By Mark Monahan
‘Thank you thank you for that warm welcome. I really do.” If you’ve ever caught Count Arthur Strong live, or else have followed his Radio 4 show, this sort of brain-scrambling syntax will already be delightfully familiar.
Long a Fringe favourite, “The Count” – as he is known to his devoted fans – is nothing of the kind. The creation of brilliant writer and performer Steve Delaney, he is, rather, a blissfully pompous and deluded old thesp-manqué, from Doncaster. More than a little confused, he has been known to come on stage with a coat-hanger either still in his jacket or else dangling forlornly from one of its pockets, and to face 180 degrees the wrong way while gruffly chastising the theatre’s management for having turned the building around.
It is a measure of Delaney’s standing in comedy circles that, for this zany and long-overdue sitcom, none other than Father Ted creator Graham Linehan has joined him to co-write and direct. And, on the evidence of last night’s first episode of Count Arthur Strong, the Count’s transition to the telly is looking, if not perfect, then remarkably smooth.
Here, we saw Rory Kinnear’s author, Michael, reluctantly, embarking upon the biography of his coldly distant and recently deceased father, and tracking down Arthur – his pa’s former comedy partner – in his suburban home. Inevitably, Michael’s profession threw the Count entirely. (“What book have you arthured… err… sorry… michaeled?”)
After a while, it occurred to Michael that the Count might be the perfect unwitting saboteur for his father’s remembrance service. Arthur in fact rose to the occasion, with Michael instead a snivelling wreck.
Although this twist essentially worked, the snotty gross-out humour that accompanied it was a bum note: the Count deserves better. And, while we’re griping, some may have found the live-audience laughter track a distraction.
Still, I laughed helplessly along. Delaney’s script and delivery were a constant and quintessentially Countish joy, and it was smart to have furnished Arthur with a local caff to hang out in, still more so to fill it with old dears and have it presided over by Chris Ryman’s despotic Turkish proprietor, Bulent.
Kinnear’s Michael, too, is vital. On stage, it is more than enough to watch the Count. On telly, you need a voice of sanity to relate to, and – as the Tim to Arthur’s David Brent – Kinnear is ideal.
However, unlike The Office, which for all its brilliance always left me wanting to shoot myself, there is an uplifting pathos here. It was priceless and poignant to watch the hard-up Arthur trying to drink simultaneously from two cups of tea (wrongly convinced that one was free but determined not to let it get cold), and his innate goodness brought the episode to a heartwarming close.
Besides, because the Count lives almost entirely in his own head, it makes perfect sense that he might at any moment break into routines – such as his awful “Memory Man” – that would traditionally belong on a stage.
“I’m sure you’ll agree, you’ve never seen an organ like the one I’ve got,” he bellowed at poor Michael’s captive audience of one (referring to his brain). Arthur then badgered Michael into writing down 99 separate numbers for him to commit to memory – and then fell fast asleep. Sublime.