Steve Delaney’s comic creation Arthur Strong has been on the live comedy circuit since the late ’90s and Radio 4 listeners have been enjoying the foolish old variety star since 2005. But thanks to a helping hand from TV comedy guru Graham Linehan (Father Ted), he finally arrives on TV for the very first time this evening (July 8).
Slotted in at a family friendly 8.30pm, the show has been tipped as a potential “new Miranda” for the BBC. Digital Spy caught up with the show’s star to find out whether we should believe the hype.
How would you describe Arthur to people meeting him for the first time?
“I’ve always found this tricky to do. When I first started doing Arthur, I’d phone people up that I knew and ask them for their descriptions. Arthur is someone I have added bits to over time, every time I do him. It’s very difficult to give the right answer, because there are many answers to that question. You could say he’s an old variety has-been, who hasn’t done half the things he thinks he has, because he’s slightly deluded about his own biography. But I don’t think that does him justice. He’s very difficult for me to describe, even after all this time. I just know how to do him. I never feel hamstrung by Arthur. There’s lots that I don’t know about him. I know how he will react in situations, but the description of him is a very difficult thing… which I’m sure you are starting to realise from this very long answer.”
Who is he based on?
“He’s based on elements of lots of people I remember from my youth. I have a great talent for remembering old relatives misbehaving. Whenever it happened, I always seemed to be there making a mental note of it. Obviously because I knew somehow I would need it for this. I can really remember things clearly from my childhood, family members, next door neighbours and I think that’s the core of him. Real people doing things. A lot of people mention Harry Worth to me and say that I must have been influenced by him. I remember Harry Worth, but I wasn’t influenced by him. I can understand the connection though because there is a similar look.”
Will you be following the response to the show on Twitter and from the critics tonight?
“Oh sure. I’m interested in how people perceive it. The first series going out is the end of a lot of hard work. So I’m very interested to see how people respond to it. But I have a healthy outlook about these things. The good reviews are to be taken notice of and the bad ones are to be ignored. I’m quite good at doing that. I’m not someone who sneers at reviews. I’m into checking what people say. In a healthy way.”
The radio show is often described as divisive. Do you mind it being a show that people love or hate?
“Why shouldn’t people like it? Why shouldn’t people not like it? I’m very easy. I never set out to convert everyone. Graham (Linehan, co-writer) wants to convert everyone because he believes in it entirely. I always think it’s people’s prerogative to not like things. I have no problem with people not liking what I do. The only time I do have a slight problem is when people claim that something shouldn’t exist because they don’t like it. Comedy is such a strange thing, it can create a really powerful reaction in people. If people hear something they don’t like, they respond with real anger. ‘How dare the BBC air this? Don’t put this on! Put on something that I like! It’s often posed to me that question and I never have a problem at all. As long as there aren’t too many people who hate it, I don’t mind that at all. I can’t change how I do Arthur or what I do with Arthur. It’s all fine with me.”
Why do you think people get so angry about comedy that they don’t like?
“It seems to me that it’s a reaction to comedy. They think it’s a comedy, so they should find it funny and if they don’t find it funny, it annoys them. ‘They shouldn’t call this comedy! They shouldn’t put this on!’ People don’t think, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me’. For some reason, people are less philosophical about it. I’m not quite sure why. It’s a mystery to me. With drama, people just accept that it can be boring. But with comedy everyone takes it very personally. I can’t fathom it myself. I know a lot of people in the comedy world and they don’t call for things to be taken off that they don’t find funny. They just don’t watch it.”
The show feels like it’s part of a cultural shift to more traditional family sitcoms and less edgy, dark humour. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
“I think that both can exist. But I think for me it’s great to have that shift back to that sort of comedy. Part of Arthur’s appeal is that you don’t have any of those worries with a family watching it. There is nothing extreme and embarrassing for a family watching it and I have quite a lot of families who come and watch the live shows. For me, it’s brilliant. There have been three generations of families at my live shows and if there was a target audience for my show, that’s it. The full family. You are touching people of all ages and they are all finding something different that’s funny in what you do.”
You were originally planning a TV comedy quiz show with Arthur. Would you consider other projects like that if the sitcom’s a hit?
“Definitely. Arthur considers himself a variety artist and an old fashioned variety show is something that I’d love to do in the future. In the style that there used to be on TV, when there was wall-to-wall variety shows. The Lulu Show, The Cliff Richard Show, that sort of thing. I’d love to do one of those with Arthur. I’ll still be touring Arthur as well. Arthur was always a live act before even the radio show and he always will be. Touring live is a big part of what I do.”
What TV sitcom inspired you to get into comedy?
“Things like Steptoe and Son. Really classy classic shows like that. I love a bit of pathos and hopefully we’re touching on that a little bit or at least in the right area. I hope there’s moments where people laugh and I hope there’s moments where people are touched. That’s what I remember most about Steptoe and Son. Those moments where everything stopped and you were moved emotionally and then you quickly went back to the laughter. I love those moments of pathos in comedy.”
Rory Kinnear, your co-star, has been in the news of late…
“Never heard of him!”
Has he tipped you off and told you to stick a fiver on him being Doctor Who?
“No, no, he hasn’t. I think he’s fed up of hearing about it to be perfectly frank. As far as I’ve heard that’s just a rumour flying around. But talk about Rory – what a great moment it was for us getting him on the show. His star is on the rise at the moment and we’re delighted to have him. Rory’s not short of doors opening to him at the moment. I saw him a few weeks ago in Othello and he was so good in that. I think there’s plenty of doors open for him. With or without Doctor Who.”