I never listened to Count Arthur Strong’s Radio 4 show. And when the industry was abuzz with his crossover into television, I paid little attention, judging it too far from my tried-and-tested taste in comedy. In the end, I stumbled across this marvellous creation by accident – but what a happy accident it was.
Because while Count Arthur Strong is new to me, there’s no doubt in my mind that he belongs on television. Steve Delaney’s spirited stagger across the studio as Arthur doubles the laughs – while simultaneously leaving me in constant awe of his sense of balance. That, coupled with his unique ability to spit words out like cherry pips, makes for a character I can love like a meddling grandfather.
And in Rory Kinnear’s Michael Baker, Delaney and co-creator Graham Linehan (the man behind Father Ted and The IT Crowd) have found a perfect prompt and foil for Arthur’s eccentricity and – an essential component for the success of this sitcom – a bit of heart. A central relationship that plays for laughs but also offers up some real affection – that steady, albeit dysfunctional bond between a surrogate father and son.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s café of odd bods – from fiery Bulent to wheeler-dealer-geezer John – are a delight to watch, setting up some genuinely funny plotlines. Two teas for the price of one, anyone? And then there’s poor Katya. It took a masterful switch of pace last week to have Arthur react to her death the way he did. What we once mistook for flippant compliments gave way to a depth of feeling for one another that had me, at least, reaching for the tissues.
You see, that’s what I look for in comedy. Yes, the gags need to be funny (and a dose of slapstick humour never goes amiss) but beneath the laughter there needs to be a web of relationships and characters I can grow fond of. And I’m so fond of Arthur.
He may be an acquired taste; there may be some who wish to banish him back to radio and beyond. Some of you reading this may sit stonyfaced through his haphazard routines. But not me. For me, Count Arthur Strong harks back to the likes of Fawlty Towers with those obvious, long-running gags that should never have been funny in the first place but somehow still were…five unrelenting minutes later.
Thank goodness BBC bosses paid heed to the quality of the material, not the non-existent ratings, when they took the early decision to green-light a second series. Because when a howlingly funny character has the presence to move you to tears, he deserves his place on TV. So don’t stay away too long, Arthur. I miss you already.
The first series of Count Arthur Strong concludes tonight at 8pm on BBC2