Count Arthur Strong arrives on BBC2 this Monday. It’s in that 8.30pm slot that didn’t really exist for comedy before Miranda but, since that show went on to be huge, now flags up something that it’s hoped will be an across-the-board hit. It’s a sitcom that feels both new and old, a sure thing and yet a gamble.
Steve Delaney plays Count Arthur, a faded variety entertainer who was never as famous as he thinks he still is. The character is familiar to Radio 4 listeners, since he’s had a successful if not universally popular series on the wireless since 2005, with live tours spinning off it. Delaney created the character in the 1980s and has been performing him live since 1997. Yet to most of the BBC2 audience, Arthur Strong and Steve Delaney are new.
The show is also the latest work by Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted and sole author of The IT Crowd. He’s collaborated on a star vehicle before – Black Books, with stand-up comic Dylan Moran playing something close to his stage persona – but a radio transfer is fresh, risky territory.
So the TV incarnation of Count Arthur Strong is a double threat, a 50/50 collaboration. It’s very recognisably a Linehan programme, with its live audience, bright studio sets, visual gags, tight plots and pared-down script. Within that framework, Delaney can give full rein to Count Arthur’s unintentional chaos, rampant malapropism and constant air of twitchy, about-to-sneeze befuddlement. The result is warm, slightly retro in feel and full of big, simple laughs, as well as detailed craft in writing and performance that will have comedy geeks purring.
Delaney didn’t hastily cast around for the best hired hand in the business after deciding to move to TV: he and Linehan have been working together on the television version of Count Arthur, on and off, for five years.
“I pursued him,” says Linehan. “I heard the early episodes of the radio show and thought it was amazing. I got a DVD of [Delaney’s 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show] Forgotten Egypt. I remember seeing him turning around like someone you see in the street who’s a bit mad, thinking someone’s behind him and telling people to get off, and then you realise he’s left the coathanger in his jacket. Things like that blew me away because they seemed to come from a place you can’t really get to through writing. It was such a completely inhabited character.”
Delaney: “Graham sent me an email saying how much he enjoyed the show. He said he’d love to work together if I was interested, to which my response was, ‘Are you joking, am I interested?!'”
Delighted as Delaney was that one of TV comedy’s top writer-directors was a Count Arthur fanboy, Linehan was the right choice not just because he was sympathetic, but because he could see room for improvement in a creation that appeared to be set in stone.
“Count Arthur is one of the funniest creations in British comedy history,” Linehan says. “I just feel like Steve hasn’t yet had the best platform to show off all he can do. He’s been working in a very isolated way and he maybe didn’t have a very objective eye. I wanted to give that to him. When I tweet about Count Arthur, I get a lot of people who don’t like it, and I wanted to win those people over. That was my mission. Steve’s attitude was always that if people don’t like it, that’s their business. But I wouldn’t let it go. ‘No no no no, we’re going to get them as well!’
“It can be as simple as taking a speech that’s four lines long and making it two lines long. Or one. Steve, to his credit, was into that. He was really happy with the more streamlined character that came out of it.”
People who have played the same character for their whole career could easily say no, I know my creation – hands off. “That’s the thing! In the past I’ve worked with people who suddenly got nervous when I was in the driving seat alongside them. Maybe it’s because Steve and I are both comfortable in what we do. I don’t feel like I’ve got a huge need to prove myself; Steve knows the character and knows I love the character. We were both really relaxed.”
Delaney was ready to reboot Arthur – “One of my early thoughts was that he’d work well in a TV sitcom. The one that surprised me was the radio series” – and Linehan had a plan. “It had to come into the real world,” Linehan says. “The radio show exists in a kind of fantasy. Some weeks he seems to be quite famous and other weeks no one knows who he is. The first thing I said to Steve was: ‘We need to come up with a consistent reality, we need to make a decision about how famous he is.’ The other important thing was to surround him with characters who would bring out different aspects of his personality.”
So it was that the supporting cast of the radio series were replaced. In came Arthur’s number one fan Katya (Ruth Posner), a soup-slurping Polish pensioner; the mysterious ducker and diver John the Watch (Andy Linden); Eggy, an egg-based conspiracy theorist (Dave Plimmer); and the Turkish siblings who run Arthur’s favourite cafe, Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi) and the scene-stealing Bulent (Chris Ryman).
The cafe, with this rickety gang knocking about inside, is the show’s main set. Linehan: “We looked to, in an aspirational way, Cheers. That idea of a regular haunt. When I was living in Kilburn, there was a greasy spoon beside me. I was sitting in there once and a guy burped really loudly, I mean explosively loudly. He just went, ‘Excuuuuuse me!’ and no-one batted an eyelid, and I thought: that’s great. Maybe we could make a café into a place to where people whose lives aren’t as full as they could be find themselves gravitating, where they can get some food and people will talk to them.
“That gave the show warmth, and the kind of dimensionality that sometimes the radio show lacked. In our original treatment, we described Arthur as thinking of everyone else in the café as a bunch of no-hopers, but as we wrote it, we realised Arthur cares a lot for these people.”
“We didn’t start by saying, we’ve got to change it,” says Delaney. “We just thought, what’s a good scenario? For me, it wasn’t, ‘Oh God, I can’t do all my monologues now.’ It was, ‘I can do all this wonderful interacting with other people. One line and a raised eyebrow will do all that stuff I was describing for five minutes on the radio.'”
Linehan and Delaney took Arthur’s interaction with others to another level by creating a further new character and elevating him to a co-lead. The premise is efficiently set up in episode one’s opening minute. Arthur’s old comedy partner, who went on to be much more successful, has died. His struggling-author son, Michael, arrives hoping that Arthur will help him write a biography.
Here came a crucial casting coup: Rory Kinnear, proper Shakespearean actor and a lot of people’s dream choice to take over as the lead in Doctor Who, plays Michael. “Rory came in and auditioned,” says a clearly delighted Delaney. “We just looked at each other when he left and that was it. It’s amazing that we got him for it.”
Although Delaney insists he and the Count have a healthy relationship – “I’m sometimes muttering to myself when I go to Marks & Spencer, but he doesn’t engulf me and make me behave disgracefully” – clearly you don’t play one character for 16 years without pouring a lot of yourself into him. But Linehan also has an alter ego on the screen, as he realised one day late into shooting the series, when Kinnear pointed out that Linehan had turned up for work in clothes identical to Michael’s costume.
“I accidentally created someone who is basically me. Rory’s character is a walking embodiment of that Very British Problems Twitter feed. Those British problems are just problems that anyone who is remotely insecure or shy has, so all I have to do is give my own experience to Rory.”
Kinnear isn’t the first to suffer this fate. “Yeah, there’s a bit of me in Moss and Roy [in The IT Crowd] and even a bit of me in Ted I think. Basically the character who is the most embarrassed is closest to me. There’s one episode where Rory goes into a newsagents and sees this Asian guy and says, ‘Sorry, have you got any Guardians left?’ and the guy goes, ‘I don’t work here mate.’ That happened to me. I spent the next half an hour apologising. In my defence, the guy had a clipboard – I think it should be illegal to carry a clipboard if you don’t work in a place.
“I like to think I can get all these moments, that otherwise I’d have to live with for the rest of my life and cringe every time I think about them, into the show. Rory is my favourite avatar yet and I’m going to make him suffer terribly for all my sins.”
The relationship between Arthur and his new sort-of surrogate son Michael is another aspect of the show that gives it soul. “I’m not used to writing things with a heart,” says Linehan. “Usually people are just jumping out of windows in my stuff. It was nice to write something a bit emotional. I always looked down on that. I always thought the Seinfeld rule, ‘no hugging, no learning’, was the way to go and I still don’t like the pat answers sitcoms sometimes provide but, BUT, I like the idea of really making people bawl crying and making them laugh a few seconds earlier. As soon as we discovered we could do that, oh God, it was really intoxicating.
“I’m not sure if it’s in every episode, but in nearly every episode we’ve got one moment which is potentially kind of… shredding. I could be wrong. Maybe other people will disabuse me of that! But I personally find it really moving at times. Some of my favourite moments in films… the thing that’s jumping into my head at the moment is the song in Toy Story 2, which I can barely talk about because it’s so sad. I’ve often tried to describe it [When Somebody Loved Me, the Oscar-nominated song sung by Jessie the cowgirl doll about the little girl who abandoned her] to people and I can’t get to the end of the description. Why not try to do something like that? Why not?”
“Graham and I were united in wanting there to be affection,” Delaney says. “Even the couple of characters who don’t really like each other, you see glimpses of them doing the right thing. A lot of humour today is put-downs, vindictiveness. We both think that’s not what sitcoms should essentially be about.”
Rightly or wrongly, many people will see a carefully plotted studio sitcom as retro, a throwback to classic sitcoms of the 1960s and 70s. “I wouldn’t say I want to emulate those shows,” says Delaney. “I want to emulate things that those shows did.”
Delaney specifically cites Hancock and Steptoe as inspirations – “Galton and Simpson as writers, they stand alone” – along with the greatest sitcom-writing manual of them all, Fawlty Towers. “There are wonderful little bits in it, like the way the set’s designed. Every time he runs upstairs you see him running up another three stairs and then having to run down three stairs before he goes to the door! That makes me laugh every time. I look for elements like that in TV sitcoms, the small things that add up to the big laugh.”
“I don’t want it to feel like it could have been made 20 years ago,” says Linehan, “but at the same time there is a certain warmth to those [old] shows that I’ve always liked. Funnily enough though, I never liked Steptoe & Son. It used to drive me mad. I realise it’s a classic and it’s really good, but the sheer frustration of Harold would drive me up the wall. If I was in that situation I would think about murdering that man. I just couldn’t bear the claustrophobia of it. We’ve got a more optimistic take on things – room for redemption and room for change. The Rising Damps and the Steptoes, that kind of grimness that you would sometimes find in those shows, I think we’ve punched through some of that. We’ve come out with something a bit more hopeful.”
“Humour goes through all sorts of phases,” shrugs Delaney. “Frankly I don’t think there’s anything terribly new in sitcom. All comedy is essentially reinterpreting the same old joke. The words are just in a different order.”
This is Linehan and Delaney’s second attempt at televising the Count, the first one having not progressed past the pilot stage. Arthur was initially the inept host of a baffling game show, played straight with actors as the contestants and no action behind the scenes. Those notorious meddlers in the BBC Comedy department said the fake quiz idea didn’t work – a decision Delaney and Linehan both think was absolutely correct.
Linehan: “Everyone at the BBC was worried because they didn’t know how we were thinking of introducing Arthur to the public. So one of the early ideas we had was, let’s do what Coogan and Iannucci did on Alan Partridge and introduce him via a light-entertainment parody show. We created a kind of 3-2-1 quiz show. We realised after we shot the first episode: this is going to be too hard. This is so hard. You’ve got to get actors pretending to be ordinary people, you’ve got to make the quiz format feel fresh every week. Even doing one was too hard.
“The thing that still amuses me about it, and I’d love to figure out a way to get it into the sitcom later on, is Arthur having to read out these Ted Rogers-style questions where you think: what the hell are you talking about? There’s also a brilliant clip on YouTube of Bullseye where someone fires a dart and Jim Bowen says oh, you’ve won a trouser press. And he throws another one and Jim Bowen says oh, you’ve lost it again. The YouTube heading is: The Shortest Amount of Time For Which Anyone’s Owned A Trouser Press. But it was a type of show that didn’t really exist any more and it made Arthur look stranger than he was.”
It wouldn’t have been real. It wouldn’t have had any heart. “Yeah, exactly. With Partridge you really felt for him, in that chat show, because of his constant disappointment and people not turning up. He had lots of opportunities to reveal who he really was but Arthur would have been on rails. But it was a good thing to do, we got to work together and started to trust each other.”
Linehan is becoming a one-man comedy factory, with plenty of projects bubbling up through his production company Delightful Industries. It co-produced Count Arthur Strong and The IT Crowd, and has a development deal with Boom Pictures, the production house run by former BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey.
“We seem to be picking up quite a few pilots. We’re doing an Irish sitcom about an Irish family that I’m working on with a young comedy group called Diet of Worms. I’ve got a children’s TV programme in the very early stages. I’ve got a science-fiction sitcom I’m working on. It’s suddenly gone a bit crazy.”
For Delaney, working with Linehan and his established IT Crowd crew, including veteran producer Richard Boden, made life easy. “It’s been a revelation for me, the first real body of work I’ve done on television. The focus on the end goal and making the show the best it could be: if it were echoed in business or commerce or industry… no I tell you, I mean it, there’d be a real success story going on in the country. It’s amazing, people’s application, it’s really touching. On the radio it’s my thing, and on TV it suddenly becomes everyone else’s thing. But within 15 minutes of the first bit of location stuff we did, I realised it was brilliantly liberating: ‘Hang on a minute. Somebody else does all that!’ Just being able to be in it and play things for the moment. I can concentrate on the tiny stuff I do.”
It seems Count Arthur Strong might be a ready-made hit, a rare example of a dream collaboration that will offer reliable, old-school cheer every week. Why not?
Count Arthur Strong starts on BBC2 on Monday 8 July at 8.30pm