Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Count Arthur Strong

Count Arthur Strong, currently in the 6.30 slot on Tuesdays on Radio 4, is one of the very few comedians who can make me cry with laughter. Even my favourite comedians are doing well if a smile plays about my lips, but that's just a quirk of my character.
Given that most people have a sense of humour (and it's said to be one of the defining characteristics of being human), it's odd that humour should so divide people. And few comics divide people as dramatically as Count Arthur Strong. When his first series was broadcast, Radio 4 received indignant letters saying 'Why are you broadcasting this drivel?' and other letters hailing him as the greatest comic creation of our time.

The creation of Steve Delaney, Count Arthur is a former variety artist with delusions of grandeur. His indignation at not being recognised produces lines like "Why is it that you people always have to go through this silly rigmarole of pretending you don't know who I am?"
(It reminds me of when, as a teenager, I was introduced to the old variety and radio star Sandy Powell. He honoured me with his catchphrase, "Can you hear me, mother!" Not having a clue who he was, I gave him the kind of blank look those boys in B and Q give you when you ask where the 13 amp fuses are. He muttered into his whisky and went off in a huff.)

Count Arthur lives in a state of permanent confusion and misunderstanding although in his world view it's everyone else who is confused. His conversation is characterised by a combination of mild Tourette's, amnesia, malapropisms and periphrasis.
The accent is a rich and fruity Northern one with frequent modulations into what used to be called a 'telephone voice'. This will be totally lost on younger people because nobody under the age of eighty any longer uses a telephone voice. But when I was a child almost everyone, unless they already spoke like a member of the Royal Family, answered the phone in their telephone voice. If the person on the other end was friend or family they quickly dropped it. If not, they were forced to continue stretching their vowels on the rack of pretension.

In many ways, Count Arthur Strong is a throwback to an earlier generation of radio comedians: people like Robb Wilton, whose sundial sketch I once quoted at length in this blog. He was well before my time but a comedian I adored as a child was Harry Worth and there are definite echoes of Harry Worth in Count Arthur (although I've been told that Harry Worth was equally confused in real life, whereas Count Arthur is a created persona).

My enjoyment of Count Arthur is undoubtedly because this is language-based comedy as much as character comedy. If the physical world was engaged in an organised conspiracy against the great silent comedians, then it's words that conspire to obstruct Count Arthur's bumbling progress through life. Sometimes he has to take several runs at the right word, spitting out several similar words until he hits on the right one or explodes in anger. It's the verbal equivalent of trying to push a shopping trolley up a kerbstone.
Sometimes his brain gets locked into a theme that then infects everything he says. So, musing on war films leads to "the devil take the Hindenburg" and a request at the Post Office counter for "two second world wars."
From the same episode, there's this brilliant, surreal musing:"J Cloth......T Junction......U Bend......H Bomb......oh, it gets on your nerves, doesn't it, the alphabet?........Letters.......they might be all right for spelling.......you try adding up with them!"

In a famous malapropism, the internet became the 'Ilfracombe'. The context was a visit from a TV Licence inspector. Arthur explains that his cleaner, Doris, got her son to do it for him on the Ilfracombe. By way of explanation, he adds: "I've just had a postcard from Doris, that's why I said 'Ilfracombe'. She's on holiday."
Most comics would have left it there. The gag's done and dusted. But Arthur then adds: "Not that she's gone to Ilfracombe. She's in...um....Mablethorpe." That second punchline lifts it from good to genius.

You may think that malapropisms, like puns, are easy gags to write. I beg to differ. Good ones are very difficult to fabricate. That's partly because the best ones come from real people in real life. I once worked with a woman who, instead of 'next of kin' always said 'next of skin', which is possibly better than the correct version. Or there was the woman I overheard talking about a man with a bad leg: "You know the man......the one who walks with a lisp."

I also like the role that food plays in Arthur's life, with his frequent visits to the local butcher and Jerry's Cafe. I like novelists who mention food and it's surprising how few do so when you consider how much time we spend preparing and eating it. Arthur has a predilection for offal, probably because it's cheap, and that also lends a period flavour because liver and kidneys don't feature in many people's diets today.

The episodes that include Malcolm are a particular joy. Malcolm, vividly brought to life by Terry Kilkelly, is a young performing arts student of negligible talent to whom Arthur gives tuition. Slightly camp, epitomising every provincial stage school no-hoper, his delusions of future stardom are a mirror image of the great future that Arthur has behind him. Like Arthur, he is destined to bore strangers with tales of his walk-on parts in today's equivalent of 'Juliet Bravo.'

I have felt a personal link with Count Arthur ever since reading that his creator, Steve Delaney's next door neighbour, known to him as 'Uncle Willy', was Chief Electrician at Leeds Grand. Steve has since kindly confirmed to me that this was the legendary Billy Kay and that "there is a bit of him in the Count alright!"
In a profession full of eccentrics, Billy Kay became famous throughout the theatre world. A friend took me to meet him in the 1970s. He was welcoming and charming and took me round the Leeds Grand. The bonkers side of him came out when, whilst talking about the history of the theatre, he would suddenly say something staggeringly obscene and then carry on quite normally.
On First Nights he would dress in an ancient dinner suit and wear pince-nezs and he wore a carnation buttonhole most days of the year. He had an idiosyncratic way of calling the lighting cues. For cue 8, he would sometimes shout "where the oil comes from!" which is pure Count Arthur. Thank God he wasn't around on my first night in the London theatre. As it was, I didn't understand a word that came through my tinny headphones and wondered why a chap called Alex had so many cues. It was several days before I discovered that the ASM was saying "Elecs cue".
Steve Delaney worked alongside Billy Kay (who was also his Godfather) at the Grand for a while and it's wonderful to think that some elements of that great character live on today through Count Arthur Strong.

This evening I was stupid enough to be chopping tomatoes while listening to Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show and almost severed my finger during his rendition of Churchill's "we shall fight them at the seaside" speech. If this is 'cult comedy' it's a dangerous cult to join. But with a third series in the pipeline, a guest appearance tonight by Barry Cryer and the acclaim of his peers, I think Steve Delaney has left that 'cult' tag behind. Of course, some people will never "get it" and their lives will be the poorer for it.
All we need now is a TV commissioner with the courage to translate these series to television, complete with the tuba and harp incidental music. Being television, the pictures won't be so good but it's a well-trodden path from 6.30 on Radio 4 to television stardom and for the Count I think the best is yet to come.

The first radio series is available on CD from Count Arthur's website:
or from Amazon.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Ronnie Brooks who introduced me to Billy Kay and to the wonderful backstage world of British theatre.
My thanks to Steve Delaney for additional information.


At 10:01 AM, Blogger mike said...

He sounds wonderful, and I shall seek him out.

When I worked for the Council, a former manager there had already passed into legend for her malapropisms. The three I can rememeber are:

"If daggers could kill..."

"in Dorset tones"

"I wouldn't trust him with a bargepole!"

At 1:35 PM, Blogger cello said...

I normally never leave the ofice before about 7.30pm, but last night was an exception and I heard Count Arthur Strong for the first time. I was facinated - and a litte confused - by the contradictory semiotics (apologies for wankerdom) it seemed to contain: Northern slapstick, surreal, sublime language games, fictional characters mixed up with real people. But I absolutely loved it and will make sure I catch it always.

However, just to prove that I don't always agree with you Willy, I hated Harry Worth with a passion verging on the homicidal. He was just a pathetic, irritating, old bugger who needed a quick slap round the legs in my opinion. It's not that I don't like physical comedy - I love Buster Keaton - but I do like it to be witty and subtle and Harry Worth was neither of those.

But thanks for the inside info on Count Arthur. I shall listen with new ears.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Mike, those are great ones.
Thanks, by the way, for nominating my jury post for rant of the month or whatever it was.

cello, wankerdom? what about my 'periphrasis'? Fact is, I'd never had a reason to use the word before. But welcome to the Count's fan club. I've been enjoying 'fight them at the seaside all day'. It's wonderful that just changing one word renders that speech ridiculous. That's the fascination of language.

On Harry Worth, it's a case of 'when I was a child...' There certainly wasn't enough there to stand the test of time.
I'm almost certain it was Harry Worth that was cancelled the night JFK was shot. I'd spent the evening on my knees in front of a priest (religious instruction class) and when I got home was very angry with Kennedy for getting himself shot because all TV programmes were suspended.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger JonnyB said...

Welcome back - I've only just realised. Nobody tells me anything these days. It's very good to see you writing again.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Good to hear from you Jonny.
Saw you mentioned in one of the public prints not long ago.
I started again when I found myself starting to watch I'm a Celebrity.......

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I must say I really enjoyed your piece about the great Count and agreed with every word and thanks for the elucidation.
I have just been to the Arts Theatre to see The Musical! and it was the best hour I've had for years in fact the best since Max Wall sometime in the 80's.
I caught Count Arthur for the first time about two years ago on Radio 4 and he was in a queue in the Post Office and, like you, I just was in hysterics. So thank you Count Arthur Strong for two great series and for the best night I've had for years.And incidentally I was in the second row and his study of body language is so brilliant that the only thing that gave it away was his hands and by the end I was so engrossed that I totally believed in the persona.Just great! Anyway keep up the good work and thanks.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger xraymike said...

I have discovered the Count via iplayer and the BBC.
It is probably the funniest thing I have heard for many years. It is a sign of true class and genius that it is clever, funny and clean. I have caught up on the first 3 series via the decimal.. no difficult... no DIGITAL technology of TV's,no CB's no CD's from the CBC.

Make him king rather than a mere count. Live tour date in Royal Leamington Spa VERY SOON !!

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

xraymike: he seems to have a growing following and I see that Ray Galton of Galton and Simpson has singled him out as his favourite contemporary performer - surely the ultimate accolade.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but what are you trying to say? I mean erm, if you're the official Count Arthur Smith Fanatical site, then why is it that I am just about to set up the very same thing, but by a different name, erm, not Smith.
You know, but I mean each one to their own. 'Whoever, or whatever floats your log, erm, hah, motor bed, erm, Bloody water bed'.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 9:17 AM, Anonymous srah jayne said...

Is this chap still alive ? he looks like some kind of music hall comedian from the 1950's

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's not a great deal of mileage left in the 'Observational Comedy' trend. I give another couple of years before it dies a death.
Count Arthur is like a breath of fresh air blowing thro the cobwebs of mediocre scripts delivered by middling comedians.
Superb dialogue, clever play on words (a treasury for the psychology of word association tests) and inventive story-lines. And all without a single use of words like Fuck, Shit, Arsehole etc etc.

At 4:23 PM, Blogger june seghni said...

I was listening to one of the radio programmes last night and it suddenly hit me that the Count's accent was uncannily like that of my late great grandmother (1891-1986). She was from a mill town in Cheshire and was given to the 'phone voice', not only on the telephone but in the presence of any visitors,in particular those she considered to have status, like a doctor or a lawyer. Sort of Hyacinth Bouquet long before she was a twinkle in Patricia Routledge's eye. Love the programme, and my nine year old does too..

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Pete said...

Classic line "all those monkeys riding around on horses - glad that's all blown over !"


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