A couple of weeks ago, Count Arthur Strong was voted by Radio Times readers as one of the most missed TV shows of the 21st century, ahead of TV heavyweights such as Downtown Abbey, Life On Mars and Happy Valley. So let’s take a look at how Count Arthur Strong made such a massive impact with only a relatively short run of three series.
Like many comedians and comedy shows, Count Arthur Strong’s origins were on Radio 4. Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! had been running for years and to much acclaim, before Graham Linehan approached Steve Delaney about bringing the character to TV. Delaney himself had been performing the character ever since he was a drama student in the 80s. Steve and Graham eventually ended up writing every episode of Count Arthur Strong together.
The first idea was to have Arthur host a game show in a guise akin to Alan Partridge. In a Knowing Me Knowing You style move, Count Arthur would present a ‘real’ quiz show. However, nothing came of this 2010 unbroadcast pilot, so the idea was reworked.
The next attempt to bring Count Arthur to television would see a slight tweaking of the personality of his original character on Radio 4, with Count Arthur Strong on TV a slightly more amenable Arthur emerged.
For the new re-worked version of the Radio 4 sitcom, Arthur was given a new co-star: the brilliant Rory Kinnear, who acted as a catalyst to bring us into the weird and wonderful world of Count Arthur Strong.
Rory’s character Michael Baker is a particular favourite of mine, and it brings us to what I think was Count Arthur Strong’s strongest asset (besides the comedy, obviously): the storylines surrounding characters who weren’t your usual protagonists.
Michael Baker comes into Arthur’s life because his famous father has died, and as an author of books (apparently very boring ones) he’s set the task by his publicist of writing a biography about his father’s life.
There’s one problem though: he didn’t particularly like his father. The first episode opens quite starkly with Michael watching old clips of his father on YouTube before slamming the laptop lid shut. ‘I didn’t really know my father, he was just someone who popped by on weekends, some weekends.’ He tells us.
Michael goes to meet Arthur, as his agent informs him that his father was once in a double act with Arthur and hopes to get a few anecdotes for the book. Unlike Michael’s father, Arthur’s career didn’t take off; he foundered and he never managed to ’make it’. There’s a feeling that if Max Baker hadn’t disbanded their double act then Arthur could perhaps have been successful too (though, as we, the audience, get to know Arthur that seems unlikely).
The fact that both Michael and Arthur have lived in the shadow of Max Baker is very much the bone of contention of the earlier series. It’s an interesting concept. The trappings of fame are often explored in TV series and movies, but the roles that Arthur and Michael take up in Count Arthur Strong we don’t see so much of.
It’s not just Michael and Arthur either. Like all good sitcoms, Count Arthur’s world focuses around a group of people who are essentially down-and-outs. Most of the action is centred on an ‘odd-ball’ group who spend most of their free time at Bulent’s Café.
Bulent, himself is enraged by Arthur’s ‘antics’ and rues the day that he ever set foot in the café. Arthur’s gang of friends consist of Eggy (who has a conspiracy theory about eggs, hence the name), John The Watch, Sinem (Michael’s love interest and Bulent’s sister who works at the café), and Arthur’s beloved and perhaps only fan Katya. A few more characters come and go as the series progresses.
Katya provided the first series of Count Arthur Strong with its most interesting story arc. She dies very suddenly in episode 5, after which Arthur stumbles around in the aftermath. When Arthur gets the news Katya that has died it’s done perfectly, and is brilliantly acted.
In the final episode of the series, Michael realises that Arthur has become something of a father figure in his life, and that he’d rather stay with him and the rest of the café gang, than head home. The ending is absolutely beautiful, with pathos that isn’t overdone. I can’t think of many sitcoms that have come together so well in just one complete series.
END OF SPOILERS!
But I haven’t even got to the comedy yet! Most importantly for a sitcom, Count Arthur Strong is very funny, and it’s got a particular brand of surreal humour too, such as Arthur’s Jack the Ripper tours from an ice cream van and his ‘soup-over’.
And it’s not just Arthur who has some great comic scenes. Michael, the otherwise straight man in the duo, has some great moments, the best of which is probably the scene in the first series where Michael is just slipping under a general anaesthetic when he catches sight of Arthur pretending to be a doctor (long story!).
His desperate cries of 'He’s not a real doctor!’ and attempts to leave while he fights the effects of the anaesthetic make for a fantastic bit of slapstick, which probably wouldn’t have worked in less capable hands.
But it’s Steve Delaney’s performance of Arthur that wins the day. For someone who is most famous for his radio series, Arthur is a very visual character. Steve Delaney captures the mannerisms of a slightly senile old man perfectly, and what makes Arthur so great is something that’s been key to his character right from the beginning – his mad tangents in the middle of a conversation, that he’s often having with himself…
My pick for the funniest episode is probably ‘Stuck in the Middle’. Arthur ends up inadvertently holding a villainous plumber hostage, and the whole thing descends into a full on parody of the Stephen King novel Misery. It’s bizarre and genius.
So while it may have surprised some to see Count Arthur Strong so high on that list, it doesn’t surprise me. Underneath what many might have considered a bright and breezy family sitcom, Count Arthur was rooted in great writing and interesting characters that offered something different.
I think a lot of fans felt that it still had further to go. To a degree, Count Arthur Strong reminds me of Still Game, a sitcom that became a pillar of Scottish television, and has only just ended after over ten years. The reasons for Count Arthur Strong ending were attributed to both low ratings and Graham’s feeling that the show had naturally come to an end.
While Count Arthur Strong may have suffered from being buffeted around the schedules (it went from BBC2 to late night BBC1, and then finally to a decent 8.30pm BBC1 slot), my favourite home for the show was where the first series was repeated - Saturday evenings just before the traditional Dad’s Army repeat.
BBC2 is after all the traditional home for comedy, and it was great that the first series was repeated because I feel there’s a big problem with sitcom commissioning these days - the repeat is a luxury few shows are afforded (series 2 and 3 of Count Arthur Strong weren’t repeated). The BBC continue to focus on the iPlayer, and while the iPlayer is obviously brilliant I think that it doesn’t exactly make it easier for sitcoms to reach that wider audience, but that’s just my opinion.
For me personally, Count Arthur Strong will always be on my list of the best sitcoms ever made, and to have been lucky enough to be at a recording of an episode will always be a special memory for me. It’s nice to know that the show has found a special place in comedy history as one of the most beloved and perhaps broadly underrated sitcoms of all time.
Count Arthur’s Radio Show with the original cast is still in production well over ten years after it first started, and Steve Delany regularly tours as his Count Arthur Strong character. But whether or not this surprising poll result will spur on a revival for Count Arthur and the rest of the gang on TV, only time will tell…in the windmills of your mind!
Written by Rhianna Evans