By Tara Pardo: April 17, 2015
Count Arthur Strong has been referred to as comedy Marmite, but personally I’ve never understood how anyone could dislike Marmite, and I feel the same about Steve Delaney’s deliciously pompous, yet befuddled comic creation.
Not since Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge has there been such a fully formed masterpiece of a sitcom character, one that’s so convincing you can imagine what he might say if he were looking over your shoulder during your everyday life.
Count Arthur is a former variety star from Doncaster with delusions that he is a showbusiness legend. He gets easily confused and even more easily sidetracked, leading to surreal interludes and spluttering malapropisms (made all the more funny when putting on his pompous posh voice and talking down to those around him).
Of course, Arthur didn’t begin life as a sitcom character when he was born more than 30 years ago.
Steve Delaney says: “I started messing about with Arthur for the first time many years ago now, for an exercise at drama college, and then I left it alone. I sort of forgot about it for about ten years while I was finding work as an actor. I just remembered it as a sketch that quite a lot of people laughed at. Through that period I did sometimes find myself thinking about him and how he would react in certain situations. So eventually, when I decided I was ready to do something with the character, he kind of popped out and I’d been developing him unbeknown to myself in my sub-conscious.”
Steve explains: “I’ve grown into him. If I look back at some of the early stuff I did on the telly with Arthur, ten or 12 years ago, he does look like a younger man trying to be an older man and now that doesn’t happen! It didn’t feel like it at the time, but I look at it now and I think ‘God, I’m doing something strange with my chin’. Now he’s much more mannered and kind of knowing.”
When Count Arthur first hit the comedy stage, touring clubs and appearing at the Edinburgh Festival over several years, he had “cult comedy” status. He effortlessly moved on to Radio 4, where he has had seven series, and in 2009 won the Sony Radio Academy Award for comedy. In 2013 the first TV series of Count Arthur Strong aired on BBC2, followed by a second series on BBC1 earlier this year, co-written by Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan.
Steve says: “I’ve never felt that I’ve had to change Arthur. When I got the radio series I didn’t think I was going to have to make him different because it’s on the radio. Essentially, he’s always the same bloke, despite people saying he’s slightly more genial on the television. For me, the core of the character is always the same. I do have an instinct for how Arthur will react in any situation. The thing that interests me about Arthur is that he is quite a surreal character. There are lots of surreal flights of fancy and I enjoy him talking and ending up somewhere, not really realising how he got there.”
“It was great fun moving on to TV; it was always an ambition with Arthur. The first series was great in that respect because it was all new, there was a certain freedom because we were finding a lot of stuff out as we went along. For the second series we were trying to top the first series, so that became a bit more like serious work, but it was fantastic. It’s great working with Graham Linehan, who is very sensitive and attuned to Arthur; it’s a perfect pairing for me really. He’s one of the very few people that I’ve allowed to actually write a bit of dialogue for Arthur. We discuss and work together so much that one of us will have an idea and then once we’ve spent a day on it nobody knows who had the idea, nobody knows where bits of the story came from because it’s just an awful lot of discussion and an awful lot of laughing, which is fabulous. It’s a wonderful way to work.”
So now Count Arthur is back out on tour, has the audience changed?
“Yes,” says Steve, “and it happened through the radio series too; we started getting more of a family audience along. On this tour, we’ve been getting three generations of the same family in. It’s not something that I considered at the outset, but it’s exactly what Arthur should be aiming for. I like hearing that people have just come across it on TV and become interested in the character through more recent work. And The Hippodrome in Bristol is a lovely old theatre and it’s one of those kinds of theatres I always think Arthur should be playing at.”