Steve Bennett on last night’s opening episode
Since the ratings success of old-fashioned sitcoms such as Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda, the BBC has looked backwards for inspiration as it searches for its next comedy hit. But the results – Citizen Khan, The Wright Way – have not been good.
Count Arthur has a similar retro feel, as befitting a show about a bygone variety turn now languishing in obscure dotage, but its inventive litany of misunderstandings and malapropisms, plus a distinctively bizarre lead character, put it in an entirely different league.
The initial signs, however, were not strong. As Michael, the sole straightman in a universe of oddballs, arrived at the theatrical count’s house to interview him for a book, the studio audience guffawed loudly and intrusively at ‘no hawkers’ signs that were mildly amusing at best. But as the show progressed, the laugh track quickly became less noticeable. Why? Because the gags landed more firmly – and you’re only aware of studio laughter if you don’t find the scene funny.
Comedy is always found in the gap between what’s expected to happen and what actually does; and since the ageing count’s befuddled mind is a mess of jumbled synapses, there’s plenty of opportunity to pack in jokes born of confusion, gleefully seized by the writers.
Creator Steve Delaney has been working on this character for long enough, via Edinburgh shows and seven radio series, to make him sympathetic, and even believable, despite being so surreal. He can be self-centred, and gets irascible at life’s petty annoyances, but here he’s as soft in the heart as he is in the head, certainly compared to earlier outings.
The hand of co-writer Graham Linehan can also be detected in some of the opening episode’s slapstick set pieces – and if anyone has has proven record for crafting a sitcom around exaggeratedly bonkers characters, it’s the co-creator of Father Ted.
The cafe where the count hangs out is certainly a menagerie of madness. Former stand-up Andy Linden plays a friendly, if enigmatic, grotesque; Ruth Posner is an elderly Polish lady lacking all her limbs, organs and marbles and Dave Plimmer plays Eggy, a conspiracy theorist never out of his sandwich board detailing his egg-based philosophy.
The affable Michael, well-played with a natural air by Rory Kinnear, is the relatively normal pivot around which all this insanity swirls. His patient reactions to what the bombastic yet forgetful Arthur is trying to convey is the heart of the show – both comedically and emotionally. In the final funeral scene, featuring a great cameo from Barry Cryer, the count describes Michael as ‘my new best friend’, in four words encapsulating the count’s loneliness and the trap that will bind these two characters together over the coming episodes.
But the closing scene also struck an off-note, artificially frantic and desperate, as grand misadventures were heaped almost arbitrarily on most those present to ramp up the embarrassment. While a show needs a climax, the funniest physical moments come from the count’s more modest battles with his own frailties, falling asleep during his ‘memory man’ routine or trying to exploit a ‘two-for-one’ offer he imagines he’s getting on cups of tea, despite having only one mouth. That said, he does a pratfall as well as Miranda.
First episodes of sitcoms are, notoriously, the most difficult, and Count Arthur Strong got a great deal right, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments crammed into its 28 minutes. This could well become the next comedy smash the BBC so desperately needs… expect an eventual leap to BBC One.