10 Questions for Count Arthur StrongThis entry was posted in Press on .
Old-school variety act shamelessly plugs half-baked memoir
by Jasper ReesMonday, The Arts Desk 11 November 2013
Autumn is a season of tumbling leaves, dark afternoons and of course fatuous memoirs from people off the telly. But every so often the world is taken by surprise, less by autumn itself than by the arrival of an autobiography by a genuine star that contrives to stand aside from the hideous commercialism of the bestseller lists. Such a book is Through It All I’ve Always Laughed. Or so its author would no doubt claim.
Count Arthur Strong is not in fact a count. He’s an old-school variety entertainer of uncertain vintage (his actual age is supplied neither by him nor by Google). He popped up on Radio 4 in 2005 in the form of Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!, which contained much memory failure and malapropising and won a Sony Award in 2009. This year the Count consented to have his talents exposed on BBC television with a sitcom entitled Count Arthur Strong. It also starred Rory Kinnear as a diffident young man writing his father’s biography who comes to ask his dad’s old colleague the Count for advice. (The interview below omits to ask whether, on the circuit, the Count also knew Rory’s dad Roy. Nor is there anything about the Count’s murky relationship with an actor-writer called Steve Delaney).
The long-awaited memoir stands apart from its rivals in a number of ways. It is typeset in the font of an old-fashioned typewriter, has many handwritten memos in the margins often referring to shopping items, and gives off a vague whiff of being half finished. The author is not quite sure who everyone is in the picture section, apart from Barry Cryer. Still the Count is very keen for everyone to buy it, rather than read it in the bookshop. Answering theartsdesk’s questions, he insists that we retain all his own spellings and punctuation.
JASPER REES: Could you explain how you came by your title?
COUNT ARTHUR STRONG: Well it was originally a Variety monica. From my days in the Variety Theatre when I was doing my Memory Man act. To distinguish me from all the other acts. But by dint of the fact that I touched a part of the Queen Mother (her foot) at an official do, I believe it was ratified on the spot and is now possibly official. It’s probably in Hansard or Wisdens. They all had stupid names in those days ‘Monsewer Eddie Grey’ ‘Horace Mashford’ ‘Wilson, Betty and Kepple’, ‘Bruce Forsyth’.
What tempted you to write a memoir?
Simply put, I had an story to tell and as it was a written one I decided the best place for it was in a book. ‘Through It All I’ve Always Laughed’ will be the first of six or seven volumes of my memoirs. I hope. Faber and Faber and Faber have gone a bit quiet on that front. They’re probably on holiday.
Autumn is the season for celebrity memoirs. What will set yours apart from all the others?
Well it’s about me for a start. And as far as I know no one else has got an autobiography out about me. I would say that that is the most salient difference. Also I haven’t made much of it up. And I can honestly say to you, hand on heart, that if I was in a bookshop and I picked my book up and I didn’t know I’d written it, I would be fascinated and enthralled to find out what happened next to me. Plus I’d be happy to pay twice the price for it.
How have you attempted to deal with the problem that often visits memoirs of great comedians that the reader can’t hear your unmistakable voice?
Well I have been told that the timbre of my voice is very similar to the Hollywood Legend Robert Mitchum. Many people have said that they’ll never forget the sound of my voice. One of them in fact said that she though my voice would haunt her for the rest of her life. Which I thought was a lovely way thing to say.
What is it about your speech patterns which are so appealing, and are they the product of nature or nurture or just sheer eccentricity?
What sort of question is this? Why don’t you ask me something decent like, ‘What’s Paul Daniels like?’ ‘What size feet does Barry Cryer have? (incidentally he still has a pair of my shoes) What’s Aker Bilk’s hat size? These are the things people want to know, not about speech patterns and electricity.
Your show, having been a huge hit on radio, this year moved to television so suddenly we could see what you looked like. This is generally a one-way route for great comics but did you find the transition a natural one for your unique gifts?
I have to say I took to television like a duck. A sitcom (which is short for ‘situation comedy’. Which is a very clever way of saying it and like many abbreviations it does save a lot of time…Unless you’re explaining it in an interview…In which case it starts to get on your nerves and you wish you’d never started with it). What was the question? Ah I just felt I was ripe for television. Just like a brown speckled banana is perfect for eating, so was I ready for eating. With people’s eyes. Visually.
Your memoir reveals that you are a product of old-fashioned entertainment traditions. Do you ever wish we could go back to the heyday of your parents and the world they grew up in before broadcasting?
No. I never look behind myself. My time is now…again. Don’t get me wrong I owe a lot to my upbringing and my parents, who were both in the business. They nurtured me as you would a flower and it’s thanks to them I bloomed and grew into the huge plant that’s saying all this now.
Have you ever been asked to take part in any form of reality show or talent contest and if so, what? And if you turned it down, why?
I auditioned for ‘Opportunity Knocks in 1960 something, when Hughie Green was doing it. My act in those days was playing the overture from the Mikado on a saw with a violin bow. Unfortunately I cut myself quite badly when I was warming up in the dressing room and was rushed to hospital where I received a blood transfusion of blood. I finished seventh with a clapometer score of eleven. I am now far too grand to do another talent show. Unless they start paying you?
You are being published by Faber & Faber, who have also published 12 Nobel laureates including TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter and Mario Vargas Llosa? How does it feel to join such a stable and might we expect literary prizes to be heading in your direction?
Firstly can I correct you, Faber and Faber and Faber is not a stables. They do books. Sorry but I couldn’t let that go. If I allowed that to pass I would have had to include a lot of irrelevant information about horses/Grand National etcetera. Much better now just to admit you made a mistake. I hope it hasn’t shown you up? As far as F&F&F’s other writers go I very much look forward to meeting them all in due course. Possibly at a cocktail party with canapes, which I always find disappointing. They’re too small. Not the writers. The canapes. I don’t know the various heights of the writers, as yet. Just from the names I would hazard a guess that Mario Vargas Llosa was the smallest? Can you let me know if I’m right?
What does the future hold for the Count?
Well you don’t have to be a medium to know it’ll be Christmas soon. So that’s coming up. Another television series, which the wonderful Graham Linehan and I are busy scribbling on the back of envelopes for at the moment. At least another six volumes of my autobiography of myself and I’m getting my hair cut this afternoon and I have a hospital appointment for a slight problem I’ve had on and off for the last three months, of a highly personal nature. So busy, busy, busy.