Graham Linehan: Why Count Arthur Strong isn’t Marmite
By Morgan Jeffery Tuesday, Jan 6 2015
Count Arthur Strong is back, with Steve Delaney’s comic creation having earned not just a second series but a promotion to BBC One.
The first series – broadcast back in 2013 – earned a BAFTA nomination but split the critics, with even Janice Hadlow – controller of BBC Two – describing the show as “Marmite”.
Ahead of series two’s launch, Digital Spy spoke to the sitcom’s co-writer – BAFTA winner Graham Linehan – about the new episodes, the demise of TV criticism and why the studio sitcom is due a comeback.
Count Arthur Strong is back and now you’re on BBC One – was that something you knew going in?
“We definitely didn’t know about it beforehand. They showed the BBC a couple of episodes and they liked it, I guess. So yeah, that was kind of a nice surprise for us.”
The general impression seems to be that BBC One is home to mainstream hits and BBC Two has the more experimental, edgy stuff – do you think that’s right?
“I think that’s pretty fair. I mean, BBC One is watched by millions more people so it stands to reason that shows on BBC One would be a little broader in their appeal – but the challenge on Count Arthur Strong for me was… I always believe that you can do a popular show that is intelligent.”
“There’s a feeling that for shows to be successful they have to be lowest common denominator and things like that, but shows like Only Fools and Horses prove that isn’t true – and I wanted to do a show that did the same thing.”
“I wanted to have a show that had very broad appeal but was smart and funny, and I have to say I take it as a real victory that it ended up on BBC One. I’ll always be thankful to BBC Two but I’m also very happy that Count Arthur Strong will reach more people, because my belief is… to know him is to love him.”
How do you feel about the reaction to the first series? Even Janice Hadlow described the show as “Marmite”…
“I don’t really subscribe to the thing that’s he’s Marmite. I think people at the moment… you get a storm of tweets about 10 minutes into the first episode, declaring it to be the worst thing that’s ever happened. You just have to wait for that to pass.”
“The people who did stick with it tended to love it, so I’m really not nervous. I would say let’s talk again after this series and see if that ‘Marmite’ thing is still around, because I think it will disappear.”
Why do you think that is?
“Because he’s so funny. He is just so incredibly funny – and the thing is… at first, we also alienated a few of his fans, because they wanted it to be more like the radio show; and the thing about the radio show is it’s really funny and it really works well, but if you were to translate it directly it would literally just be people standing in a circle, staring at Arthur as he does speeches that go on for five minutes.”
“We had to get in new characters. We had to have him bounce off things and we had to make more use of the visual possibilities of the medium… so we had to change everything. We had to really rebuild it and I think it works.”
“I think what kind of happened early on is that you have that instant reaction, which is so tempting now. I’m the same way myself. Now if I’m watching something I like, half of me wants to stop watching so I can tweet about it. It’s a very powerful urge. So when it’s negative, you’ve just got to ride it out.”
Do you think broadcasters are putting too much stock in that kind of instant, social media feedback?
“I don’t know if they are or they’re not. For instance, there’s [Linehan’s BBC Four sitcom] The Walshes, which I’m very proud of – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done or been involved in. But when that went out,. within the first 15 minutes we had again just an absolute fire-storm of people saying that it was just outrageous that it was commissioned.
“Now I’m kind of thinking… maybe I shouldn’t look at Twitter while the show’s going on! Maybe I should relax a little bit and take it as one of those features of modern life that you have to try and ignore, and I have a feeling that commissioners have realised the same thing; because good and bad, in the opening few minutes of something you’re always going to get a strong reaction, especially with comedy, which is much more harshly viewed than other forms.”
Do you think in particular studio sitcoms with a live audience come in for a hard time?
“Yeah – I mean, there’s an idea that it’s an archaic form but it’s not, it’s just currently unfashionable. Fawlty Towers and Seinfeld are the guiding stars for me – I’m always trying to emulate the farce of Fawlty Towers and the smartness and sophistication of Seinfeld – and they work just great in front of an audience.”
“If Fawlty Towers hadn’t been in front of an audience, it wouldn’t have been as funny – full stop. Just imagine Fawlty Towers without laughter – it would just be a man shouting!”
Are studio sitcoms as unfashionable as they once were? Miranda and similar shows are big hits…
“I think it’s still possibly unfashionable. You have critics complaining about it, often using the phrase ‘canned laughter’ – which is so annoying. I just think, can you imagine another profession where the people actually writing about the subject don’t actually go and see a studio audience being recorded; who don’t know how it’s done and have zero interest in learning?”
“I think TV criticism is so devalued that it’s the only kind of place where the journalist would get away with that. You wouldn’t be able to get away with that in any other kind of criticism, but I think it shows how many editors don’t take it seriously as a form.”
“I take it seriously. I learnt to write by learning Clive James’s TV criticism. It has enormous potential as a critical form, but at the moment in most newspapers, it’s where they put the village idiot.”
“To go back to your original question, I think [the studio sitcom] still has a way to go. I think there needs to be another Seinfeld – or I’m hoping that Count Arthur Strong gets that lift after this. But there’s a reason why the studio sitcom has been popular in the past. There’s a reason why people loved it.”