaries (This Country, W1A), the warts-and-all couplecoms (Catastrophe, Him & Her) and twisted horror shows (Inside No 9, Hunderby) and the delusional impresario just doesn’t fit in.
But sweary outbursts and scuzzy reality are very much the grain that the Count goes against… and his fans simply adore him. To them, he is a bona-fide national treasure.
A popular radio show since 2005, Count Arthur Strong has become a biennial treat on television. It stars Steve Delaney as the self-styled count, a former music-hall “star” who is essentially a walking disaster area. Believing himself to be a showbiz bible, Strong’s grasp of the world is compromised by confusion and absent-mindedness.
He’s a cross between Enid Blyton’s Mr Twiddle (google him: bow tie, glasses, trilby) and Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop (“I do have experience in the world of extra-sensory contraception”).
And don’t get me wrong; I loved the Count on the radio. But for me you need to see Steve Delaney’s befuddled creation: the way he lumbers around as if he’s glued to an ironing board; the childlike widening of his eyes when he’s excited; and the moments he becomes so agitated he jolts his head to one side while his hat stays in the same position. A difficult trick to pull off is that!
Another quirk is his difficulty with certain words and names, creating a blockage that has to be forcibly ejected (“Edward Woodward” is Arthur’s nemesis in this regard). It’s a wonder he doesn’t get RSI.
Character comedy is no easy thing but get it right and it’s a thing of lasting joy (Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge and Graham Fellows’s John Shuttleworth are just two further examples). Honed after years of craft and touring, Partridge, Shuttleworth and Strong all have back stories, tics and idiosyncrasies that make them feel like real people.
The Count Arthur Strong cast from left to right, Eggy (Dave Plimmer), Birdie (Bronagh Gallagher), John The Watch (Andy Linden), Bulent (Chris Ryman), Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney), Michael (Rory Kinnear), Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi)
But back to the sitcom.
Strong is aided, and often restrained, in his antics and adventures by customers at Bulent’s café including neurotic writer Michael (the wonderful Rory Kinnear), shady John the Watch (Andy Linden) and timid, conspiracy-obsessed Eggy (Dave Plimmer), as well as the volcanic Turkish owner Bulent himself (Chris Ryman) and his sweet-yet-mischievous sister Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi).
As series three begins Michael, now in a relationship with Sinem, has a different agent, while the caff has a new customer called Birdie (character actress Bronagh Gallagher from The Commitments).
Laughs come from all directions in Count Arthur Strong – the occasional pastiche is an added delight. We’ve had West Side Story, Top Gun and Misery. This week you’ll see a few nods to The Exorcist – and don’t miss next week’s Arthur-as-Godfather storyline. It’s a beauty. But then, the plotting by Delaney and his co-writer Graham Linehan is often majestic.
Count Arthur Strong isn’t afraid to mix it up, however. Just after I’d laughed myself hoarse at Arthur’s antics, I found a lump in my throat when his biggest fan, Katya, suddenly died. Also when the father-son rapport between Arthur and Michael was made overt, and when Michael finally plucked up the courage to admit his feelings about Sinem.
In short, the series has heart. The sort of heart that must leave other writers frothing with jealousy. As the great comedy writer Dick Clement told me recently, “It’s great making people laugh, but it’s great making people cry, too – if you can find the way to do it.”
Previous series may not have attracted huge ratings, though inconsistent times and days didn’t help. But the move from BBC2 to BBC1 doubled the figures to a second-series high of nearly 2 million – excellent considering it was being shown at 10.35pm.
The new timeslot of 8.30pm shows greater respect for what Delaney and Linehan are doing. But Arthur’s barmy army of followers won’t care when it’s shown, just as long as it is. With Rory Kinnear playing second lead Michael, Count Arthur Strong’s continuation is by no means a given; in view of Kinnear’s stage and screen commitments, securing the all-rounder is a massive coup.
And 8.30pm makes much more sense for such a family-friendly sitcom. Two years ago I took my wife and teenage son and daughter to see Arthur on stage and we all had a fantastic time. The Count truly unites the generations.
I applaud Delaney’s stamina, especially when he’s on tour. The hunched posture must kill his neck, and you would think the character’s husky tones, night after night, would absolutely destroy his vocal cords. How often do comedians work that hard for a laugh?
So Arthur’s against-the-odds return to primetime TV is a cause for celebration. I hope there will be many more. As the Count himself would say, “I really do.”
Count Arthur Strong returns to BBC1 on Friday at 8.30pm
Mark has been with Radio Times since 1996 after reporting, news editing and setting up review pages for the Oxford Mail and East Anglian Daily Times. Specialises in comedy, Euro-drama, sci-fi, pop docs and retro TV, but anything like Borgen, Rev and Detectorists will always be welcome. Fulfilled an ambition to appear on the cover of RT but in heavy, Doctor Who-related disguise.