Interview on MSN

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For the last eight years, faded variety star Count Arthur Strong has been confusing listeners on Radio 4 – and winning awards – with anecdotes that blur various events in his life.

The show has made a transition from Radio 4 to BBC2 (starting 8th July 8.30pm) and we spoke to Arthur’s creator, Steve Delaney, who discusses Arthur’s creation, foot spas, and details one incredible anecdote about breaking wind.

Do you mentally change when that moustache goes on?

I suppose I do, although the change is getting less and less. People often think it takes me a long time to turn into Arthur before a show. It doesn’t. It takes the length of time to put the gear on. I’ve always had a healthy take on what I do for a living. It’s the lunatic part of me that must be obeyed.

He looks such an old vaudeville character, was there anyone you didn’t base him on?

I can honestly say, hand on heart, he’s not based on anyone. He’s based on millions of things but I’ve never looked at a comedian and thought Arthur is a version of him. It was instinctive which is why it’s taken quite a long time, in some people’s eyes, because Arthur develops a bit more whenever I do him.

I’ve done eight or nine Edinburgh festivals with Arthur and I get to a certain point in the run, about a week in, when I don’t have to worry about the words anymore. I can just relax into it and that’s when things start happening, and the show you end up taking on tour at the end of Edinburgh is quite different to the show you start with.

It’s one of the great things about running a show in up there. Very often in Edinburgh there would be three or four things would happen that would become the funniest moments in the show, which weren’t there to start with.

Do you suddenly find rhythms that you hadn’t anticipated at the beginning of writing that show?

Absolutely. The same goes for the radio show. By myself, I wrote 44 episodes of the radio show – and I don’t mean here, ‘Didn’t I do well?…

Didn’t you do well, Steve?

Thank you very much. But I mean it’s very easy to lose track you’re writing comedy because you have to write half-an-hour and the things you’re writing on an instinct you’ve developed for that style. It’s not until you get to the read-through that you really know that all these bits work.

99 times out of 100, or 43 out of 44, they work, even though you’ve written from instinct I’ve developed from writing Arthur’s radio scripts. Very often things I wrote wouldn’t make me laugh, particularly. I may giggle a bit as I’m writing it, but I’d forget that they were funny.

It was a strange and unique thing, in that things don’t stop being funny, you just know they’re the right things to write. It wasn’t until you delivered the lines and heard everyone, that you knew you’d done it right. It’s a peculiar thing. It’s not that instant gratification of having two people in the same room, as happened on the telly working with Graham Linehan. We were laughing a lot as we were writing it.

Was it weird writing with someone else after developing Arthur for so many years?

It was to start with. I had to tune myself into working with someone. Up until working with Graham, whatever I thought went. He made me examine a lot of things and I was a little bit irritated, but, I have to say, we reached a point where suddenly everything made sense.

It was a great point to reach, to realise we’d clicked. From the second draft onwards, once the difficult first draft was out of the way, we could have fun and change the basic framework around. Rehearsals were great fun. We didn’t stop changing. We’d start rehearsing Monday and by the time we came to record the show on Friday, we
had a much sharper and funnier script.

Had you always intended for the Count to lug about a foot spa? Was that something that hadn’t changed?

Yeah. The first episode we wrote as a pilot and the way the series was commissioned was through a rehearsed reading. So it was cast with everyone that you see in it. We were offered the chance of a pilot but turned it down, not wanting to spend 18 months on it and then not have a series commissioned from it.

We had great confidence and frankly, for me, it was much easier to be bullish to go into a room and saying that was Graham Linehan stood in front of me [laughs]. He has a certain pedigree.

For me it’s an ensemble show and I think we’ve achieved that. It’s very important that happens – it’s all been about slightly clever put downs recently but Graham and I wanted a show with heart with real character relationships – people who all look out for each other.

Speaking of casting, landing Rory Kinnear must have been a coup…

It was the most a fantastic thing. When Rory came in and read for the part of Michael, it was one of those moments when we looked at each other. Immediately he was the guy we wanted. He is great. I loved working with him.

There’s one day – I’ll never forget it – we had Lindsay Duncan in an episode and just walking through Shepherd’s Bush to the rehearsal, thinking, ‘How on Earth have I ended up in a telly show with Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan?’ It was a wonderful day.

With the café being the heart of the show, were you looking to embrace some sitcom values that have been ignored by other comedies?

Perhaps, but Arthur is a bit of a throw back anyway so we’re always going to have that nostalgia element. It’s kind of lead by Arthur as a character, rather than us deciding to create something that’s old fashioned and that’s how Arthur has led us to it.

One of the things I really liked about the radio series was that sometimes people who tuned in and didn’t know what it was, I’d get emails from people who think it was some old 50s radio show. Then, suddenly, you’d have Arthur make a reference to Beyonce and it would really pull them up short.

Those contemporary reference points that turned the show into something else – I loved that. You can be current and have these people looking out for each other. I think it’s a long time since we’ve had a sitcom with heart. I hope we’ve pulled this off.

What we see in Arthur is that he’s pretty happy – he’s not one of these guys whose star has waned and is bitter about it.

Arthur thinks the next chance is just around the corner. His optimism is one of the things I love about him. The dogged determination he has in life. He has lots of shortcomings, as well – he loses his thread constantly and blames everyone else when everything goes wrong.

That’s a very Northern thing, that. I’ve witnessed that and done it. I’ve even blamed a tree once for breaking wind, I seem to recall [tries not to start laughing]

Go on…[we’re gasping here]…

I think [laughs] I remember [laughs] many years ago [laughs] looking around for something to blame in one of those moments…

In what situation?

I was with a girlfriend at the time, many decades ago, I broke wind and blamed a tree.

That’s incredible. That’s like Homer Simpson going while he’s driving and turning on the radio to mask it.

That’s the thing about that sort of defence mechanism. I kind of though of a similar mechanism for Arthur, but exaggerated much more than mine.

Do you get any time away from Arthur?

Since 2002 I’ve done nothing else for a living – writing and recording a radio series and then going on tour with a new show every year. There’s even more work in writing a TV series and I’ve gone straight into writing Arthur’s memoirs three days after we finished recording.

I’ll be writing that until I go on holiday and hopefully when I get back from that, I’ll find out about a second series, so we’ll be straight back into writing that all being well.



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