You Can Count On Arthur
First published Friday 27 March 2015
This year saw Count Arthur Strong move firmly into the mainstream as his second television series made its BBC One debut. Ahead of two shows in Sussex the Count’s creator and alter ego Steve Delaney tells Duncan Hall about the move from radio to television, and the role Brighton’s Komedia played in developing the character.
“Brighton is a spiritual home for Arthur,” says Steve Delaney from his Somerset home, midway through national tour Somebody Up There Licks Me.
“In terms of the live shows it was where I found my first big audience of people that got it – and there has always been a link with Komedia.”
Delaney met Komedia’s co-founder David Lavender in 1995, when he was part of a Hank Williams-inspired show at Edinburgh.
“Oddly it all fell into place when I met David,” says Delaney, who created the character of former variety star Count Arthur Strong while at drama school in the 1980s.
“It was before I started doing Arthur, but David became a staunch supporter of the character – he was quite taken with him.”
Arthur had begun life as a drama school exercise about circuses.
The Count started out as a former strongman, taking his name from an off licence flyer Delaney picked up in Wood Green. A few years later Delaney was encouraged to dust the character off by an old friend from theatre school.
“Komedia Entertainment bankrolled my 2002 Forgotten Egypt show on the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Delaney, who was the first act taken on by Richard Daws’ management arm of the venue.
“It was my breakthrough show – I started selling out the studio space at the Gilded Balloon. It was hugely novel for me after many years of thinking how to get more people to see the show. It was when I started to do Arthur for a living.”
Prior to that Delaney had earned a living as a carpenter – using the proceeds from his day job to fund short runs at London theatre spaces such as the King’s Head in Crouch End and the Canal Cafe in Little Venice, or to go to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I could have been a successful carpenter,” he laughs now. “It subsidised me doing Arthur. It was a great way of doing it at my own pace – it didn’t feel like I had to rush on with it. The fact I wasn’t hugely successful immediately didn’t perturb me. I didn’t worry if a large part of the audience didn’t really get it or find it funny.”
His writing method for Arthur has remained largely unchanged from those days – with Delaney admitting he’s never sure whether he has got a good show until he’s in front of a live audience.
“It’s on instinct really,” he says. “When I was touring by myself I would have a script with cues on it to give to the venue technicians – I could see them looking at the script thinking ‘What is this?’. It doesn’t read funny – it’s the way it comes out of Arthur which makes it funny. I’m not interested in the notion of sitting down and mapping everything out – I’m more into doing it. It was the same when I was a carpenter – I would rather work with a bit of wood in my hand than plan everything. It’s just my nature as an individual. I haven’t a clue about the best way of doing things – I don’t ask too many questions!”
Delaney’s choice of Egypt as subject matter for his breakthrough show – with Arthur setting himself up as an Egyptologist – fed into the comedy of misunderstanding which is central to the character.
Arthur is the sort of man who can interpret an offhand question as a revolutionary new addition to a cafe menu (“two teas at once?”), force a broken foot spa onto random visitors or become obsessed with the idea of eating human eggs through his own bizarrely random thought processes.
“Egypt was an opportunity to mispronounce every single name he tried to say,” says Delaney. “It was also something quite a lot of people know a little bit about. It’s important when Arthur goes off and gets the facts wrong.”
Following the success of the live shows – which even earned him an inaugural Argus Angel when Arthur came to the 2007 Brighton Fringe – Delaney was offered the chance to write his own radio show.
Starting in 2005, the show ran for seven series and several specials on BBC Radio 4, including last year’s Christmas episode.
It has become both a cult favourite and an award-winner, earning a Gold Sony Radio Academy Award For Comedy in 2009. Many of the episodes in the early series were recorded live at Komedia’s theatre venue in Gardner Street.
“I was very finicky about writing the first draft for each radio show,” says Delaney, who worked with Brighton’s Graham Duff as script editor.
“Graham would email back notes, and the second draft would be pretty much it until the day of the recording where everyone would throw in their own ideas as they were reading it through.”
On the radio show Arthur was joined by his young protégé Malcolm Titter, played by long-time live sidekick and current touring buddy Terry Kilkelly, as well as a cast of characters played by Brighton’s own Joanna Neary, Dave Mounfield and Alastair Kerr alongside household names Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc and Barry Cryer.
Delaney admits it would have been difficult to transfer the radio world of Arthur onto television.
“It would have given us an awful lot of problems,” he says. “The actors are playing several parts each – and many are not the right age for the parts they are playing. I think people would have an image in their head what they look like from the radio series – I do get people telling me I’m not Arthur!”
When it came to creating the television series Delaney adopted a different approach from Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! – collaborating with Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan.
“We have been working together from start to finish,” he says. “The difficult bits are really the structure and storyline – the easier bits are the dialogue. We laugh the most when we start the second draft and most of the structural problems are sorted out. Graham pontificates about structure – but the series has really benefited from his insistence we work that way. It gives us lots of layers and spiralling storylines.”
The first television series was broadcast on BBC Two in 2013, but when Delaney and Linehan started on the project almost five years before it was in a very different format – as a gameshow.
“We felt it might be a bit of a stretch to introduce Arthur in a sitcom, with readymade characters,” says Delaney. “It might have been a struggle for people to know who he was and how he conducted himself. We wanted to follow the Alan Partridge model [where Steve Coogan’s alter ego was introduced as a woeful chat show host on Knowing Me Knowing You], with the sitcom as the next stage.”
But making a pilot for the BBC the writers found the format of Count Arthur Strong’s Entertainment Game tough to work with.
“It wasn’t quite right – we needed three couples each week who would have to be actors,” says Delaney.
“They would have to look like contestants, otherwise it would be seen as a spoof and wouldn’t work. We weren’t sure if we wanted to continue to do it, and fortunately the BBC said they wanted to find out more about Arthur as a character.”
So the pair were commissioned to write a sitcom script, having already spent more than 18 months writing the pilot show.
Aside from his companions the Arthur which is documented on television is quite different from his radio and stage counterpart. The most obvious difference is the binge drinking has gone, but he is also a softer character – more confused than prone to fly into rages.
The location of the show also changed from around Doncaster to Greater London.
“We weren’t tied to having him living up north,” says Delaney.
“We liked the idea of him being a fish out of water – in a place where he ended up living after his last acting work. Arthur sounds as northern as they come, but he claims to be a Cockney in his memoir [Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, which was released in 2013]. He says he was born in London but evacuated to Doncaster during the war. I really liked the notion that Arthur tells people he is a Cockney.”
The central conceit of Count Arthur Strong on television revolves around Rory Kinnear’s Michael Baker, the son of Arthur’s old variety partner.
Michael contacts Arthur to help him research a vicious tell-all biography about his father, who he feels neglected him all his life. In his own dotty and confusing way Arthur helps Michael see the real man his father was.
“It was very important to be a little more sophisticated in our approach to television,” says Delaney.
“We couldn’t just put the radio show on television and have Arthur doing monologue after monologue with everyone else waiting for him to stop talking. My television memories are of Steptoe And Son and Hancock, which worked when there was pathos. When you watched them you could see them yearning to get out of their family situation and circular life. I loved that notion that you could feel for something empathetically, but by laughing a lot. It’s more complicated and more theatrical in a way – pathos in comedy was important for me and it works very well on television. We wanted to make something with heart.”
Perhaps the most obvious moment of pathos happened midway through the first series.
Towards the end of an hilarious hospital episode -which had seen Arthur somehow mistaken for a doctor and getting another chance to deliver a unique reading of a line he first spoke in Emergency Ward 10 – his biggest fan Katya passed away unexpectedly.
The event drew all the disparate characters together in Bulent’s Cafe, and perfectly set up the critically acclaimed second series, which saw Arthur’s viewing figures double.
“Both Graham and I had cafes which meant something to us,” says Delaney on deciding to make Bulent’s Cafe the centre of Arthur’s world. For six years I lived next door to a cafe run by a Turkish guy – although he was really nice, not fierce like Bulent. We would do each other favours – if he needed anything fixing I would do it for a free breakfast. The characters that would go in there were nutty people – I added little bits to Arthur from them. In the second series we left the cafe quite a few times, but we kept coming back to it at the start and the end of episodes. It set up the characters of [cafe regulars] John The Watch and Eggy quite well.”
Joining Delaney and Kilkelly on tour is Dave Plimmer. He plays the confused Eggy in the television series, who is waging a one-man war on the egg industry armed solely with a sandwich board.
“When we first started writing the series we weren’t sure about Eggy,” says Delaney. “He was originally a younger person, but that jarred with me. It made him seem a little sad compared to the funnier and warmer characters. When we gave the character to Dave for the first episode of the first series we liked the way he looked and asked him to stay for the rest of the series. During the live show he makes an entrance and normally gets a wonderfully warm round of applause, but in Scotland they went bonkers, chanting ‘Eggy, Eggy!’. The series is about so much more than just Arthur.”
Count Arthur Strong the television series also marked the sitcom debut of established tragedian Rory Kinnear, finally following in his late father comic Roy’s footsteps. “There was a bit of a moment for him when we went into the live studio,” says Delaney. “He remembered being in the audience watching his dad. Rory is one of the finest young actors of his generation – he can pick and choose what he wants to do. I’m happy he enjoys doing the series. He’s great to work with. There was a moment in rehearsals for the first series when I was working with him and Lindsay Duncan where I wondered how I ended up working with people of that calibre!”
As for the future Delaney is waiting to hear from the BBC if a third Count Arthur Strong series is on the cards.
“We are fairly confident,” he says. “We’re very proud of the work we have done on it, but you can never second guess the BBC.”
For now there is the live tour, the possibility of a further Christmas special on the radio, and another book project.
“I like the idea of Arthur trying to write a fairy tale like a Roald Dahl type author,” says Delaney. “It would be like a mish mash of every fairy tale you had ever heard. The great thing is, since the television series we are getting family audiences coming to see the live shows. I never thought about that when I started doing Arthur in comedy clubs. People of all ages like seeing an elderly man act disgracefully or blame other people for things he has obviously done.”