Article: The Guardian Feb 2015This entry was posted in Press on .
Why Count Arthur is still going Strong
11th February 2015
by Brian Logan
Who knew 10 years ago that Steve Delaney’s tragicomic portrait of a delusional old man would be vying with Miranda for primetime TV celebrity? He may have morphed into a lovable old duffer, but he’s still a fiercely brilliant creation.
Count Arthur Strong heads off on tour this week, and how odd that he does so as a fixture in the nation’s living rooms. I pretty much missed out on the intermediate radio-based stage of the Count’s career, but I vividly remember his Edinburgh fringe stage shows at the turn of the noughties. And I can say without much fear of contradiction that no one present pegged Steve Delaney’s senile alter ego as a shoo-in for primetime TV celebrity.
Yes, the quality was obvious. Reviewing his deathless 2002 Forgotten Egypt show, Dominic Maxwell – then writing for Metro, now the Times’ first-string theatre critic – tagged the Count as “surely the most fully formed comic character since Alan Partridge”. I admired that show too, but watching Arthur back then was as excruciating as it was entertaining. “Hard for the audience”, “gruelling”, “hyper-tense”, I wrote – which aren’t phrases anyone was using about, say, the contemporaneous early work of Michael McIntyre.
It was the uncompromising nature of Delaney’s performance that made Count Arthur on-stage so challenging. This wasn’t (as per the current TV show) a lovable caricature of a dotty old duffer; it was a tragicomic portrait of a delusional man clinging to the fraying shreds of his memory, dignity and authority. It looked like Delaney – all hunched and clenched – was in physical discomfort playing the role. But then, it seemed part of his malevolent plan that we share in the Count’s discomfort and frustration. Set piece after set piece tested our patience as much as it made us laugh, like when – in his 2003 show about the Bible – the Count forgot the audience was there and stood for a full five minutes with his back to us, swigging red wine.
None of this remotely suggested that the Count would one day star in his own BBC1 sitcom, far less one that’s openly touted as the next Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys. So what happened? Did Delaney dilute his act? Well, maybe a little. Back in the early 2000s, the Count came across as a cantankerous old misanthrope. He’s not that anymore, and maybe he wasn’t even in 2009, when Delaney wrote to the Guardian claiming I’d misquoted the Count (“that bastard Melvyn Hayes on the South Park Show”, was the offending phrase) in a review. The Count wouldn’t say “bastard”, Delaney protested; “direct insult” isn’t what he’s about.
In his TV incarnation – part-scripted by Father Ted man Graham Linehan, of course – Arthur is a fairly gentle old cove. Yes, the show has its haters: its widely referred to as Marmite TV. But whereas audiences used to be alienated by how painful the act was, now they complain that Count Arthur’s too cosy, too canned-laughter, too mainstream.
That’s a heck of a turnaround. But what’s consistent is the brilliance of Delaney’s performance. It’s Count Arthur that makes the sitcom watchable, and now and then there are routines the equal of anything he’s done on stage – last week’s Still Life episode furnished one, when Rory Kinnear’s Michael bets Arthur a tenner he can’t stand still for 60 seconds. (He’s right: he can’t.) There’s nothing diluted or compromised about moments like that. The lesson, rather, is that it’s not a precise science second-guessing where the next family favourite is coming from. If Count Arthur Strong can be one, who’d bet against primetime sitcom popularity for today’s acquired-taste live acts – for Eddie Pepitone, say, or for the Rubberbandits or Doctor Brown?