Count Arthur Strong and the comforts of traditional sitcom

When life hurts, well-crafted, traditional sitcom like Count Arthur Strong can be an indispensable salve…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

There’s a period a little while after a family death, after the days spent in a traffic jam of errands, decisions and phone calls, when you have to merge back into the regular lane. Normal life demands to re-start. The fridge needs filling and the lawn needs mowing, even if, impossibly, the person who usually does both has vanished forever.

For my family like most others, normal life means watching television. Telly is the cradle that rocked us through the decades. Whatever happened to us happened against a backdrop of soaps and sitcoms.

Losing our dad though, changed things. In the flayed-skin sensitivity of the days around his funeral, flicking through the channels meant running a gauntlet. A murder on EastEnders brought unwelcome ambulances and coroners back into our living room. We winced at the mention of a hospital or autopsy. Heart attacks, we discovered, lie in wait in the least expected places – Grand Designs, formerly harmless, had to come temporarily off the menu after just such an ambush.

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(I’d never really noticed before, but TV is full of people having heart attacks. Not to mention the corpses. TV loves a corpse.)

The answer was to limit what we watched. Soaps and dramas were out, previously vetted films on DVD were in. Nothing was risked that might prove too moving. Quiz shows were especially safe ground so Pointless and Eggheads became a daily ritual.

What really got us through though, filling up the screen and our hours, was comedy. Stand-up and sitcoms. Nothing too edgy, cynical or experimental, mostly good-hearted clowning. Jokes that make you laugh, not nod wryly or cringe in recognition. We watched hours of the sort of crowd-pleasing stand-up aired for the whole family at Christmas: Eddie Izzard, Alan Davies, Miranda Hart, Tim Vine, Victoria Wood.

Sitcoms though, proved the best escape. They could expand or shrink to fill the available time – in single instalments a brief accompaniment to one of the ceaselessly made cups of tea (those inseparable twins, tea and pain) or by the series, a full evening’s distraction guaranteed not to jolt or unsettle. We prescribed ourselves familiar and comforting stuff. Traditional, filmed-in-front-of-a-studio audience half-hours. Only Fools And Horses, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers.

They shook us back awake, those episodes. They weren’t just a way to pass time, but a way to remember that life was still good. And, unbelievable as it might have felt, that it was still the same. Their familiarity was better comfort than the well-meaning sympathy cards or the head-tilted sad smile of professionals pushing forms and chip and pin machines over desks towards you (the paperwork involved in death is no joke). “Don’t tell him, Pike!”, Sybil saying “I know”, Trigger calling Rodney ‘Dave’… Dad had laughed at this, exactly this, countless times. Laughing at it now, together, was a shortcut straight to him.

Once the old favourites had been burned through, we moved on to newer stuff. Bright, silly, Miranda was a saviour. Ditto for Dinnerladies and The Vicar Of Dibley. Seeing my mum’s head thrown back, eyes closed in sheer fucking glee and laughing tears at Mrs Brown’s Boys in those sad, hard weeks after she lost dad makes me ever grateful to that show (and short on patience with the self-satisfied assumption that broad, filthy laughs are less deserving than cerebral, ironic ones.)

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It backfired every so often. Not only because sitcoms aren’t always death-free – thank God for that, if they were we’d never have had Basil and Polly pushing around a prematurely expired guest in a laundry basket – but because even the lightest, most colourful sitcoms can swiftly turn a corner towards poignancy. The best ones almost always do.

Enter: Count Arthur Strong.

In 2013, Steve Delaney’s long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy series about an aged, deluded variety performer arrived on television following a collaboration with sitcom machine Graham Lineman (The IT Crowd, Father Ted, Black Books).

Based on a character Delaney first performed at drama school and successfully continued to the Edinburgh Fringe, the radio series was a showcase for Delaney’s expertly rambling monologues. The radio ‘Count’ Arthur (a stage name possibly ratified following a chance encounter with the Queen Mother’s foot) is a vainglorious Northern luvvie whose mouth and brain rarely arrive at the same place at the same time. He ties himself up in boasts and mispronounced pronouncements, pursuing erratic trains of thought until they derail and burst into flames.

Arthur is ridiculous, frustrating and, like most classic comedy characters, you’ve definitely met a watered down version of him in real life. And probably crossed the road to avoid him.

Again like most classic comedy characters, Arthur’s personality can also be explained as symptomatic of a psychological disorder. His form of lifelong dementia causes him to take wrong conversational turns, ending up back where he started but spitting mad at contradictory conclusions he’s drawn independently of anyone he’s talking to.

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Every so often, it makes him an unwitting hero (whatever Arthur achieves is unwitting). See him pay a cold caller back for every minute they’ve wasted of other people’s lives or turn the tables on a scam artist preying on the elderly and vulnerable by cheerily channelling Kathy Bates in Misery.

With the absurdity of Arthur and his meandering speeches at its centre, the radio series never really developed its supporting cast beyond what was required. There’s Jerry the cafe owner, one or two of Arthur’s friends and an acting protege with roughly as much hope as his mentor of making it big.

That all changed when the series moved across to television. The collaboration with Linehan introduced a character who wouldn’t only be the ideal foil for unembarrassable Arthur but would also provide an emotional story against which Arthur’s antics could be set.

Played by Rory Kinnear, swapping the RSC for a brightly lit cafe set, Michael is a middle-class writer whose estranged father was part of a variety double-act with Arthur before he dropped the Count and hit the light entertainment big time. In series one, Michael seeks out Arthur for help writing a book about his now-dead father’s life.

Kinnear’s Michael is what drives the TV series forward. More than any of the cartoonish regulars at Bulent’s Cafe, the London hub of Arthur’s activities, his character creates story and grounds the show in reality. He’s there to point out the flaws in Arthur’s version of things and be horrified by his obliviousness to social decorum. Intensely self-conscious and kept in a state of almost perpetual exasperation by Arthur’s self-serving plans and schemes, Michael is the sanity to Arthur’s delusion.

Or at least that’s how he sees it. The more Arthur prospers, or at least comes off unscathed from his various scrapes, the more Michael is forced to acknowledge that if there’s not exactly method in Arthur’s madness, there are at least other ways to live than painstakingly by the rules.

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Michael isn’t simply the straight man. Brilliant as Steve Delaney’s performance as Arthur is—and it is brilliant—Kinnear’s is also exemplary. Watch him expertly wring every drop of comedy from the word “assignations” in a series two scene and you’ll need no further proof.

As Arthur though, Delaney is one of those rare comedy performers who can crease you up just by standing still. Not that Arthur is really capable of standing still, as illustrated by his doomed attempt to make cash as a living statue. (After much scientific study, I’ve concluded that Delaney must have twice the muscles in his face than the average person. Only that can explain his precise mastery over Arthur’s alternately twitching, furrowed, delighted forehead.)

Delaney’s performance is the foundation of it all. He’s immediately funny in the way Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer, Ardal O’Hanlon as Father Dougal and Julie Walters as Mrs Overall are immediately funny. He’s funny before he’s said a single word, and then even funnier after he’s done that. It’s such a strong visual performance, you might wonder how the radio series worked at all. That it did, and still does (there was a Christmas special in 2015), shows the strength of Delaney’s voice work and his and Graham Duff’s writing.

The TV series though, is on a different level. It’s taken Arthur from self-regarding twerp to exhausting but loveable favourite. The audience is invited to treat him with the same fondness and tolerance shown by Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi), the smart, kind sister to Chris Ryman’s apoplectic cafe owner Bulent, to whom Arthur will always be “idiot man”.

The oddballs in Bulent’s cafe share a kind of Cheers dynamic; they might be life’s losers, but they’re life’s losers together, and even Michael–the Frasier Crane of the group–needs them like family.

The surprising poignancy of Michael and Arthur’s developing friendship, along with Michael’s ongoing infatuation with Sinem, provide an emotional undertow that caught me unawares on a first watch. Mid-clownish silliness (among the cafe’s other regulars are Andy Linden as East End enigma John the Watch, and Dave Plimmer’s Eggy, a melancholic egg industry truther), Count Arthur Strong can pivot into a genuinely moving moment, then pivot back to fun absurdity.  

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It wasn’t an entirely safe choice then, back when traditional sitcom was my grief anaesthetic of choice. It overstepped the bounds by not just making me laugh like a drain, but in its terrific warmth sometimes moving me to tears. Happy, welcome, grateful tears.

Here’s to you, Count Arthur. Love your work.

Count Arthur Strong series 2 is out on DVD in the UK now, available here. Series 3 has been filmed and will air on the BBC later this year.