Followers of radio comedy may already be familiar with Count Arthur Strong, the faded variety star with delusions of grandeur whose butterfly mind, selective hearing and constant malapropisms create chaos for himself and anyone with whom he comes into contact.
Fans of Radio 4’s Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! are in for a treat as, this week, the Count headlines in his very own TV series.
“Arthur is a honkers old bloke” explains creator and star Steve Delaney, who plays him. ‘He’s an irritable old showbiz has-been with a dubious pedigree who has mistimed his entire career by getting into variety just as theatres were closing. He has a propensity to make a muddle of even the simplest facts but, despite his shortcomings and the way he constantly mixes things up, he always thinks the next opportunity is just around the corner, and I love that about him.’
The starting point for the series is the death of the Count’s former acting partner Max, whose son Michael, played by Rory Kinnear, tracks down Arthur while working on a biography of his late father. ‘Michael turning up and the notion of his dad being Arthur’s double act partner really roots the series and gives us a good place to start from; explains Delaney. As Michael gets involved in Arthur’s life, he is introduced to his eccentric group of friends, who congregate at the local cafe. “We want it to be a sitcom with a heart”; says Delaney,”and this disparate bunch of people who hang around the cafe all look out for each other in a slightly old-fashioned way”.
Monday’s opening episode includes a chance to see Arthur doing his amazing Memory Man act, but Delaney admits that the rest of his character’s showbiz career remains shrouded in mystery. “He firmly believes he was in “The Bridge Up the River Kwai” and, as he gets older, he imagines his career more vividly,” he explains. “There is a certain
delusional aspect to Arthur, so he may have read a headline in the paper 20 years ago, and is now applying it to himself”.
Delaney’s own career, and his association with Arthur, are somewhat more clear-cut. ‘The character came out of an exercise I did when I was at drama college in the 1980s,’ he reveals. ‘We were working on circus acts, and I came up with the notion of a strongman who played the piano and had a tussle with Dracula to find out who had the strongest teeth. That was the first version of Arthur. I never really sat down and mapped him out; it’s been an organic thing that’s taken a long time to develop.’
After spending several years as a jobbing actor, appearing in shows such as The Bill, Juliet Bravo and Casualty, the 58-year-old Delaney revived the character when he started running a comedy cabaret night in a pub. “I thought: “This is more like it, writing my own material and hiring my own venue”” he recalls, “pretty much packed in acting there and then and, a few
months later, I took my first show to the Edinburgh Festival.” DeLaney’s instincts about Arthur proved right since he went on to star in seven series of the award-winning Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!, as well as taking the character on numerous tours.
When it came to transferring Arthur to the small screen, Delaney enlisted the help of comedy writer Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted and writer and director of The IT Crowd. ‘Graham describes doing the TV series as a reboot; says Delaney. ‘Arthur has too many monologues in the radio show and I think, on television, people would lose interest. So we decided to start with a completely new scenario and bring in a new main character, Michael, played by Rory’ He adds that working with Linehan has been a rewarding experience. ‘I was entrusting someone else with a big chunk of what I do, but we had a fantastic time together. We were changing things all the way through the process. That really gives it a buzz.’ Now into his fourth decade of playing Arthur, Delaney admits that sometimes it is hard to know where he ends and his character begins. “I’ve lived with this character a long time, and he is an extension of me in many ways. I used to say that he was a manifestation of all my shortcomings, and I think my wife would agree with that.”
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