Is Count Arthur Strong the new family comedy the BBC is looking for?

The BBC1 sitcom has finally got a prime-time slot – and co-writer Graham Linehan could not be more delighted

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Count Arthur Strong is back on BBC1 for a third series – only this time Steve Delaney’s eccentric buffoon will be delighting family audiences.

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The studio sitcom, set mainly in Bulent’s Café, sees Count Arthur – Steve Delaney’s former musical hall star and all-round eccentric – hanging out with various lost souls.

They include Rory Kinnear’s neurotic writer Michael, shady John the Watch (Andy Linden), poor lost Eggy (Dave Plimmer) and volcanic cafe owner Bulent himself (Chris Ryman). His sister Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi) is Michael’s girlfriend.

The big news is that it is now airing in a prime-time slot at 8.30pm on Friday nights after a scheduling policy for the last series that was so weird it could have been designed by the Count himself (the swear-free, gentle comedy was broadcast at 10.35pm after the news on BBC1, if you can believe it).

Delaney’s co-writer Graham Linehan (pictured) has long lobbied for an earlier time and he has succeeded. But, I wonder, could there be a sting in the tail? Because, of course, with a better timeslot comes greater responsibility and more pressure to get higher ratings…

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“I’ve given up worrying about viewing figures but it’s it’s really, really great it’s exactly the right time when families watch,” Linehan tells RadioTimes.com.

It’s an acquired taste, but for me (and many others) a delicious one. Count Arthur Strong is sharply written but the feel is emphatically and deliberately old fashioned – a studio comedy from the old days in the best sense of the term.

“It’s kind of high risk, and, in the short term, low reward, but I think the reason for continuing to do it, the reason to try, is because personally I think the best sitcoms have been studio sitcoms,” adds Linehan.

“Like, for me, Seinfeld, Fawlty Towers are the two greatest ones, and I’m always trying to emulate them, I’m always trying to recreate the feeling I had when I see the best episodes of those back then, you know. So it’s high risk, and if it pays off it can be wonderful. When it works, it really works. 

“It’s kind of experimental. It’s an experimental show in the sense because I wanted to prove that you can have a popular show that would be shown at half eight at night. A lot of comedies that are aimed at a wider audience have a dumb appeal to the lowest common denominator and I don’t think that’s a necessary prerequisite for a show like that to work, so it’s an experiment enough to see if it could be done.”

Another thing he wants us to bear in mind is that the show is filmed in front of a live studio audience – and he is not happy with those critics and viewers who have suggested that the laughter is in any way canned.

“It’s quite hurtful and annoying for everyone who’s involved with the show,” he says. “It’s quite lazy for people to write that, especially critics who can check these things. You would think people who write about TV would know a bit more about how these shows are made but sometimes you think they have never been to a recording. It’s laziness, really.”

One thing Linehan is laid back about is the prospect of doing a fourth series of Count Arthur Strong. At the moment he says the writing and the filming has tired him out but he is happy to oblige “if the BBC think it’s worth another shot”.

Before that, though, Linehan has his hands full with Motherland, the comedy he co-writes with his wife Helen Linehan, Holly Walsh and Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan and which won rave reviews for the pilot episode’s painfully realistic portrayal of the trials and traumas of modern parenting last year.

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Six more episodes are being written, with the same cast returning, including Anna Maxwell Martin as harassed Julia and Diane Morgan (AKA Philomena Cunk) as the slatternly Liz. The hope is to get them on air by the end of the year.

“It just seemed like such an obvious thing to write about, it’s a very high stress situation, where you’re thrown into contact with people you might not normally hang around with. And it just seemed perfect for a sitcom, I think that’s what happened, really, everyone just agreed and thought yeah, this is something we want to see. I’ve never had a reaction like that.

“When we thought of the idea, the thing I likened it to was, if you’re on a beach full of people with metal detectors, and there’s a big lump of gold lying on top of the sand and you’re like ‘does no one else want this?'”

He has also not given up on his plans to bring Father Ted back – but as a stage musical. Ted co-writer Arthur Mathews still needs persuading but Linehan is determined to revive Channel 4’s well-loved ecclesiastical comedy as a live experience.

“I would never bring back the TV show, because of the risk you poison people’s memories of the original.  A Ted musical would be good, but  Arthur’s resistant you know. It’s one of those things, it could be awful but then again, if you really put some thought into it, it could be like The Producers.”

Were the project to proceed, it would have to reference child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, though.

“The jokes would have to have a little bit more edge, because you just can’t ignore this stuff. But if you were to come up with a completely new format, I think it would be worth doing. I have this vision of a dance number, with spinning cardinals. A twirling bishop, you know? I’m thinking a big dance number at the Vatican. That would be great, wouldn’t it?”

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Count Arthur Strong series series 3 is on BBC1 on Friday at 8.30pm