Count Arthur Strong, Theatre Royal Brighton, review: cosy, chaotic, and so sexy my friend wanted to snog him. 4/5 By Julie Burchill
As the master of malapropisms himself might say, it’s enough to make a cat cry. Count Arthur Strong, a legend in his own lunchbox, thought the world was his octopus when he graduated from his long-time radio show to a proper BBC Two sitcom in 2013.
But Doncaster’s finest was to suffer a crude awakening when he drew less than a million viewers, less than half the slot’s average, losing out to Channel’s science series, Food Unwrapped and Channel 5’s The Gadget Show. (You can almost hear him muttering about how they didn’t have daft stuff like gadgets and food in his day.)
This matters not a jot to the legions of the Count’s camp followers, of whom I am one; returning to his Brighton oranges, where many of his radio shows were recorded, he was greeted by an adoring crowd – preaching to the perverted – at a packed Theatre Royal.
It was my third time, but I spoke to a man who reckoned he’d seen him on a hundred occasions. Whereas on television something subtle was lost from Stephen Delaney’s portrayal of the perpetually resting old variety has-been (bringing him dangerously close to Mrs Brown’s Boys territory due to the extreme level of disguise), in the flesh, staring at the audience with equal parts need and derision, he tells us something poignant about showbusiness.
The young and beautiful thespians so rigorously virtue-signalling at the awards ceremonies recently are all Arthurs at heart, only a few flop films away from his Stannah stairlift- assisted Sunset Boulevard, torn between desire and revulsion at the many-mawed monster which seeks to be entertained even while the wheels are falling off the wagon and the sad soul in the spotlight seeks sanctuary in a quick glass of “this lovely new milk they’re making now – it’s clear and smells like gin”.
With his incipient alcoholism, Touretty tics, apparent attention deficit order and memory loss (“They say you never forget a good teacher – well, I have, which is a shame. I think he wore glasses”) it would be easy for the Count to come across as a caricature of a stale, pale, left-behind old gammon who we laugh at rather than with.
Any of the alleged comedians which Radio 4 rams down our throats ceaselessly – those cliché-machines for whom Donald Trump is the new mother-in-law – would make him a Brexiteer lost in misremembered fantasy of past glories, but Delaney and his collaborator Graham Linehan (himself currently engaged in a struggle over whether comedy can stray from the Woke play-book due to his Twitter wars with the transsexual lobby which has seen him cancelled, sued and paid a visit by the newly-PC Plod) aren’t lazy.
There’s something heroic about Arthur’s conviction that stardom rather than a care home is still just around the corner, thwarted only by a long line of unfairly preferred personalities from “Valerie Simpleton” to Professor Brian Cox, beneath a photo of whom the Count acts out his increasingly surreal attempts to prove that he himself should have been the successor to Patrick Moore.
He’s never funnier than when he’s trying to get down with the kids, be it murdering David Bowie’s Starman, mixing up Gary Barlow with Galileo or boasting “I’m a huge supporter of the BLT community – though I do sometimes take the lettuce out.” It’s not a perfect show (the “BBBBC” gag gets tiring as does “the Planet Mars Bar”) but Stephen Delaney’s strangely sexy body language – Arthur is forever strutting and wriggling and facing off to the enemy beyond the footlights – sees him smoothly through the weakest links.
Indeed so intoxicating did my wild Serbian friend find him that in the meet-and-greet signing queue afterwards, she announced loudly and repeatedly that she was planning to grab him and snog him before being asked to leave the building by security. It was a fittingly Arthurish end to an evening which combined cosiness and chaos to a pleasing degree.
24 February 2020 • 3:19pm