Irish Times Book Review “I haven’t read a funnier book all year.”This entry was posted in Press on .
by Paul Howard
Irish Times: Tue, Feb 4, 2014, 15:36
Count Arthur Strong, variety performer and bit-part actor turned cranky and grandiloquent old codger, is a character who has largely evaded the radar of an Irish audience. Which is a pity. The comedian Steve Delaney’s characterisation of the permanently befuddled, malapropism-spouting, National Service generation’s legend-in-his-own-imagination is one of the funniest British comic creations of the past 20 years, born out of the comedic writing tradition that produced Tony Hancock and Alf Garnett.
The count began his life as a character in Delaney’s stand-up act. He was then the star of a long-running Radio 4 series in which the deluded old thesp – variously described as “the president of the Shoulder of Mutton angling team”, “treasurer of the Whitfield Street rhubarb co-operative” and “the South Riding of Yorkshire pork-pie-balancing champion” – scrabbled around for voice work (and cheap cuts of meat) in Doncaster in the twilight of a career that included cameos in Bridge Over the River Kwai and Juliet Bravo.
After seven series of the radio show he became the star of an eponymous BBC television comedy, cowritten and directed by Graham Linehan and produced as a traditional British studio sitcom.
The count’s latest incarnation is as the author of Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, a wonderfully funny, tell-all memoir that traces the glorious upward trajectory of his career, from his humble beginnings as the only son of contortionist parents in wartime Britain to the vertiginous heights of light entertainment. Along the way he lays the facts of his life bare, from the source of his mysterious title to stories of drug-taking excess, and from his on-off friendship with Barry Cryer to his recipe for rhubarb wine.
With a characteristically tenuous grasp on reality, he recalls his first, faltering steps in “the business”, co-opted as a child into his mother and father’s stage act at the Newcastle Hippodrome. He would climb out of his pram and kick his drunken father “up the behind”. After that first performance, he recalls waiting up all night, aged four, for the reviews to come in.
In that moment, as he happily concedes, a star was born – the star who would go on to grace our screens (very fleetingly) in All Creatures Great and Small and perform in front of audiences “as varied as Archbishops of Canterburys”.
All of the blanks in the count’s backstory are filled in, often via hilarious nonsequiturs, digressions and circumlocutions (“I can’t abide parmesan . . . It smells like sick”), and his efforts at proofreading the manuscript have been left in the margins, as have his reminders to himself about money he’s owed and shopping items that need to be bought (“Stamps!!!”).
In the 16 years since Delaney invented the count, what has never dimmed is the affection he clearly feels for him, even as the character struggles to hide his bitterness about his unfulfilled life under a veneer of polite, Norris Cole-type civility.
It’s this affection that has allowed Delaney to sustain the character so well and for so long, through live comedy performances, radio and TV shows and now a spoof memoir.
All this transitioning between formats is a tricky business. Comedy to be heard is different from comedy to be watched, and both are very different again from comedy to be read. The same audience will approach each with different expectations, and that’s what makes it so difficult to take a comedy character such as Arthur Strong through various media life stages. Delaney and his TV collaborator Linehan understand this, which is why the character has successfully negotiated the jumps, just as Alan Partridge did in the hands of Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan.
Which isn’t to say that nothing gets lost in translation. An enormous part of the count’s appeal in the original radio broadcasts was down to Delaney’s highly intelligent and beautifully nuanced comic acting, which would be impossible to convert to the page. Similarly, the Tourettic tics, awkward pauses and clever malapropisms that are such an endearing part of his radio and TV persona lose something, unavoidably, when they are taken out of Delaney’s mouth and laid out in Courier type.
That said, this book is no less funny for all of that. There are comedic pearls to be found on every page and lines that take the wind out of you like a punch to the solar plexus. “People ask me,” he writes, reflecting on his schooling, “what was the most important facet, the most important part of my life’s journey, and I always tell them, without hesitation, it was being able to swallow a sword and my education.”
Remembering the years of the second World War, he writes: “My father enlisted as soon as the magistrate made him.”
There are lines, too, that are beautifully music hall: “The news had filtered through to us from Germany that Adolph [sic] Hitler had killed himself to death in a bunker. What he was doing in there I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps he fell in whilst trying to fill the scuttle? Reaching out desperately for the last bit of coal in those just post-war days.”
Count Arthur Strong isn’t everyone’s idea of funny – there is no such thing, of course – and the TV show divided critics between those who adored the character and those who wanted to put their hands around his throat and choke the life out of him.
But if you like comedy based on the traditional sitcom tenets of misunderstandings, malapropisms, pomposity being pricked to cringe-inducing effect, impotent rants against stupid bureaucracy and just cleverly written, perfectly executed lines, then the count is for you. And if laughs-per-page is the barometer, I haven’t read a funnier book all year.