Telegraph Article: ‘Just a bonkers old bloke’This entry was posted in Press on .
Count Arthur Strong: ‘Just a bonkers old bloke’
Count Arthur Strong has been attacked for being politically incorrect and unfunny. His creator Steve Delaney defends him.
06 Apr 2012
Steve Delaney is being cagey about his age. It’s not that he’s suffering from actorly vanity. “I couldn’t care less about people knowing how old I am,” he says. “It’s just that I do an old bloke and I don’t really want people thinking, ‘Oh, well, if he’s that old, then he’s not as good as I thought he was.’ ” After some goading he settles for a non-committal “fortysomething”.
The “old bloke” Delaney plays, live on the stand-up circuit and over seven series of his award-winning Radio 4 sitcom, is Count Arthur Strong, showbiz veteran and sole proprietor of Doncaster’s “Academy of Performance”. His act fills theatres and there are advanced plans to bring him to the small-screen, which Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted and The It Crowd, has a hand in.
With every passing year Delaney seems further to refine his hunched, smartly dressed alter-ego’s eccentricities: his ability to misapprehend the obvious, to mangle words like a latter-day Mrs Malaprop. Like many of us, he’s lost in the modern world but his lostness is of a different order of bafflement, irascibility and spiralling illogic.
In these politically correct times what he does, however much born of affection for the old-fashioned days of variety, could court the charge of cruelty. “I don’t think there’s any cruelty in me doing Arthur at all, I really don’t,” he says. “Some people say he’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted – he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, he’s just a bonkers old bloke. He’s delusional. But I admire him greatly. He gets out of bed in the morning and he’s up for the day. He’s always thinking, ‘What can I do?’ ”
Delaney first cooked up the character while he was training to become an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, for a student exercise themed around the circus: his proto-Count was a particularly unpersuasive strongman. He only decided to unleash him on the public in 1997, initially honing the act at the King’s Head theatre pub in Crouch End, north London. But the actual origins go back further, drawing on the people he grew up around in Leeds, where he worked as a stage manager and carpenter after leaving school.
“It’s writing about what you know about,” he says. “I know about the North. I know about dotty people. I could name half a dozen people who are influences on Arthur, mainly people I remember as a kid, relatives who, even if they were only 30 or 40, wore suits and were these rather dark figures in the background leaning against the mantelpiece. My next-door-neighbour was a particular influence: an electrician at the Leeds Grand. He was nutty. Lots of people still remember him. He would wear a Twenties dinner suit and a carnation in his button hole on first nights. There’s a lot of his stooped posture in Count Arthur too.
“Growing up in Leeds, I saw so many people whose first form of defence when they’d done something wrong was to deny it. That’s a trait Arthur has in spades.”
His own potentially embittering experiences as a jobbing actor fed into the character’s desperate name-dropping: “I did all the things that people do – Casualty, All Creatures Great and Small, Juliet Bravo. A lot of things he mentions I actually did. He’s the sum total of my shortcomings. It helps that Arthur doesn’t do anything I don’t know about.”
Having focused exclusively, and obsessively, on the Count for 15 years, Delaney now has an unnerving ability to improvise in character (when in costume) but maintains that he has a healthy detachment from his working partner. “I can switch it on and off,” he says. “As soon as the show has finished, I’m me in the dressing room. It’s what I do, not what I am.”
It’s funny, though, but just the way he phrases this has more than an Arthurian touch of comic denial to it. Even though I’ve only met Delaney, I feel as if I’ve shaken the Count’s hand too.