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Count Arthur Strong’s transfer to BBC2 confirms Radio 4 as comedy pioneer
Steve Delaney’s creation about ageing variety performer is latest of many BBC radio comedy shows to migrate to television
By Mark Lawson
Sunday 7 July 2013
Prior to its transfer on to television, Count Arthur Strong ran for 44 episodes over seven years on Radio 4.
Although BBC radio was born a decade before BBC television, the 91-year-old service for the ear generally ranks junior to its 81-year-old offspring for the eye of the media, the fees paid to staff and the size of individual audiences. But, in one particular genre, the older medium remains a respected pioneer and ground-breaker.
When Count Arthur Strong premieres on BBC2 at 8.30pm on Monday, Steve Delaney’s show about an ageing variety performer prone to falling over his words and his feet will become the latest in an impressive line of television comedy shows that started out as sound only. Leading comedians including Sarah Millican, Harry Hill, Steve Coogan, David Mitchell and Robert Webb have gone on to win numerous Bafta awards for the BBC and ITV after workshopping their acts or key characters – Coogan’s Alan Partridge, for one – on BBC Radio 4 shows. Some of the most successful comedy franchises of recent times, such as The League of Gentlemen and David Walliams’ and Matt Lucas’ Little Britain, were also heard before they were seen.
The transfer of Count Arthur Strong, which has had 44 radio episodes since 2005, confirms the sense that, in comedy, Radio 4 has become for BBC1 and BBC2 something like the youth academy of a major football club. And the metaphor is apt because one reason for the flow of shows between the media is that there is a long tradition of radio producers scouting for young comic talent at university revues and at festivals, especially the Edinburgh fringe.
Blogs and feedback shows suggest, however, that a significant percentage of Radio 4’s listeners are instinctively hostile to its comedy output, which may be one reason why so much of it speeds to TV, where budgets are bigger and the minds of audiences and critics often more open to edge and experiment.
Although many of those who watched Little Britain, League of Gentlemen and the various Alan Partridge projects on television may never have heard the earlier radio versions, the roots remain apparent in the extent to which the characters in all those shows are vocally distinctive. The experience of creating people through accent and language alone clearly shaped and benefitted the later performing styles of Walliams, Lucas, Coogan and the League’s Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.
In making the move, though, it is crucial to rethink the concepts visually. The impersonation programme Dead Ringers was never as sharp on BBC2 as on Radio 4 because, while the performers could recreate celebrity voices precisely, faces and bodies are less malleable.
The TV transfer of Count Arthur Strong has taken the precaution of teaming radio creator Delaney with Graham Linehan, whose screen credits include Father Ted and The IT Crowd. As if to show they know they are somewhere else, the opening episode begins with a succession of visual gags and introduces several characters – including Rory Kinnear as the son of Strong’s former double-act partner – who were not part of the radio version. That said, as if in homage to the piece’s origins, Linehan and Delaney also bring off a very funny sound effect joke involving a beaten gong.
The result is a show that stands alone for viewers who come to it new. For those who knows its origins, tonight’s transmission further builds the reputation of radio as Britain’s comedy laboratory.