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The man behind Count Arthur Strong talks about how the character has changed, his live show, writing autobiographies and comedy legend Graham Linehan
By Eugenie Johnson on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015
Count Arthur Strong is fast becoming one of the most beloved figures in British comedy. The man behind Count Arthur, Steve Delaney, has been playing the character since the 1980s and has consistently achieved comedy gold across a variety of platforms, including the stage, radio, writing and, most recently, TV. The television show, where Delaney works with Father Ted and IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan on the script, recently migrated from BBC 2 to BBC One and has seen Arthur’s popularity grow exponentially. The bumbling, ageing character, who often has problems articulating the particulars of the English language and suffers from delusions of grandeur, often finds himself creating mass confusion amongst his peers and finds himself in ludicrous situations.
Count Arthur is now going back on the road for three months, so I asked Steve Delaney about the lovable creation ahead of his appearance at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle on Saturday 7th February.
To me, Arthur is almost a composite of the strangest of peoples’ personality traits. How did you piece his character together and what was your original vision for him?
“I didn’t start out with any vision for Arthur really. He’s developed organically, bit by bit. In the early days I wasn’t relying on Arthur for a living and I subsidised “doing” him by working as a carpenter and the odd bit of TV acting work. This meant I could really take my time. In terms of strange personality traits… I suppose that’s true. I’ve always honed in on the oddities in people’s behaviour. It’s what makes people interesting. I haven’t consciously copied anyone but there are elements of many people I knew when I was a kid in Arthur. When I first started out I used to say that Arthur was an amalgam of all my shortcomings. I think that’s still probably true. The main motivation for doing Arthur though was simply to make people laugh.”
You’ve been playing Count Arthur since the 1980s; has he sort of become a part of your everyday personality now? Do Arthurisms seep into your everyday life?
“I suppose it’s inevitable to some degree. I’m working on Arthur all the time in several different mediums; TV, radio and now just about to go out on tour for three months. I must spend about two thirds of the year writing material and learning it. So yes, he is part of my everyday life but I don’t have his problems with the English language.”
Has Arthur’s character changed at all over the years?
“Yes he has. I’ve grown into him for one thing. I recently transferred three short films I did for the Paramount Comedy Channel (as was) in 1999 with the great Terry Titter (Terry Kilkelly) on to DVD, so I saw them for the first time in about 12 years or so and I thought I rather looked like a young man pretending to be an old man. Now I’m just an old man. But I think Arthur is much more authentic these days. It strikes me he was terribly mannered then, in a rather external way.”
What can we expect from the latest Count Arthur Strong show? Will there be a reprisal of his famous musical?
“Ah that would be telling. Yes there will be music. I can say that much. All Arthur’s live shows I would liken to “Nero fiddling while Rome burns.” In the TV show it’s often alluded to that Arthur’s “little shows” are a disaster. I hope Somebody Up There Licks Me will live up to that.”
Will there be any signs of Tiny Tut or Arthur’s famous Memory Man act?
“The whole show is a feat of memory, believe me, and Tiny Tut’s on his holidays I’m afraid. Having a fortnight in a caravan somewhere in Whitby. We’re not that close if truth be known. We possibly might see another little dummy though. But… I’ve said too much!”
Arthur has recently had two series of his comedy show on the BBC; how different is it to write and perform for TV compared to on the stage? Are there any challenges in adapting Arthur’s character to different situations?
“I never really feel I have to adapt Arthur too much. I think it’s just common sense really. For instance, in my radio series the scripts were much more dense and totally dialogue driven with the odd sound effect thrown in. I might spend a page telling people what I was doing. On TV they can see what you’re doing so you don’t need to spend any time doing that. Same in the live show. The radio scripts I wrote were 54/55 pages of pure dialogue. A TV script is around 30 pages and some of those could be purely visual. Of course, the challenge on TV is to turn those visual moments into something worth watching.”
What has it been like to work with legendary comedy writer Graham Linehan?
“It’s fabulous. Graham has a fantastic track record, having made some of my favourite comedy shows both as writer and director. You’d have to be an idiot not to want to work with him and he has a great understanding of Arthur too. He has a very unique comedy brain that man.”
Arthur has also written an autobiography, Through It All I’ve Always Laughed. Why did you want him to write his life story down on paper?
“Well you know, I do enjoy writing and a book was another discipline I wanted to try, to see if Arthur worked in that format. I hope he did. I certainly enjoyed the whole process. Meeting publishers, working out who to work with, cover design, layout of book. It was all fascinating and I would love to do more, time and commission permitting. I quite fancy Arthur as a sort of poor man’s Roald Dahl children’s author, in his head. I think that could be quite funny.”
The book is littered with hand-written side-notes reminding Arthur to buy stamps and ordering the editors to print in specific ways. The actual content of his life story is hilarious enough as it is, so why did you decide to put in these little additions? Not that I’m complaining, I think they’re very humorous!
“The original notion for the book was that it was a proof that had been printed by mistake, thus all the handwritten notes and shopping lists etc in the margins from Arthur. It was designed to make the ramshackle way Arthur lived his life even more apparent. In fact, if Arthur were to write his autobiography again it would probably be quite different. Sticking to the actual facts is something he would find rather constraining I feel.”
After this run of your dates, what’s next for you and Arthur?
“Well a holiday would be nice after three months on the road. But if we are to do a third series of the TV show then it would be pretty straight into writing that. Possibly a Christmas Special for the radio… Maybe another book. We shall see!”