“A bumbling retired entertainer shows us just how comedy should be done…”
New Statesman, January 2008
Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! Tomorrow, Today! Radio 4 If all radio comedies – or continuity announcing, or economics reporting, for that matter – were like Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!, I doubt I’d ever listen to anything else. The count, a fictional retired entertainer of the old school with whistling dentures and a daily appointment with the cooked meats section at his local minimart, is currently rambling unsteadily towards the end of a fourth series, after which no sound but that of tumbleweed is likely to emanate from my house between 11.30am and midday on Fridays.
Hope over experience every time, is all I’m saying. This time it’ll be different, you think. Put on the radio at elevenses or teatime and you’ll be rewarded with something other than the “hilarious” adventures of a flaky public-sector worker (it’s Clare in the Community on Wednesdays at the moment, but there’ll be another along in a minute) or a fourth wall-busting exposé of life in the recording booth (at the moment Tomorrow, Today!, of which more later).
Count Arthur Strong . . . so outperforms the rest of Radio 4’s comedy output – Down the Line included, which does nothing more than remind me of On the Hour and Chris Morris’s early-Nineties Radio 1 show, and causes me to wish they both still existed – that it sounds as if it’s doing a little victory jig on the roof of Broadcasting House. It’s the sound of pent-up dementedness being unleashed and the burden of upholding civic values being tossed to the wind, the sound of the BBC becoming something else for half an hour every week.
Steve Delaney plays Arthur Strong as though he knows this is the man he’s destined to turn into. Strong is as iron-willed as he is deluded: he refuses to allow his long-tailed acting career to die and yet he is quite capable of spending several minutes each day haggling over the price of liver and bacon. On 25 January, he was to be heard buying a mobile phone and braying malapropically about his schedule of after-dinner speeches.
“In my game, you’ve got to be available 25-7, 380 degrees of the year – that’s why Edward Woodworm’s getting so much work!” He took his new phone to the butcher’s, where he inadvertently took a picture of “my friend Wilf holding my black pudding up and sniffing it”. Oof! Luncheon vouchers, in his confusion, became “luncheon meat” and Sue Perkins’s Scouse call-centre operative was asked, “Are you a real woman?”
It’s not so much irreverent as unaware that the need for reverence ever existed, and it is just generally batty in a way that tends not to be tolerated on Radio 4 unless performed by ex-public school boy types who are convinced of their own subversiveness.
Without the energy and spontaneity that recording in front of a live audience gives to any broadcast, radio comedy sounds hermetic and forced: nothing more than a bunch of people reading words to each other in a booth. In theory, you can make radio programming sound as though it could be coming from anywhere, but it takes good acting and superlative writing to make you forget that it’s coming from a windowless room with towers of plastic coffee cups making rings on the scripts.