Source: BBC/Fremantle Productions
Count Arthur Strong
Written by Steve Delaney and Graham Linehan
Starring Steve Delaney and Rory Kinnear
BBC Two, six-part series from 8 July
It is not always easy to follow Count Arthur’s train of thought. A conversation with him is like a magical mystery tour without a destination
So just who is Count Arthur Strong, whose eponymous six-part television series goes on air next week?
Well, he is a former variety star now based in Doncaster, a middle-aged man with a trilby hat and toothbrush moustache. He has a slight stoop and a tendency to malapropism (“I suppose I’d better get down to do my infinite, infidel, interview!”). And he is also very direct: “as I said to your broad and witless wife this morning”. Some would say that’s rude, but they probably come from the South, which lacks the Northern virtue of plain speaking.
In reality, Count Arthur is an alter ego created by writer and performer Steve Delaney while he was still at drama school. In 2005, after years gradually building up a cult following in pub theatres and at the Edinburgh Festival, he came to much wider public attention with the first BBC Radio 4 series of Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! Six further series followed, along with the Gold Sony Radio Academy Award for Comedy 2009.
To give just one example of the show’s humour, which people tend to love or hate, one episode turns on a revue Count Arthur is planning where he sends out a misprinted flyer advertising songs from Piddler on the Roof.
Now Delaney has joined forces with Graham Linehan (most famous for co-writing Father Ted and creating The IT Crowd) to bring Count Arthur to the small screen.
The first episode of Count Arthur Strong sets up the basic situation. Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear) has been commissioned to write a book about his father, the comedian Max Baker, a man who “dropped by at weekends”. He was in a double act with Count Arthur, but they split up and Max went on to greater things while Arthur went on to, well, less great things, although he nearly secured the part of James Bond. It was all settled, he told a young Sean Connery, who was also up for the audition.
But it didn’t happen because Count Arthur was given a minor role in an episode of Bootsie and Snudge, a 1960s comedy set in a gentleman’s club. It was to be Miss Moneypenny’s eternal regret that she never saw him cast his trilby on to her hatstand.
Baker goes to visit Count Arthur to find out about his father. After discovering his propensity for accelerating the second law of thermodynamics and witnessing his amnesiac memory man act, a gleam appears in Baker’s eye: Count Arthur should be invited to Max Baker’s memorial service, as he is bound to wreck it and this will be Baker’s Oedipal revenge on his father for neglecting him…
Delaney is turning cartwheels at Count Arthur being on the telly. Is there a big difference from radio? No, not really, he says. If anything TV is better because it allows for visual gags – and there are plenty of those on show. Watch out for the running joke with a foot spa and the one with a saucepan lid and what looks like the thigh bone of a hobbit.
It is not always easy to follow Count Arthur’s train of thought. A conversation with him is like a magical mystery tour without a destination.
Yet he too is something of a mystery and that brings us back to my initial question: just who is Count Arthur Strong? He may bear a distinct resemblance to Archie Rice, the ageing music hall star of John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer, but what else do we know about him?
Let’s start with his names. If you ever meet him, you should address him, initially at any rate, as “Count Arthur”. There was an embarrassing episode a few years ago when he gave a talk at the local branch of the Women’s Institute.
The person who introduced him didn’t give his title.
“You forgot the Count,” he shouted.
“Oh,” she replied, correcting herself. “3, 2, 1, Arthur Strong!”
And what about the “Strong”? There are rumours that the appellative was the result of a contest with Dracula to see who had the strongest teeth.
But in truth, says Delaney, it is just an example of the grand names people gave themselves in variety theatre. He adds that Count Arthur thinks he is now part of the aristocracy because the Queen Mother addressed him as “Count” when he met her somewhere once.
We will never know what royalty thought of Count Arthur’s talents as a ventriloquist. His dummy was called King Tut because that was easier to pronounce than the full name, and also because the Count himself has a great interest in ancient Egypt. Indeed, as president of the Doncaster Branch of the Egyptological Society, he has given some splendid readings from the diaries of Lord Carnarvon, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamen without even knocking.
A typical entry, which had listeners enthralled, ran: “God, it’s hot here. All this sand reminds me of Bridlington.”
Count Arthur’s act has been compared to Peter Brough’s. Brough, an English radio ventriloquist famous in the 1950s, had a dummy called Archie Andrews and once worked with Beryl Reid.
Brough asked Reid if she could see his lips move.
“Only when Archie’s talking,” she snapped. They didn’t appear on the same bill after that.
His time in variety has left Count Arthur with a rich fund of stories – although he keeps telling the same ones. His favourite is about Wee Billy Bugle and his Hoop of Flames. His last words, apparently, were “put me out”. Then there was Bendy Bob, who could squash himself into a suitcase. He got people to take him on the train and saved a fortune in fares.
Delaney thinks of Count Arthur as a figure of “pathos”, something that is missing from most comic characters today. You can see it in Tony Hancock’s work but not in Miranda Hart’s. Part of that pathos comes from a broken heart. Count Arthur once saw a woman through a florist’s window and was instantly smitten, but he couldn’t stop because he was on his way to an audition for chewing gum. Man must eat before he can love, as some philosopher must have said somewhere.
And then there was that incident at the Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium in 1960. This could have been Count Arthur’s breakthrough moment, but Perry Como mysteriously tried to punch him. In sidestepping the blow Count Arthur fell into the orchestra pit.
Most people would have given up at that point, but not Count Arthur. “Never say die” is his philosophy, although he admits that he might some day. He is a true comic hero persevering in the face of adversity. Why, his bus didn’t turn up tonight, but he still got here.
The new television series should attract a new cohort of fans as well as pleasing those who already love the radio show. So, ladies and gentleman, I give you the one and only Count Arthur Strong.