Interview with Count Arthur Strong creator Steve Delaney

We meet the man behind the trilby-wearing variety entertainer and BBC Two star

1/8
© Rob Greig
2/8
© Rob Greig
3/8
© Rob Greig
4/8
© Rob Greig
5/8
© Rob Greig
6/8
© Rob Greig
7/8
© Rob Greig
8/8
© Rob Greig

Raconteur, master of misunderstanding, mangler of words and trilby hat wearer, Count Arthur Strong has long been a firm favourite on Radio 4 and at the Edinburgh Fringe. Now, BBC Two has realised that the aging Doncaster variety star character would make an unlikely hero in our urban metropolis.

As his new London-set television show – which is co-written by ‘Father Ted’ creator Graham Linehan, and has already been re-commissioned – attracts delight and confusion in equal measure, I met with Strong’s creator Steve Delaney to ask us how the Count came to be the way he is.

Arthur’s from up north, but the sitcom – mainly set in a caff – is very London.
‘I like the notion that he’s a fish out of water. I mean, he’d be a fish out of water in Doncaster, but the show's cosmopolitan feel is absolutely intentional. The fact that anyone can come from anywhere and participate was something that we [Delaney and Graham Linehan] both agreed on. I like that notion. “Cheers” was a show we talked about; the café was the “Cheers” bar. I lived next door to a café like that in Brixton for about six years, which was run by a Turkish guy and his wife, his other wife and his English wife who was half-Italian. It was a really interesting café.’

Are you happy working with Graham Linehan?
‘He’s got a great track record. He’s very precise and concise about his aims, and it’s very easy to understand. I trust Graham completely and so do the BBC. In 2008 he said he’d just like to help in any way he could and we started meeting up and chatting and working out an approach – he was hugely behind it. We did do a pilot, which was based on a game show. That was a detour.’

How long did that detour last?
‘Two years.’

The sitcom is pre-watershed…
‘That’s important. When I did a live show I was very surprised that there were a lot of children who loved it. My son is nine and has grown up with it. We’ve got a very early photograph of me dressed as Arthur, he must have been about two, and he was dressed as Superman. Even at that age he didn’t have any problem with Arthur.’

Where did Arthur come from?
‘I always say Arthur’s evolved instinctively. It’s been an organic thing, a bit at a time, over the years, and it’s added up to something I’m very sure about, and I’d hate not to be quite sure about him.’

Do you think of Arthur as a sexual person?
‘I have to say he sometimes gets very flirtatious around a certain type of woman. That was one of the good things that came out of the game show. There was one contestant who, when he was around, he couldn’t tell why he was getting so flirtatious but he just was. For whatever reason it amused me because he didn’t know why he did it.’

Is Arthur just daft or is he a Doncaster Don Quixote?
‘It’s mostly selective with him. Someone who claims to be deaf can sometimes hear what they need to hear.’

Is there a real person behind Arthur?
‘My childhood neighbour in Leeds was a chief electrician at a theatre, and some of Arthur’s based on him because he was a nutter. Everybody knew him because he was completely bonkers.’

So was your Leeds childhood a goldmine for material?
‘It was just a cobbled back street really. Rows and rows of terraced houses and cobble streets. But absolutely, all those characters. I was a kid and I didn’t realise at the time that my mother was a bit agoraphobic. She used to work at home for tailors. They’d bring a dozen jackets and she’d sew the sleeve linings and the collars and cuffs, she worked till really late at night, they were always dumping stuff on her. The first thing I’d have to do when I came home from school was go and do the shopping – which I really resented. Just the conversations with the shopkeepers – they were some great characters, just very funny people.’

It wasn’t all jolly in Leeds at that time, the Ripper murders were happening…
‘They were going on. I remember hitchhiking once, getting a lift back from a lorry driver and he was quite a distinctive-looking bloke. I’ve often wondered…’

Latest comedy interviews

Lena Dunham

The ‘Girls’ creator/star candidly answers Time Out readers’ most searching questions

Read more

Josie Long

We speak to the eternally optimistic comic about her ever-evolving stand-up

Read more

Noel Fielding

We find the Mighty Boosh star revelling in the quiet life, having given up 'weird night-time shit'

Read more

Stewart Lee

The maverick alt-comedy veteran talks UKIP, Alan Bennett and the BBC

Read more

James Acaster

We out Pat Springleaf, the undercover cop posing as comedian James Acaster

Read more

Tim Minchin

We speak to the Aussie musician-comedian about his new graphic novel, 'Storm'

Read more

Modern Toss

We speak to Jon Link and Mick Bunnage about ten years of sweary sketches

Read more

Josh Ladgrove

We speak to the Aussie comedian behind 'Come Heckle Christ' at the Edinburgh Fringe

Read more

Will Arnett

We horsed around with the ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Bojack Horseman’ star

Read more
See all comedy interviews

Comments

8 comments
Peter M Adamson
Peter M Adamson

My brother and sister tipped me off about Count Arthur so I went to see him Live at Salford. Couldn't believe how good it was, especially as I am usually slow to be converted to new comedians but he won me immediately. Met Steve after the show at the signing. Bought the first radio series and two DVD's and am now building up the complete series. The T.V show was also outstanding and will contribute to keeping the BBC at the forefront of comedy. A new show of this calibre has been long awaited so long may it continue. Really looking forward to the TV follow up next year. I think Count Arthur Strong could become a national Institution alongside Monty Python, Dad's Army, Black Adder and many more if he hasn't already. Well done Steve Delaney - a character to brighten up anyones day.

Tony Price
Tony Price

I found Arthur completely by accident, I was delivering a car back to a customer put on the stereo and Arthur was on the cd, I have to say I was crying with laughter, I had to pull over, entrepreneurial idea of hairy meat cuts still makes me laugh, innocent but put such an image in your mind, I really think Steves work is genius. Something so funny and no foul language is so refreshing these days, I think this kind of comedy should be promoted, Decent humour without offending anyone. Love it, brightens my dullest of days. Thank you guys.

Tony Price
Tony Price

I found Arthur completely by accident, I was delivering a car back to a customer put on the stereo and Arthur was on the cd, I have to say I was crying with laughter, I had to pull over, entrepreneurial idea of hairy meat cuts still makes me laugh, innocent but put such an image in your mind, I really think Steves work is genius. Something so funny and no foul language is so refreshing these days, I think this kind of comedy should be promoted, Decent humour without offending anyone. Love it, brightens my dullest of days. Thank you guys.

Sebastian Palmer
Sebastian Palmer

Count Arthur Neutered by BBC

As a big fan of the radio version of Count Arthur Strong, the TV series has been something of a disappointment. Sadly the BBC have cut the Counts balls off. 
 The transfer to TV is, or rather could be (ought to be) a good thing - because the character is superb, and he still just about comes through - but it really is not even half as good as the radio show was. It felt like the BBC TV execs didn't quite have faith in Delaney's character, so they tweaked (for tweaked, read removed) many aspects of the radio show, and padded it out with Kinnear and others.

 This series reminded me of the first Pink Panther movie, in which David Niven is the central character, with Peter Sellers taking a secondary role. Hopefully, as happened with the Clouseau films, they'll realise where the real comedy gold is - in the central character - and put him front and centre. Kinnear may be a good actor, but in this context he's the Niven to Delaney's Sellers.

 The BBC also need to reinstate numerous aspects that were removed: they got rid of the Wilf's the Butcher thread, with its rich vein of offal, Arthur's troubled relationship with booze (including but not limited to his time as a regular at the Shoulder of Mutton), and his frequent drifting into dreamland. Also, the Count on the radio was a far more forthright, aggressive and obnoxious character: 'I'll knock your flipping block off!'

 The radio show is very much dialogue driven, so perhaps the BBC feared that all his spoonerisms, malapropisms, and so on, would be too much in the visual medium of TV. Tell that to the Two Ronnies! Well, the one Ronnie now, I guess. If only David Attenborough was still the controller of BBC2, he respected audiences enough to give them programmes with nuts. 

Come on aunty Beeb, stop with the PC dilution of this unique and wonderful character, and give us a proper second series, with more of the Count's wonderfully mangled monologues, and plenty of meat, booze, and testicles.

john harvey
john harvey

I love the Count, the pathos reminds me of classics like Steptoe, but are we not all totally fed up with canned laughter? Can we feed in something quieter?? It's like being sold stuff... our phone rings and after a silence we have someone doing a survey... Let us laugh if we wanna, if we don't laugh well we don't chose to come into your laffing shop Warra loada balls... Sorry muckers but hopefully you get me drift? Good luck guys, John

Adrian Gill
Adrian Gill

I have long been a fan of Count Arthur and can listen to his radio shows again and again. Therefore it was with great anticipation that I awaited the TV show, strongly recommending it to work collegues to whom he was unknown. Unfortunatly the TV shows have been a dissapointment and left the friends I recommended him to mystified. Arthur in my opinion works best in Doncaster, mangeling the language and getting into "missunderstandings" with Charity collectors, Shop assistants, Charity shops, Time share salesmen, et al. Whilst never buying a drink and cadging dodgy meat. I do not think he has transfered well to London and the Micheal character has not rung true. Parts of some of the radio episodes have been shoe horned into the TV shows with mixed results. Perhaps Arthur should have done the same as Alan Partridge, League of Gentlemen and Little Britian and intially remade as television the best radio scrips. There is after all a great back catalouge to pick from! I am pleased that he has been commissioned a second series and as I have watched all of the first, (last episode tonight), will look forward to seeing this.

jenny whitehead
jenny whitehead

I have long been a fan of arthur we saw him live and listened to his radio show and now we are enjoying him on t.v. what a star, what a genius, inspired! so so funny thank you Arthur.

Dave Lane
Dave Lane

Count Arthur has been in my life and making me laugh out loud now since the first series on Radio 4. I really do. Now he's on the telly, he's going to be a very big star. But I do hope that the cleverness of Radio 4 Arthur's language doesn't lose its subtlety to a TV audience. The spoonerisms, malapropisms et al are really the make-up of Count Arthur, not the slapstick falls and obvious jokes. Keep the cleverness. Don't fall for the "obvious" comedy method. Count Arthur is a clever character and needs to be kept so, so that audiences new and old 'get' the joke.