Review: Culture Wars

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Mediocre Man holds forth

Count Arthur Strong’s Command Performance, Theatre Royal, Brighton, 27 March 2011

by Anna Travis

On first impressions, particularly those formed from his eponymous Radio 4 show, Count Arthur’s comedy shtick is relentless malapropisms. On closer inspection however, these slips of the tongue are not inherently hilarious, what makes them so is their role within a hapless performance. Count Arthur Strong in fact turns out to be a delightful and extreme version of what I have dubbed the mediocre performer, in my recent book, Mediocre Man: The Lost Archetype of the 19th to the 21st Century. Like John Shuttleworth, Frank Sidebottom, Alan Partridge, Tommy Cockles and Ted Chippington before him, Arthur’s most powerful comic punch, comes from his often surreal manifestations of bitterness and inadequacy.

In John Shuttleworth and Frank Sidebottom’s case, they composed cheap keyboard ballads of banal, domestic nonsense; like the recklessness of having two margarine tubs ‘on the go’. The surreally ordinary papier-mache headed Sidebottom (RIP), was preoccupied with his ‘Mam’ and hometown Timperley. The deeply uncharismatic Shuttleworth; doggedly pursues his unspectacular showbiz career of charity turns at village fetes. Shuttleworth’s CV documents the tragi-comic tedium of the Retired Security Guard, whose ‘hobbies are swimming, pingpong and DIY’. Then there’s Ted Chippington, a stand up comic who played ironically with perceptions of light entertainment with his rented-room anti-glamour persona, a monotone West Midlands delivery and barely there jokes.

The sheer public visibility of these performers self-delusions make them closest, as a sub-set of mediocre men, to the classic comic fool archetype. The tinge of tragedy does, nevertheless still deeply inform these characters, maintaining the subtle juggling act of pathos and mockery, required to keep their audience onside. The mediocre performer addresses his audience faux- naively, as fans of the ‘talented’ not tragically deluded persona.

For most variations of this archetype, the comedy lies in their lack of self-awareness of their second-rate nature, their delusions of musical or, in Arthur’s case, ‘all-round’ theatrical ability. Their audiences take pleasure in their lack of talent and exceptional qualities, laughing at their misperceptions of originality. Their unknowing lack of entertainment value becomes the entertainment itself. These comic fools share the idiocy of Mr Pooter and his lack of self-awareness. So, with figures like Arthur, amusing mediocrity resides in what Ricky Gervais has described as the ‘comic staple’; the gap ‘between how you are perceived and how you perceive yourself.’

Arthur is not so much a mediocre performer as a downright appalling one. We can only gawp at his Diva-like pronouncements to staff to clear props away, his purported Royal Variety bookings and contorted attempts at a cut-glass English accent. Arthur’s pomposity is truly baffling. The assumption that he was ever a theatrical contender, in the face of such ineptitude, is a hilarious one. The riotous inebriation of the second half of tonight’s show, and the down-in-one wine tastings were a delight. I especially loved the descent into a frenzy of incompetence in the second act. After his boozy interval, we watch Arthur stagger his way through more and more outlandish insistences and exhibitions of his theatrical skill. Top turns included a Hammer House of Horror scene, where he slurs his way through the role of both Dracula and his mysterious attacker, falling into a drunken brawl against himself. Then there was the disturbing feat of anti-ventriloquism with the mummy ‘Tiny Tut’ who ‘used to go down well with the kiddies’ yet ends up ‘spoiling bloody everything!’ This all climaxed in the wonderfully demented,  exhausted, shouty rendition of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’.

Within this uniquely British sub-type of Mediocre Man, several inadequate performers reside in the twilight tragic realm of light entertainment. In Arthur Strong and Tommy Cockles case it’s the pathos ridden, outer fringes of variety theatre. Simon Day’s music hall  nostalgic Tommy Cockles from The Fast Show, and Arthur Strong, share a luvvy intimacy and an over-reliance on unconvincing anecdotes of a showbiz golden age. They ring hollow, as their tales all come full circle. These disasterous raconteurs return, again and again, to a rant against the new unappreciative, less substantial celebrity universe of ‘bloody Michael McIntyres!’ Arthur expresses not so much a rage of inadequacy, or yearning for recognition, as a senile vanity. The show peaks when his chaotic anger does: towards his shambolic act, the most ironic ‘command performance’ ever conceived.



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