Article: Demise of Count Arthur Strong signals the end of the family sitcom
August 14, 2017 by Alec Charles
So, the BBC has decided to cancel its sitcom Count Arthur Strong after three series – presumably in favour of spending its dwindling budget on something more “edgy”. Or perhaps another cooking show?
It’s a sign of the times – the show was developed out of the long-running Radio 4 series created by Steve Delaney in 2005 following the stage success of his monstrous creation, the obscure variety star Count Arthur Strong. The television incarnation was co-authored by Graham Linehan, the genius who had revived the studio-based sitcom in such hits as Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. It tempted the well-respected Rory Kinnear into its cast. And it was very funny.
But it had also been treated by BBC schedulers with an inconsistency bordering on sabotage. When its third series moved to a mid-evening slot (its first two series having languished post-watershed) it was heralded as “the new family comedy the BBC is looking for” – but had then repeatedly lost its spot in weekly schedules.
The count never had the opportunity to develop a regular following – and the show was never repeated. “It was the lack of repeats that killed us,” tweeted Linehan. “Might as well’ve just chucked each series down a crevasse.”
It wasn’t crude, cynical or cruel. Like so many classic sitcoms, its ensemble cast of adorable eccentrics performed its verbal, visual and situational gags before a live studio audience to provide fun and laughter (and the occasional moment of emotional resonance) for all the family.
It wasn’t Peep Show or The Office or Mrs Brown’s Boys. It wasn’t experimental or mockumentary or bawdy. It was just very funny. And the BBC didn’t know what to do with it. Its breadth of appeal no longer aligned with perceptions of comedy’s increasingly niche markets.
Its cancellation echoes the demise, 21 years ago, of The Thin Blue Line, Ben Elton’s doomed attempt “to restage his beloved Dad’s Army”. Following Elton’s edgier and trendier successes with The Young Ones and Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line had returned British sitcom to its basics, a comedy of character, language and situation in the style of the classics of David Croft, Jimmy Perry and Jeremy Lloyd.
The problem was that Elton’s gentle farce wasn’t what audiences or programmers had expected. Count Arthur Strong was, similarly, too traditional for perceived tastes. Edgy seems better than funny, marginal is sexier than mainstream. Yet social media is abuzz with outrage from the show’s fans. The fictional Count Arthur’s own Twitter feed retweeted a number of such responses.
Many tweets emphasised the show’s rare inter-generational appeal: “Enjoyed by every generation … the whole family watch … even my mum loves it … good family comedy … the only comedy me, my dad and my grandad all equally crack up to … it got us all together on the sofa chuckling … the only show the whole family sits down and watches together … the first sitcom I and my Dad have laughed about together in years … a comedy which all ages can watch”.
An online petition has been launched in a bid to reverse the BBC’s decision. At the time of writing it had gathered more than 4,500 signatures in just a few days.
But Linehan is now working – with Sharon Horgan, Diane Morgan and Holly Walsh – on a full series of Motherland, the continuation of a not-unfunny pilot from the BBC’s otherwise bleak 2016 sitcom season – a series of remakes, reboots and pilots, which mostly demonstrated that funny’s no longer edgy and that edgy’s rarely funny.
Motherland’s pilot offered a decent blend of jokes and edge. Echoing the tone of Horgan’s sitcom Catastrophe, it won praise for its “painfully realistic portrayal of the trials and traumas of motherhood”. It was very Channel 4.
Yet when you’ve assembled such talents as Horgan, Morgan, Walsh and Linehan on one project, you might want more laughs. Laughs enough at least to attract the kind of family audiences which BBC programming has traditionally sustained: from Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game to Bruce Forsyth’s Strictly Come Dancing; from Mel and Sue in The Great British Bake-Off to Mel and Sue in the rebooted Generation Game – and anything from David Attenborough and Doctor Who through the ages. These are programmes the family once sat together in front of – and the traditional sitcom once sat at the heart of such programming.
The BBC axed Count Arthur Strong four days after the publication of an Ofcom report on trends in TV viewing which suggested that “watching TV is a solo activity” and that “each member of the family is watching a different programme on a separate screen.”
In the age of box set binges, and of risque reality dating shows such as Naked Attraction and Love Island, that’s unsurprising. What, after all, is there for families to share? Dad’s Army still reruns on Saturdays, but the cancellation of Count Arthur Strong – a show about the joys and absurdities of friendship and family – diminishes such viewing options just slightly further.
The resulting social media furore is about more than the fate of one show. It invokes a nostalgia for a mode of broadcasting with a broader appeal – broadcasting to bring people together in a spirit of renewed social cohesion. This might, of course, be a forlorn hope – but it seems a sincere and not uncommon one.
July 6, 2017 by Lucy Sweet
I’ve been trying to stop myself from writing about Count Arthur Strong. You see, it’s funny (or not, depending on your point of view) in a way that’s hard to describe without people looking at you with blank pity. It uses traditional sitcom devices that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys look like American Gods. And er, the main character is an old man in a hat.
No, don’t wander off, let me explain. It’s about a befuddled, clapped-out performer (Count Arthur, played, or rather inhabited, by Steve Delaney) who gets his words mixed up and practically lives in a greasy spoon run by an irate Turkish man called Bulent and his beautiful sister Sinem.
He has a mate called Eggy and another called John the Watch, who looks like a snooker ball in a tan leather bomber jacket. Arthur’s straight man side-kick, Michael, is an uptight, anxious writer, played by Rory Kinnear. They do absolutely arse all apart from get into elaborate scrapes that wouldn’t seem out of place in The Beano.
Nope, nothing about it sounds good. I can see you are holding up a brightly coloured LED sign saying ‘sounds awful’. Your fingers are twitching on the page/mouse, and I don’t blame you, I really don’t. Count Arthur is an oddball. The character is a Radio 4 comedy stalwart, and Delaney is an impressive live performer who can create borderline hysteria using tongue twisters and malapropisms – no mean feat in the 21st century, when you need interactive light shows and Drake to get bums on seats.
On TV, though, it never seemed to work. However, now in its third series and co-written by Delaney and Graham Linehan – whose Father Ted-shaped fingerprints are very happily all over it – it’s starting to look like a comedy classic. Last week’s episode, The Soupover, was as good as Hancock’s Half Hour. Count Arthur and his weird friends were having a soupover. “Everybody brings a selection of soup and we put our pyjamas on and watch the racing,” Arthur explains. “So it’s like a sleepover but with soup?” asks Michael. “No, no, you don’t sleepover.” says Arthur, in disgust. “It’s in the middle of the day.”
It all degenerates into farce, as if it could go anywhere else. They watch an ancient VHS of the same five minutes of racing on repeat, then Count Arthur samples the soup. “Hmm…the leek suggests Suffolk and its environs,” he says. “Hmm, am I right in thinking that these mushrooms are from…Lidl’s?”.
I don’t know why any of this is funny. But my God, it is. Tears in your eyes funny. And when it’s not so funny, it’s comforting: buttered crumpets next to a two-bar electric fire comforting. The whole thing is a silly, blithering joy. Not every one will like it but Count me in.
Who are you calling dummy? CRAIG BROWN on why we are living through a golden age of ventriloquism
When I was growing up in the Sixties, ventriloquism seemed a spent force.
On television, Ray Alan ruled the very small ventriloquist’s roost, primarily with Lord Charles, who was posh and wore a monocle, but also with Tich and Quackers — a chirpy little boy and his equally irritating pet duck.
Occasionally, an American lady called Shari Lewis would appear on the scene with a winsome sock-puppet called Lamb Chop.
I also remember Terry Hall with Lenny the Lion, and Roger De Courcey with Nookie Bear. Keith Harris and Orville came a decade later, in what most people thought was the last squeak of a dying art.
As a child I attended birthday parties where a slightly seedy ‘all-round family entertainer’ might have a stab at ventriloquism, but even to us six-year-olds it all seemed a bit forced.
‘I can see your mouth moving!’ we would all chorus, while the poor ventriloquist pleaded: ‘Now then, now then, let’s have a bit of hush at the back, boys and girls!’
How surprising, then, that, half a century on, we should be living through a golden age of ventriloquism.
The week before last, I went to see Count Arthur Strong at the London Palladium. For those of you who have yet to make his acquaintance, Count Arthur Strong is — or at least appears to be — a veteran variety artiste, who enjoys a drop to drink, has a tendency to muddle his words, and is cursed with a memory that is not quite what it was.
After a refreshing glass of what he insisted was Lucozade, Count Arthur brought out two dummies.
King Tut is an Egyptian mummy so heavily bandaged that he can only answer ‘Mmm! Mmm! Mmm!’ to any question. Sulky Monkey is reluctant to talk at all.
A moment of comic genius came when Count Arthur forgot that he was the ventriloquist and waited for minutes on end for his dummy to say something.
He looked more and more exasperated as he put his head closer and closer to the monkey, unable to hear a thing.
One of my other favourite comedians, Tim Vine, has also come up with an entirely new take on this creaky art.
First, he produces a doll called Clowny. ‘What have you been doing today, Clowny?’ ‘Well, I’ve been doing ventriloquism!’
Clowny then brings out a puppet called Lamby. ‘What have you been doing today, Lamby?’
It turns out that Lamby, too, is a ventriloquist, with a birdy doll called Robin. In turn, Robin produces his own doll, a little chick on a string called Ian.
By the end, Vine has assembled five puppets all in a row, each one performing a ventriloquist’s act with the next. It’s a comic tour-de-force.
Neither Tim Vine nor Count Arthur would consider themselves true ventriloquists — their incompetence is in fact an essential part of the joke — but Nina Conti is a technical expert, blessed with an almost supernatural ability to speak in an entirely different voice without moving her lips.
I have now been to see her show four times, and on each occasion I’ve been freshly impressed by the way she appears to be surprised, and often shocked, by what comes out of the mouths of her puppets.
They really do seem to have a life of their own.
Like Tim Vine and Count Arthur Strong, Nina Conti is also adept at playing new tricks with ventriloquism.
In recent years, she has taken to slipping masks on members of her audience, and, through a hand-held mechanism, making them say outrageous things. But she also does something much more ingenious.
At one point, her main puppet, a foul-mouthed monkey, tells her to put him back in the bag.
‘Follow my instructions. I’m a comedy guru,’ he says from within the bag. So she brings her hand back out, this time without the monkey on it.
‘But her hand continues to speak with the voice of the monkey.
‘Don’t you like me naked?’ it says. Nina looks non-plussed.
‘I miss the monkey,’ says Nina.
‘I am the monkey,’ growls the hand.
From there, the unseen monkey says he wants to enter her face. ‘Here I am!’ he says, and the words come out of Nina Conti’s mouth, only in the monkey’s croaky voice.
It’s a strangely unsettling moment: until then, our brains have been content to go along with the illusion that there are two beings on stage, not just one.
Ventriloquism, once so tired and old hat, has now turned into one of the liveliest and most inventive of all the performance arts.
Lord Charles must be spinning in his suitcase.
Count Arthur Strong -blissfully, brilliantly bewildered
by Brian Logan
at the London Palladium
Not the least of the achievements of Steve Delaney’s extraordinary character Count Arthur Strong is that he’s made mincemeat of the distinction between mainstream and niche. At points in his touring show, The Sound of Mucus, the spirit of popular, golden-age British comedy is distilled. At others, the Count’s confusion and constipated syntax so strains the patience, you could be watching the most audience-baiting genus of live art. What’s consistent is the blood-vessel-busting commitment of Delaney’s performance – a brand of character-comedy-as-transubstantiation that’s attainable only after 20 years’ meticulous refinement.
The opening half hour, a battery of malapropisms and garbled logic from the senile and bibulous Count, had an effect on me as vitalising as that of his “medicinal Lucozade”: I felt giddy with delight. The evening starts as it means to go on, as a faulty safety curtain reveals Arthur and his stooges Malcolm and Alan only from the knees down. Everything that can be botched will be botched, from the Count’s proposed tribute to “Redcar and Hammerstein’s” Sound of Music, via an emphysemic rendition of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, to his bid to eclipse Benny Hill as the greatest ever Shamrock Hitler … sorry, Sherlock Holmes.
If he’s got a dozen tortuous misnomers for that fictional detective, there are twice that many for Benedict Cumberbatch, a moniker that proves almost fatal to the barking Count. But the most memorable moment in Delaney’s Holmes sequence may be the wordless one that finds the Count’s sidekicks trying and failing to dress him in deerstalker and cape: a little visual symphony of dottiness, like something from the days of music hall. The voice-throwing skit – strictly a joke about Arthur’s total ignorance of that art – is almost as sublime, save that we’ve seen it from the Count on plenty prior occasions.
You could say the same about, say, his Feeding of the Five Thousand routine (first seen in Edinburgh 14 years ago) or his enthusiasm for The Sound of Music, aired on his radio show in 2005. Perhaps that’s fair enough: reviving and scrambling old material is in keeping with the Count’s forgetful shtick. And besides, no radio show could do justice to the spectacle of Count Arthur frolicking in Alpine regalia, forever tugging at the gusset of his too-tight lederhosen.
The von Trapp sequence is set up to be the grand finale, but soars a little lower than the Count’s best set pieces, and ends with a whimper. Elsewhere, there are passages in which the novelty of Arthur’s linguistic snafus wanes, and his bewilderment now and then leads more to stasis than hilarity. But there remains much to enjoy, from the Count’s would-be sage but self-perplexing apercus (“They say you never forget where you are whenever President Kennedy gets himself assassinated”) to his flashes of baroque misanthropy – a detour into the practicalities of suffocation being a particular and unexpected treat. As so often in the past, Delaney’s act offers a pretty rare combination of entertainment and enervation, but it’s undeniably brilliant.
May 20, 2017 by Tim Dowling
I’ll confess that the first time I encountered Count Arthur Strong (BBC1), I didn’t get it. I caught the second half of an episode of his Radio 4 show while driving, and thought I was listening to a live broadcast going genuinely wrong. It took me a while, but eventually I wised up. Or, it might be more fair to say, I gave in.
Now back for a third TV series, Steve Delaney’s befuddled music hall comedian is ensconced in Bulent’s Cafe, where trouble comes to him. Last night Michael (Rory Kinnear), the writer son of the Count’s old comedy partner, was trying to prevent Arthur from meeting his new agent and her wife, but this very precaution led, predictably, to chaos. Arthur inadvertently convinced the wife that their new house was haunted, and ended up agreeing to perform an exorcism.
There was a time when people said Count Arthur wouldn’t work on TV; in fact, he’s such a visual comic presence that it’s now clear a lot was lost on the radio. With his deadly combination of false erudition and confusion, the Count often talks himself into difficulty, but in this case a vow of silence caused all the trouble. The funniest moment may have been his twitching panic when the agent’s wife mistook his reticence as a sign that malevolent spirits were abroad.
He still talks plenty of nonsense, of course, some of it inspired. “My auntie Doreen thought she saw a leprechaun,” he said. “But it was just a pair of underpants near a swing.” It’s throwaway silliness, yet it conjures up a whole backstory in a sentence.
As with the other two, this series is co-written by Delaney and Graham Linehan, and there are overtones of Father Ted in an expertly plotted visual gag involving some ventriloquist’s dummies, executed with the necessary solemnity by Kinnear. But it’s Arthur’s amiable dopiness that makes it work, and carries it over the occasional misfire. Ultimately, resistance is futile.
May 17, 2017 by Bruce Dessau
It’s been a while since the last Count Arthur Strong series but the third run does not mark a significant change. Which is a Good Thing. Our befuddled hero (Steve Delaney) is still as hapless as ever, putting his foot in it at every opportunity and making life hard for long-suffering Michael (Rory Kinnear). The script, by Delaney and Graham Linehan (who also directs) is neatly plotted and regularly punctuated with laugh-out-loud humour. If you like your gags silly you have come to the right place. If it wasn’t for the fact that the opening episode involves an exorcism (and some booze) this could almost be a children’s programme and be scheduled at 5pm.
The only notable change in this series is the arrival of Birdie, played by Bronagh Gallagher. She is another oddball who hangs around in Bulents cafe. We find out early on that she has a penchant for painting silly faces on people when they are asleep or drunk. And somehow you suspect that this may be a part of the plot. Part-Seinfeld, part-Chekhov, Count Arthur does have a habit of setting up a series of unconnected scenarios early on in each programme that may well be tied up together towards the end.
As I suggested, there is something beautifully childllike about this series. Excitable Michael looks like he is about to get his big publishing break with a new agent, but is worried that Count Arthur is going to scupper things. And when it seems as if his agent’s house is haunted and Count Arthur suggests he can get rid of any evil in the house what could possibly go wrong? Of course, once Arthur is in situ with his chums John the Watch (Andy Linden) and Eggy (Dave Plimmer) the only spirits they come across are in bottles.
I won’t give away any more, you’d be better off watching this yourself. It’s shamelessly stupid at times and also shamelessly old-fashioned – not knockabout like Miranda, not crass like Mrs Brown’s Boys, somehow it inhabits its own universe. Inevitably the closest comparison is Father Ted due to its innate charm. And there is a visual film gag that I suspect was the idea of Graham Linehan. I may, of course be completely wrong though, Delaney is also pretty good at dropping cultural references. I am well aware that some people just don’t get Count Arthur, but if you don’t find this funny, please check for your pulse, you may be dead. And if you are alive, please check that you still have a sense of humour.
May 11, 2017 by Sean O’Grady
Like me, you may have mixed feelings about the arrival of the third TV series of Count Arthur Strong to what he would call “the BBBC”. On the one hand, any Count Arthur is better than no Count Arthur. On the other hand, there is something very annoying, baffling and disappointing about how badly the genius of Count Arthur on (BBBC) Radio 4 just goes so flat on the telly.
Partly it’s the loss of his northern chums such as Alf the Quality Butcher. The brilliant Rory Kinnear, once again deployed as comic foil to Arthur, just adds too much pleasantness to the mix, and they have tried to make Arthur nicer and kinder than we all know him to be. Check out his memoirs, Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, published, in the Count’s words, by Faber and Faber and Faber, to see what I mean. The greatest comedy creations are people you’d never really want to spend much time with – Alan Partridge, David Brent, Brian Potter, Nigel Farage – and Arthur is becoming way too likeable. Mean and manipulative is how we like him.
Still, the better news for the body of Count Arthur’s devotees, in which I count myself a devout member, is that the writing and acting are much improved on the first two TV runs, so thanks to scriptwriter Graham Linehan and Steve Delaney, the progenitor of the phenomenononon. The first episode revolves around a séance, and I loved the description of the effects of excessive Crème de Menthe consumption as “minty oblivion”. I just wished there was more of that. The witty writing, I mean, not the Crème de menthe, seeing as you’re not asking.
Count Arthur Strong – Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow
Delightfully cack-handed, stumbling and foolish shenanigans from Steve Delaney’s wholly inhabited Count
by Jay Richardson
More than 30 years after Steve Delaney first created the doddery and delusional variety turn from Doncaster, Count Arthur Strong seems as durable as ever. Not only is he about to appear in a third series of his BBC sitcom, he’s still packing them in at the theatre. Presenting his sketchily-remembered take on The Sound of Music, this is a typically confused, scattergun production from the easily distracted septuagenarian that also features lay preaching, an account of his Biblically-inspired cooking show, a Sherlock Holmes dramatisation and cack-handed ventriloquism.
The von Trapp shenanigans are dipped in and out of before the all-singing, all-stumbling finale with veteran Count Arthur fans having a reasonable notion of what to expect. But from the moment the curtain rises, albeit only to knee-height, you know you’re in safe hands with Arthur and his put-upon assistants Malcolm (Terry Kilkelly) and Alan (Dave Plimmer), a crowd favourite whose applause the egotistical Count soaks up, oblivious that it’s not for him. Although the opportunities presented by ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ in the Holmes bit of business are too delicious to resist, there are actually fewer malapropisms this time around for Arthur’s ‘lovely plums in my big mouth’, while clear highlights are the physical comedy and him berating those assistants.
Alongside the obligatory discovery of the coat-hanger still in his suit, the vent act is sublime foolishness, as he wields an immobile Little King Tut with one arm and Sulky Monkey on the other, the latter intermittently silent, then viciously attacking him. Prior to that, there’s a wonderfully wheezy tilt at Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’.
Delaney inhabits his creation so fully and realises his potential so expertly, that virtually every second line is a gag and the slapstick is classically accomplished. Despite the lederhosen and nuns’ habits, the ending doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its set-up, with the incoherence ultimately muffling the laughs rather than inspiring them.
Count Arthur Strong – Corn Exchange, Ipswich
by Sharon Lougher
Comedian Steve Delaney could probably have done with the BBC sitcom version of his deluded variety hall creation returning to our screens earlier than the latter half of this month to better coincide with this live tour but never mind: there is no shortage of punters wanting a slice of the malapropisms that make the Count such a bonkers delight.
Live, the Count is quite different from on TV: he’s living his art rather than reminiscing about it, as he attempts to put together a stage version of The Sound of Music. Where his supporting cast are fully fleshed out on TV, they’re a pointless addition here: the Count is best when left to his ramblings, which are enough to make you snort out your cider as he drifts from recalling the Biblical roles played by Sooty and Bobby Crush in his latest cookery show to his mad alternative version of The Trip co-starring Barry Cryer.
That it’s so unashamedly aimed at punters of a certain vintage – millennials won’t get it – is part of the joy here, as is the sense of Delaney unleashed. The musical homage to Julie Andrews might fizzle out at the end but Delaney’s comic creation is still on song.
Count Arthur Strong – Ipswich Corn Exchange, Ipswich
by James Hayward
They don’t make them like that any more, do they? Comedy greats like Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper, who began their careers on Britain’s variety stages – except, they do, because Steve Delaney has made one, he has created the veteran variety performer, doyen of light entertainment, Count Arthur Strong.
Count Arthur, a seventy-something with a trademark trilby and pencil moustache, is a man of contradictions. He is rude and cantankerous, unkind to his assistant and stage manager, but someone strangely likeable. His comedy derives from the fact that he is utterly oblivious to his total lack of talent. Nothing that goes wrong is ever his own fault or down to his own shortcomings. His mangling of his opening number Lovely Day (which had me in tears) is blamed entirely on the length of the sustained note.
In his memoirs, Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, Count Arthur pays tribute to his parents “wherever they went”. Well, I don’t know where they went, either, but I would hazard a guess they were Harry Worth and Hilda Baker – from one Arthur inherited his bumbling incompetence and the other his hilarious malapropisms.
Count Arthur Strong has had huge success, initially on the comedy circuit and later on radio and television – BBC1 is set to broadcast a third series of his sitcom this year – culminating in his role as Baron Hardup in the star-studded Palladium pantomime, Cinderella, last Christmas.
It is not difficult to see why. He is not only very funny, but his comedy, with its marked lack of expletives, has cross-generational appeal. His latest live show, sub-titled The Sound of Mucus, has a tribute to the 1960s film musical, which Count Arthur claims he has always wanted to be in, and much of the second half is devoted to his hapless re-enactment of highlights such as “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (Count Arthur in lederhosen – “I’m the one in the Nazi youth!”).
Some of the material was a little hit and miss, understandable perhaps, in a 90-minute show, but it is the word-play that I won’t forget: the malapropisms like “deep vein tombola”, and the film misquotes, (terrible Michael Caine impression:) “You were only supposed to blow Diana Dors up!”. Genius.