A comic Count honed to the very peak of imperfection
Having divided radio listeners for years with his confused alter ego, Steve Delaney is bound for TV, says Andrew Billen The 72-year-old Count Arthur Strong is a never-was from way back when. At 58 his creator, a carpenter turned actor named Steve Delaney, is an about-to-be. After seven years of delighting and dividing Radio4 audiences, Delaney’s Count Arthur, a deluded former variety star, gets his own BBC Two sitcom, guided to air by Graham Linehan, the guru behind The IT Crowd, Black Books and Father Ted.
Following in the path of the knowingly retro studio-audience comedies Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys, the Count may be about to seize the nation by the funny bone or, alternatively, leave it bewildered. “Clearly it’s subjective, isn’t it?” says Delaney, who lives with his wife and nine-year-old son in Somerset but who has travelled to his production company’s London office to meet me. “There’s no other answer. If you don’t like it, how can that be my problem? It’s just half an hour a week.” It’s amazing how angry correspondents to Radio 4’s Feedback got about his radio show, I say. “They take it personally. They think you’ve done it entirely to offend them in some way. And they also belittle how much work might go into something.”
If anything characterises Delaney’s career it is hard work. But the professionals recognise the results. Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble and the Steptoe and Son writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson are all fans of the terminally confused count, a kind of (if your memory stretches) Harry Worth but with added northern aggression. Strong is the frustrated victim of egotism, malapropism and Spoonerisms, mercifully unburdened by any realism about his accomplishments which seem, in his heyday, to have run to no further than a musical hall memory act.
Flanked by shoulders as rigid as Frankenstein’s creature’s, adorned by a matinee idol moustache, the count stumbles on stage, as into life, living by the dictum that to misunderstand all is to forgive nothing. In his mind, Alec Guinness becomes “Alex Guinness Book”, Gordon Ramsay” Alf Ramsay”, the Antiques Road Show “Antique Road Kill”. The comedy is cumulative, as the audience becomes mired in his aphasic reality. His act is not, as he might (and does) say, “rocket salad”, but it can be disarmingly funny and surreally thought-provoking. “What’s a good meat for a headache?” he asks his butcher. Now, isn’t that something we’d all like to know?
“Some people might think he’s a bit of monster but for me, not really,” says Delaney in something like his creation’s Yorkshire accent. “I admire the things he does in lots of ways. He opens his mouth and words come out and the words are kind of the truth. He doesn’t beat around the bush. If he’s thinking something, he’s invariably saying it at the same time.”
Delaney was born in Leeds, the son of a foundryman who, he says, looked a little like Harry Worth and shared the Count’s refusal ever to admit he was wrong. Delaney left school to work on a market stall, taking roles in amateur dramatics. After theatre classes and an abortive spell at art college he became an assistant stage manager at the Leeds Grand and Leeds Playhouse, and then a theatre carpenter at the Northcott in Exeter. Finally, in the Eighties, he enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where he created the Count for an exercise. It went down “surprisingly well”, but he was soon back working to learn “versatility”.
“It wasn’t until a good few years after Central that I realised what I did wasn’t about versatility. It was about being microscopic about one thing.” That one thing was the count, although it took Delaney, who was back working as a carpenter and taking small TV parts in The Bill and Casualty, a further while to realise it. Strong was finally unleashed on the world in February 1997 at a comedy night at the King’s Head in Crouch End, North London. It went so well that the next day, while he was working on a kitchen in the area, Delaney phoned his agent and asked him to book him on to the Edinburgh Fringe. Other characters, such as a distracted Elvis Presley fan called Alfie Parrott, were discarded as, contrary to all advice, Delaney placed all available eggs in the count’s basket.
Edinburgh followed Edinburgh. The tour venues got bigger. The Count appeared on radio as Dickie Bow on The Remains of Foley and McColl on Radio 4 in 2000 and then on Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 2 show. In 2005 (nothing happens quickly for Delaney) Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! was finally commissioned by Radio 4. Five years on, television hesitantly beckoned. A pilot of a quiz show chaired by the count was commissioned but not taken up. Then Linehan, another fan, came on board, determined to reconfigure the radio sitcom for television.
At Pinewood studios I watch the final show of the series being recorded. It is primarily set in a cafe owned by a Greek brother and sister. Left behind on the now-dead radio show are the Count’s butcher friend (although Wilf Taylor’s shop sign is visible through the cafe window), the church hall caretaker and his protege Malcolm Titter. Instead, Strong’s main foil is Michael Barker, the son of the Count’s old variety partner, the more successful Max, who has died leaving Michael searching for his roots. He’s played — selflessly — by Rory Kinnear. Linehan, a loping man in a mauve pullover, tweaks the lines as the scenes are re-recorded. Through the three hours Delaney, trilby hat rammed on his head, shoulders hunched, remains in character.
“I absolutely love doing it,” he says while acknowledging some radio loyalists will object to the translation. “We did one episode which was Arthur getting a couple of lines in a radio play and I was walking to rehearsal in Shepherd’s Bush and I thought: ‘How have I ended up working with Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan?’ Well, I say, it has been a long march. Perhaps the Count’s occasional bitterness about his acting career betrays some of Delaney’s frustrations. Thirty years is a long time to wait to be an overnight success. “But I’ve never looked at things like that,” he says. “Age has always been irrelevant to me. I was only ready to do Arthur when he was ready to spew out of me. I don’t believe in leaving things up to fate and I’ve been working towards all these things, but you shouldn’t get frantic when they are not happening. I like that notion of gaining experience doing the job. Barry Cryer talks about doing the variety circuit. It sounds fantastic to me! He spent six months going round the whole country with one act of 15 minutes. Imagine how honed your 15 minutes was after ten years of that!”
And this is the Count Arthur Strong about to be set loose on the television-viewing nation: an old trooper honed, by his loyal creator, to the very peak of imperfection. Count Arthur Strong starts on BBC Two on July 8