Gigglebeats Review

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Opinion: In praise of BBC Two’s Count Arthur Strong
July 13, 2013 by Peter Thompson

I’m a huge fan of Count Arthur Strong’s radio show.

The terminally confused ex-music hall star with the addled memory gripped me from the first listen; his malapropisms and petty one-upmanship have never failed to please. So when I heard it was going to TV I was, quite naturally, appalled.

When I first discovered Count Arthur I sought out footage on YouTube. The live act with the Egyptian mummy dummy is just, well, all right. And the strange scenes of Count Arthur walking around a museum alone are more unsettling than funny.

If you’d stumbled on those first, you’d have no inkling that this character is one of the greatest radio comedy creations ever.  Yet he is.  He came out of nowhere and slipped into the ranks alongside Tony Hancock and Alan Partridge – but when you saw him it all went a bit off.

It’s an odd sort of act when ardent fans say, “Oh, he’s brilliant… but don’t see him live, it’s a bit shit.” I saw Count Arthur on his last tour, and, though it was certainly enjoyable, it wasn’t the master class the radio shows are. I’m not sure why it didn’t work live.

Maybe [writer and performer] Steve Delaney, working too hard to appear old, adopted a limping, taught shouldered gait that became creepily decrepit – and that’s why I was dreading the TV series. If nothing else it would mean a long delay until he got back to Radio 4 where he belongs.

But it works. The addition of Graham Linehan to the writing crew can’t have hurt, but the writing was never the problem. Perhaps his telly expertise is what made the difference.

Much that’s familiar from the radio is gone; none of the original cast survive. Perhaps Sue Perkins is now too recognisable from scoffing historical dinners. There’s also no Malcolm – again, they had to be harsh in getting a plausible look, and actor Terry Kilkelly can sound like a  naive drama student, but he can’t look like one. Doormat Geoffrey, Wilf The Butcher and Gerry in the cafe have also gone.  They sounded brilliant but maybe they didn’t look right.

They’ve been replace by a similar bunch of characters.  We’re introduced to them all in the first episode, but none really get the chance to make an impression.

The biggest change, however, is the introduction of a sort of straight man.  Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear) is the son of Arthur’s old comedy partner, tasked with writing a book on his distant father.  This could add a bit of pathos, and, judging from flirtations with the cafe waitress, an unexpected romantic sub arc through the series.

His character is almost the only real, sane person among barmy caricatures, and may be a sort of guide for the viewer into the Count’s odd world.

Delaney has aged into the Count quite comfortably, no longer a hint of a young man in a silly wig.  And the main reason Arthur was never quite as good live was he was never quite doing a sitcom.  Too many set pieces and monologues.  Among people, infuriating them, fawning upwards or pouring down exasperated scorn, that’s where he really shines.

In the end it works because they’ve changed it just enough to keep it the same. It’s trimmed down and sharpened up for the telly, but at heart it’s still a pompous old man with a bad memory saying very funny things.



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