Count Arthur Strong's TV transition
Robert Weedon |
Tuesday 16th July
When I first heard an episode of Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show on Radio 4 back in 2007, I didn’t think it was that great. However, after catching another episode (the one where Arthur tries to sell dangerous cucumber slicers) I was hooked.
The reason I initially didn’t think much to it was that I couldn't believe how old-fashioned it is; I remember thinking that it was just like a BBC Light Programme show of the 50s and 60s such as The Clitheroe Kid and others that sometimes turn up on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
Then I realised that's exactly what it's meant to be; the early ones even have a joke at the beginning stating that "The Count" was a sometime acquaintance of Jimmy Clitheroe.
The creator of Count Arthur, Steve Delaney, is evidently a keen observer of the style of variety comedy that appeared on the BBC Light Programme, and once it is seen as an homage to that classic age of radio comedy, it suddenly becomes a really enjoyable listening experience, as its nuances and affectionate nods to the shows of that era start to click into place.
In particular it mirrors the style of those shows in having a strong titular comic character; Count Arthur is an elderly ex-variety star from Doncaster who, since work dried up after an appearance in Juliet Bravo is now reduced to opening pork butcher's shops and getting in all sorts of scrapes every week, where his bravado usually leads him into something that he knows nothing about. The comedy comes through his attempts to lie himself out of sticky situations, at which he has no talent due to his poor memory and understanding of even simple concepts.
Count Arthur is very much the main focus of the stories, with the rest of the characters acting as foils for the gags, be it Wilf the butcher, Geoffrey the easily-led caretaker of the church hall (whose voice artist performs the character as an uncanny impression of Daft Alfie from The Clitheroe Kid), Gerry, the owner of the cafe Arthur constantly sponges food from, and Sally, the only woman in the series, whose role is usually as a 'voice of sense', in a similar fashion to Hancock’s girlfriend in the early radio Hancock’s Half Hours.
Indeed, although definitely not as subtle as the epoch-defining Hancock's Half Hour, there are quite a few homages to that show – the tuba theme tune, the non-canonical (often bordering on surreal) plots and the main character as a resilient loser.
Steve Delaney has been honing the character for over 15 years, and has developed a real cult following. As well as plenty of fans, there are lots of people that don't like the show, and I can see that its broad humour and extensive use of malapropisms can appear quite an 'easy' way to get laughs. If you haven't heard it, I would probably recommend one of the episodes with Barry Cryer such as "After Dinner Speech" and, if you don’t find those amusing, you’re probably not going to like the rest.
I mentioned Hancock's Half Hour earlier, and like that show, after running for seven series on radio, Count Arthur Strong has transferred to television.
The TV Hancocks are quite different from their radio counterparts. Rather less surreal, and regrettably losing Bill Kerr's Australian lodger and Hattie Jacque's Griselda Pugh along the way, I must admit I personally prefer the radio Half Hours. Nevertheless the TV Hancock has defined BBC TV sitcoms until the present day and unlike quite a lot of comedy from the 1960s, there are many episodes which are still genuinely funny. As an aside, isn't the early Hancock's Half Hour title still a brilliant bit of graphic artwork? It completely sums up the show's title pictorially, and also features the show's musical sting:
Count Arthur Strong probably couldn’t have picked a better time to be transferred to television. A few years ago, as a result of the success of The Office, the majority of narrative TV comedies moved to single-camera, non laugh-track, non-studio audience shows filmed more like dramas than stage shows, as had been the norm since the days of Hancock.
However, since the unexpected broad success of Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys, the BBC commissioning zeitgeist is very much going back the way of the studio sitcom; Mrs Brown's Boys in particular doesn't even attempt to hide this, but positively revels in showing the audience at the recordings, being more like a filmed performance of a stage show.
While Count Arthur Strong is a little more nuanced than the in-your-face style of that show, and quite rightly appears on BBC Two rather than One, it still has broad appeal. Recording in a studio with a live audience with taped inserts, it's as much a homage to those old-fashioned studio sitcoms as the radio version was to light comedy.
The main sets - a cheap cafe and Arthur's chinzy living room - are straight out of the 1970s, but then that's the point - so is Arthur, and the feel of the piece accentuates Arthur's eccentricity and old-fashionedness. The archive clip of an old 1970s variety act audience at the start of episode one really sets the scene.
Graham Lineham, whose track record of studio-based sitcoms is impeccable; Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd, etc, has co-written the show with Delaney and definitely adds something different to the mix.
Like Hancock, the TV incarnation of Count Arthur is quite a different show from the radio series. Gone are the supporting characters of the radio series, and in are a new set of more varied characters including the significant addition of Michael, the son of Count Arthur’s recently deceased former comedy partner, played by Rory Kinnear, fresh from rolling his eyes at James Bond driving a motorbike over a shop.
He's an intriguingly-drawn character – on one hand, he seems to wants to be thought of as a nice guy, but has a malicious streak as well, as seen when pleading with Arthur to attend his late father’s memorial in the hope Arthur will ruin it. The twist in the memorial scene was rather nicely-done, I thought.
Also new is Bulant, the irritable Turkish cafe owner, who adds a bit more conflict to the slightly-cosy, forgiving cafe owner of the radio series; the first episode has an enjoyable scene where he loses his cool over a grocer's apostrophe. The other characters' roles have not been fully explored yet, but Bulant's sister Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi) could become a good character.
I really enjoyed the first episode, with its odd cold open, the gag with the fish ("it's alright I've had him out for ten minutes before") and a welcome reappearance of the "two teas" routine from the radio series, which worked as well visually as it did on the radio.
I found the first half of the second a little less successful, although the Jack the Ripper climax brought together several ongoing strands to a satisfying payoff. The theme tune is a bit disappointing, especially after the unusual brass-band theme of the radio show.
Apparently the show has already been recommissioned for a second series, so there should be room to explore the characters; weirdly, in getting the show off the ground, I don't feel we've quite had enough of Arthur so far; at some times he's almost felt a little peripheral to Michael, but that might change as the story goes on. We'll just have to see, I suspose.